Friday, December 18, 2015

Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy

This is the first in a series of three articles over the next few weeks that will link several topics – the critical nature of our declining cultural institutions, the importance of their international engagement and the power and fascination of China. This first one, ‘Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our cultural institutions and its impact on Australia's national heritage’, is an outline of the cumulative negative consequences for our national heritage of the ongoing and accelerating laceration of our major cultural institutions. The second, ‘Whatever the question, China is the answer’, is a preview of the important new exhibition about China at the National Library of Australia, ‘Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644-1911’, and the third, ‘The Middle Kingdom’ is about the power and fascination of China in the contemporary world.

‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’.

Cut to the bone – the last cut is the deepest

Only a week ago, I was previewing the new exhibition about China at the National Library of Australia, ‘Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644-1911’. In this particular case I was writing about the involvement of just one of our national cultural institutions in something significant, closely linked to our future as a nation inextricably connected to Asia.

Opposite the National Museum of Australia - the major cultural institutions are central to saving our heritage and important for our economy but may need saving themselves.

I wrote at the time that I have often said that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions will still remain. They may be leaner and badly damaged but they will still be there. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments.

'Once again, the national cultural institutions have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair – this time far more severely than ever before'

That was before the shameful excuse for strategic economic management called the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook was announced and, once again, the national cultural institutions have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair – this time far more severely than ever before.

Friday, December 11, 2015

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia

‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’.

I think the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum of Australia is shaping up to be a once in a lifetime event. The first I heard of it was an article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Julie Power subtitled ‘Our Elgin Marbles Come Home’. The excellent article is well worth reading as it gives a sense of the significance of the exhibition and reading it really brought home what we have here.

Sydney Harbour with later additions in the background and in foreground original landscape from time of British arrival, with many rocks still bearing incisions and carvings by the original inhabitants.

The article mentioned that the exhibition would include two of the surviving spears stolen by Captain Cook’s crew from Gweagal inhabitants of what was one day to become Kurnell in Sydney. Together with 150 other objects from the British Museum they represent the oldest artefacts collected from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The article notes that the exhibition also includes more than 138 contemporary Indigenous objects, mostly from the National Museum of Australian own collection. Included are some that are quite new, adding a contemporary component to the exhibition and underlining how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are still very much ongoing and evolving activities.

Few generations ago
Astoundingly this exhibition makes you realise that all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that Gweagal descendants still talk about that first eight day encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to design of the world

‘Design and the language of design is very broad – much broader than architecture or industrial or graphic design – the forms we are most conscious of. Design is also very much about processes and the development of concepts across almost all areas of human activity. This means it also has a high relevance to the development of policy to solve pressing social challenges, moving beyond the world of design to embrace the design of the world. In a highlight of DESIGN Canberra this year, respected Dutch presenter Ingrid Van der Wacht led discussion about the relevance of design to innovative policy – from local, highly specific policy to grand strategic policy designed to change whole regions and even nations’.

Design and the language of design is very broad. In some ways it is only its inherent practicality that saves it from veering into the nebulous. It is no accident that the crafty New Zealanders, who seem to understand creative industries and innovation far better than we, have long grasped its importance.

Design is much broader than architecture or industrial or graphic design – the forms we are most conscious of – and these are broad enough areas themselves. Design is also very much about processes and the development of concepts across almost all areas of human activity.
This means it also has a high relevance to the development of policy to solve pressing social challenges. In this area the discussion has moved beyond the world of design to embrace the design of the world.

Hotel Hotel foyer dazzles but design extends to another Canberra industry sector - public policy

These were just some of the many ideas grappled with in the nine days of DESIGN Canberra this year – only the second one to date after the inaugural event last year. Suddenly it has become like an inflatable mattress. Once you get it out of its bag you find you can’t deflate it enough to put it away again.

One highlight of the program this year was an invitation-only roundtable on design for policy innovation with Dutch presenter Ingrid Van der Wacht from the company FACTOR-I. The presentation covered some of the many ways in which design is relevant to policy – from local, highly specific policy to grand strategic policy designed to change whole regions and even nations. It was tailored for a range of policy-makers, including those from both the Australian and the ACT Governments.

From the start the organisers of DESIGN Canberra have been conscious of a unique strength of the event due to it being formulated and based in Canberra. This is the easy relationship with international design initiatives due to the presence of the many embassies in the national capital and the way this smooths the process of international collaboration and exchange. Ingrid Van der Wacht was present for the roundtable – and for a series of other talks and presentations – thanks to the support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less

‘The announcement by new Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield that he will step back to a degree from the decision of his predecessor about national arts funding is a good call – but not good enough. This is what happens when there is no policy framework or set of strategic principles guiding changes to programs or development of new programs. Flexibility is an excellent thing and so are attempts to develop new programs to support areas that might not have been able to gain support before. The problem is ad hoc policy on the run is no substitute for carefully thought through changes. In a context where there have been significant long term cuts to arts and culture funding in the last two budgets, particularly the 2014-15 one, these changes only worsen the situation’.

The announcement by new Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield that he will step back to a degree from the decision of his predecessor about national arts funding is a good call – but not good enough. The original decision by previous Arts Minister George Brandis transferred $110 million over four years from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts to create a new program, the so-called National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

Instead Fifield will only retain $78 million dollars over four years for the Ministry and return $32 million to the Australia Council over the same period. The problem is that the amount being retained  is almost 71% of the original amount, so the amount going back is not that significant.

When redrawing the arts funding map it's crucial to have both a sense of history and a strategic framework

This is what happens when there is no policy framework or set of strategic principles guiding changes to programs or development of new programs. We see chopping and changing, shifts of position for no apparent reason. Flexibility is an excellent thing and so are attempts to develop new programs to support areas that might not have been able to gain support before. The problem is ad hoc policy on the run is no substitute for carefully thought through changes. What happens is that, without an overall framework that provides a rationale and a guide, even well-intentioned attempts to fix a problem don't really ever succeed.

Monday, November 16, 2015

National arts and culture funding – follow the money

‘In the continuing furore over the transfer of funds from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts in the 2015-16 budget, most of the focus to date has been on the Australia Council. What has been happening to the funding of the Ministry for the Arts itself? Based on the publically available budget figures since 2012, it is possible to compare the level of program funding managed by the Ministry for the Arts and see the reduction in funding following the election of the current Government’.

In the continuing furore over the transfer of funds from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts in the 2015-16 budget, most of the focus to date has been on the Australia Council. I thought it would be interesting to look at what has been happening to the funding of the Ministry for the Arts itself.

I looked back through the publically available Portfolio Budget Statements for each year since 2012-13. These statements for Australian Government departments break down the budget of each department and the various areas within them against the outcomes they are funded to achieve.

In each of the Departments that the Ministry for the Arts has travelled through since 2012 it is possible to see the overall level of program funding. It's always hard to compare different years as this can be complicated by different smaller components, such as special appropriations, but it is still a good indication of trends.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Big Australian cities – can’t live there, can’t give there

In a strange turn of events, the very success of big Australian cities is likely to become a drag on the innovation they are noted for, as they become more and more expensive to live in and the cost of housing acts to limit the cultural diversity which underpins innovation.

In a recent article on the urbanisation of Australia and the problems this poses for the cost of urban housing costs, Matt Wade, writing in ‘The Sun Herald’ gets straight to the point, ‘Sydney and Melbourne are among the world's most successful cities. Together they generate more than 40 per cent of Australia's economic output and both consistently rate among the most liveable cities on the planet. But their sheer magnetism has contributed to a pressing national challenge: the high cost of housing.’

Sydney skyline near base of Centrepoint Tower

Latest population figures from the Bureau of Statistics show 9.3 million people live in Sydney and Melbourne – four in every 10 Australians. It is extremely rare for two cities alone to account for such a large proportion of a national population.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Creating cities by reinventing them – ‘Creating Cities’ reviewed

‘At first glance Marcus Westbury’s ‘Creating Cities’ book looks small, but it’s far bigger than it looks. The book is about re-energising cities by reinventing them but it’s starting point is a deep appreciation of the particular regional city of Newcastle. The revival of Newcastle is a reflection of the more general trend towards the revival of regional centres in Australia. Cities are crucial to the innovation and creativity that interaction and partnerships based on physical proximity can produce – whether major capital cities or regional cities. The efforts at revival all reflected the critical importance of cities. Each in its own way draws upon creativity and innovation and the cultural diversity which underpins it to create places which are pleasant and interesting to live in and to drive economic prosperity’.

At first glance Marcus Westbury’s ‘Creating Cities’ book looks small, but it’s far bigger than it looks. Perhaps it’s like Doctor Who’s cosmic transportation, the TARDIS – coming from a universe of it’s own, in this case the world of Newcastle, and larger inside than outside. There’s a great deal packed into it’s tiny frame – and the compressed ideas it will generate are even bigger in reach and relevance.

It’s hard to imagine a more timely moment for a book such as this to appear. A new Prime Minister has underlined the importance of cities for Australia’s well-being and prosperity and there is a renewed focus on innovation. What this means in practice and whether it will last will be fascinating to watch.

Cargo ship leaving Newcastle Harbour, 2005
There have been moments in the past where government has been interested in cities. During the production of the still recent National Cultural Policy, the Department of Infrastructure, under various names, had a focus on cities, and there have been other attempts to address the importance of this issue. Perhaps we will see a resurgence of Australian Government interest.

The book is about re-energising cities by reinventing them but it’s starting point is a deep appreciation of the particular regional city of Newcastle. In a strange way understanding the particular story of Newcastle helps us better grasp the huge general lessons about cities nation-wide – and indeed world-wide.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future

‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture'.

Art critic and cultural writer, John Berger, in one of his less well-known articles, tells a story about the French-Russian sculptor Zadkine. At the very beginning of his career Zadkine was trying to establish himself as an artist in England but was not known and spoke little English. An old craftsman to whom he was briefly apprenticed to learn wood carving suggested he carve a wooden rose – but such a beautiful rose that whenever he showed it to prospective but sceptical employers they would always understand what he was capable of and give him the job. Zadkine took the advice and it laid the basis for his later success as an artist.

I thought of this old story about an old artist when I was reading the newly released publication Creative Business in Australia, the swansong of the recently departed and much missed Creative Industries Innovation Centre. In the same way as Zadkine’s rose, the example of the Centre is something that can be held in your hand and pointed at to show what is possible. It demonstrates some important ways that we can support our newly emerging creative industries – if only we have the imagination and foresight to understand their potential and their unique and distinctive place in the broader knowledge economy. Those associated with the Centre in its all-too-brief but productive life can point to the publication and say ‘This is what we did in such a short time. This is what is possible.’ It is proof of concept writ smaller than it needed to be.

'Creative Business in Australia' - getting serious, but not serious enough about one of the values of creativity

I use the old-fashioned example of an artist deliberately because while the creative industries are first and foremost about running businesses, they are businesses of a very particular kind.

Increasingly the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape are both clever and clean. They are mainly service industries that make up the knowledge economy, based on intellectual enquiry and research and exhibiting both innovative services or products and also often new and innovative ways of doing business (though to what degree is a matter this publication considers closely).

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Notes from a steadily shrinking universe

‘Following the Big Bang the universe may have been steadily expanding but in the world of Australian Government arts and culture the universe has definitely been heading the other way. In the end does government of any shade really think at heart that Australian arts and culture is important? Why should it when it’s a vexed question for our society as a whole and we are ambivalent about its worth? Yet this part of the Australian Government’s public service is incredibly important. To have a real impact though, it needs to be refocused and reinvigorated to operate once again across the broader government landscape’

Following the Big Bang the universe may have been steadily expanding but in the world of Australian Government arts and culture the universe has definitely been heading the other way.

In fact over the last five years the unit with overall responsibility for the Australian Government’s arts and culture support, small by public service standards, has been shrinking faster than light vanishes into a black hole. It started with drastic reductions in the process of moving from the Department of the Environment to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from late 2010 onwards and seems to have just kept on, like a bad habit, through the Department of Regional and then Attorney-General’s.

The arts and culture unit circles the public service universe moving from department to department after each election or change in government. It’s like a comet wandering off into the cold distant reaches of space and then reappearing in the same location centuries later, once again unsettling the local inhabitants. When they run out of departments to host Arts the comet reappears. Now it has reappeared above the Department of Communications, which it was with for so long and which it left after the election of the Rudd Government in 2007.

The Commonwealth's arts and culture division - even as its numbers continued to shrink, its title kept on growing

Only a minor increase due to the transfer of a few positions from the Australia Council to the Ministry as part of the establishment of the new National Program(me) for Excellence in the Arts seems to have slowed the downwards trend. Hopefully the process will now have stabilised and we won’t see yet more reductions as part of the move back to Communications.

Oddly the initial contraction happened just as the unit was starting the long haul to finally produce the much awaited National Cultural Policy, back on track after a few false starts.

In the process, the unit has gone through various names, including the Office for the Arts and now, the Ministry for the Arts. Ironically, even as its numbers continued to shrink, its title kept on growing.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not.

I used to joke that in my almost 15 years working in the Commonwealth Arts Ministry, without ever deliberately changing jobs, I managed to move around the national public service like a comet roaming the far reaches of space. Just as comets reappear at regular extended intervals to terrify the inhabitants on the planet below, the Arts Ministry has reappeared in the sky above the Department of Communications to re-establish Communications and the Arts after nearly eight years of absence.

Leadership challenge over breakfast with 'The Age'

I started with Arts in the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts in late 2000 and then, with the election of the Rudd Labor Government in 2007, began a series of moves to four different departments over the next six years. Arts traveled from Communications to Environment, then to Prime Minister and Cabinet, on to Regional and finally to Attorney-General's. Now, Arts has returned to where I first started.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Land of hope

There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope.

There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world.

There were two such times, when Australia had the chance and rose to the occasion. The first was in the 19th Century when it was seen as the land of opportunity unshackled by the limitations of the ageing, ossified, constricted world of Britain and Europe. The second opportunity was in the late 1940s and the 1950s when thousands of migrants flocked here to build a new life after the carnage and devastation of World War 2.

Pine Tier Dam was one of the earliest dams in the vast network of infrastructure in the Central Highlands of Tasmania, setting the scene for its modern equivalent, the National Broadband Network. The parallel network of social, educational and cultural infrastructure was even more important in giving direction for a modern Australia in troubled times.

It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

My nephew just got a job with Weta – the long road of the interconnected world

My nephew just got a job in Wellington New Zealand with Weta Digital, which makes the digital effects for Peter Jackson’s epics. Expertise, specialist skills and industry pockets can occur just about anywhere, as long as you have connectivity, talent and a framework of support that makes it possible. This is part of the new knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape. Increasingly the industries of the future are both clever and clean. At their heart are the developing creative industries which are based on the power of creativity and are a critical part of Australia’s future – innovative, in most cases centred on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally. This is transforming the political landscape of Australia, challenging old political franchises and upping the stakes in the offerings department.

A while back, when my nephew connected with me on Linked In, I said, ‘this will give me far more street cred than it will ever give you.’ He’s a visual effects artist, one of the new internationally sought after labour aristocracy of the digital universe. He’s currently head of Visual Effects at Resin in Adelaide and has worked for Image Engine Design in Vancouver.

‘In the new digital industries of the future, work is international and workers travel the world looking for opportunities to develop their skills and expand their experience’

I don’t even understand exactly what he does but I know he’s described himself as a character rigger, someone who ensures that the figures in digital animations actually move as though they are real. He’s worked on Hollywood blockbusters like ‘Elysium’, the remake of ‘The Thing’ and ‘Battleship’. I’ve never seen any of them but ‘Elysium’ was made by the South African director of the quirky ‘District 9’, produced by Peter Jackson, which I haven’t seen either but it sounds cool.

Australia, the largest island, is just the start of the island kingdom of the Greater Pacific. Compared to the tiny isles further East, New Zealand rises from the ocean like a large lost world.

Nowadays he’s like so many of us, someone who manages other people to help them do better what he used to do and would still probably really like to do himself.

The neighbouring world of Weta Digital
Now he has got himself a job at Weta Digital. You may ask what Weta Digital is but when I heard the news, my response was ‘wow’. Weta Digital is part of a stable of companies, including Weta Workshop, and makes the digital effects for Peter Jackson’s epics. If you’ve seen ‘Lord of the Rings’ or the remake of ‘King Kong’ you’ve been watching Weta at work. It’s named after a New Zealand insect, supposedly one of the largest on the planet, reflecting I presume Peter Jackson’s fascination with all things insect – so strangely evident in ‘King Kong’.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Getting wild out West – Western Sydney's long unhappiness at arts funding neglect

‘Western Sydney has long been unhappy with the tiny share of arts funding – both national and state – it receives. Across Australia there are many hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major art galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture and they are the level of arts and cultural infrastructure closest to the very grassroots of our country – the Australians who vote, who get unhappy and who change governments. They rarely do it because of matters related to arts and culture but sometimes matters related to arts and culture, added to other concerns, can help tip things over the edge. More than a few of these organisations are based in the great mixed expanse of urban, suburban and outer-suburban Australia which is Western Sydney’.

When I finally left the public service 16 months ago there were a couple of things I had been working on that I thought were really important and would have loved to have progressed further. At the time I was responsible in the ACT, NSW and Queensland for funding from the suite of Indigenous culture programs that supported languages, culture and visual arts (and indirectly Indigenous broadcasting).

One of the projects I considered so important was consolidating and expanding funding support for Indigenous languages maintenance and revival in Western NSW, which was already well underway because of its strong community base.

Indigenous cultural funding in Western Sydney
The other, which was not underway at all, was getting more funding from the Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government into Western Sydney. This has one of the most dense concentrations of Aboriginal population in Australia but not a matching level of funding from these national programs, which would be ideal for this. There had been a history of not many applications coming from the region – or of the few applications there were not meeting the funding guidelines.

Beyond the obvious sights like the Harbour Bridge lies a whole world - the great mixed expanse of urban, suburban and outer-suburban Australia which is Western Sydney.

There had been some initial informal discussion with Blacktown Arts Centre and with some of the Ministry for the Arts regional staff about how to help make this happen but at that point the Indigenous Culture branch of the Ministry was disbanded and programs disbursed across the Ministry. Coupled with the continued steady dismantling of the network of regional staff in the Indigenous Culture Branch, much of the work ground to a halt.

With the unravelling of national arts funding which has produced the #freethearts response this has probably become less and less likely. It's one of my great regrets that national support couldn't have been focused on what was happening in Western Sydney.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture

A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question.

When the #freethearts delegation comprising more than 60 people from small arts and cultural organisations and the artists who depend on them from across the country visited Parliament House last Thursday I made a couple of brief comments to the meeting that I think are worth elaborating.

'How can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia?'

There are two important issues we need to address. The first one is the short term issue of the changes to national arts funding arrangements and the almost inevitable consequences this will have in stripping away a whole layer of small arts and cultural organisations and the artists and arts activities whch depend on them.

#freethearts delegates brief Senator Ludlam on the severe impact of changes to national arts funding arrangements

This will have inevitable and far-reaching consequences for Australian communities across the country – remote, rural, regional, outer suburban and inner city. In five years time we will look at what is left and ask where it all went. Decisions by politicians have impacts. We have to make them have consequences for the decision-makers.

Better organised, effective voice
The second and much more important issue is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister

I ventured out through the dark wilds of the Australian National University to hear the Opposition Spokesperson on the Arts, Mark Dreyfus, share his view of what a contemporary arts and culture policy might look like. It was a timely moment, given the turmoil stirred up by recent changes to national arts funding arrangements and the #freethearts response from small arts and cultural organisations and artists. Luckily, as he himself noted, he has a very recent model to work with. The National Cultural Policy is little more than two years old.

Last night I ventured out through the dark wilds of the Australian National University to hear the Opposition Spokesperson on the Arts, Mark Dreyfus, share his view of what a contemporary arts and culture policy might look like. He was there to give the annual Fraser lecture at the invitation of local Federal member, Andrew Leigh.

A recent model to work with
It was a timely moment, given the turmoil stirred up by recent changes to national arts funding arrangements and the #freethearts response from small arts and cultural organisations and artists. 

Luckily, as he himself noted, he has a very recent model to work with. The National Cultural Policy is little more than two years old. At that stage of a seriously strategic policy – something becoming rarer by the minute –a government might just be starting to review how it was tracking and making some tweaks to fine tune its rollout.


Distorted images of modern Australia - Mark Dreyfus has a portfolio wider than arts but of crucial relevance to the subject matter of artistic expression.  

Having seen the National Cultural Policy we have a pretty good idea where the Labor Party is coming from with its approach to arts and culture. Mark Dreyfus stressed the need for a ‘modern, outward-looking, innovative society’ and underlined the importance of creative industries. He noted that the relevant minister in the new Labor Government in Victoria was called the Minister for Creative Industries but commented that he wasn’t sure this would catch on at Federal level. I would have to say that if it did, it would not be soon enough.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A journey to a strange land – making sense of the senseless

‘There we were, over 65 of us, from every state and territory and from every artform, all crammed into one tiny room in Parliament House, so even the visiting politicians sometimes had to stand. Despite the great diversity, the level of focus was frightening. It was helped along by the Chair, who clearly had a degree in alchemy which qualified her to turn chaos into order. If only she could turn the base metal of bad policy into the precious coinage of strategic vision – but that must be the higher degree. Here we go again, I thought. It all felt too familiar, much like previous eras I have lived through, when good things were undone by narrow vision for short-term advantage. Sometimes I think it’s better when government is inefficient – that way it does less damage’.

I wondered if I would make it up to Parliament House as part of the #freethearts delegation this morning to have a few chats about the importance of arts and culture. There were over 65 of us, from every state and territory and from every artform, all crammed into one tiny room so even the visiting politicians sometimes had to stand, so probably no-one would have missed me. In the end I’m happy to say I made it.

I had a small problem with sciatica, which was why I thought I might not make it, but it’s a minor case so I was okay. I was told that the feeling in my leg was referred pain from my lower back but I’m convinced it was referred pain being felt by a whole massive layer of the arts and culture sector that has been cut away by the recent changes to arts funding arrangements in the last Federal budget.

Senator Ludlam hears the concerns of the delegation about the impact of funding changes.

After all I am on the Board of Craft ACT, one of the small local organisations which is almost certain to be severely affected by the changes. Like over 400 other small arts and culture organisations across the nation, we’d only recently finished working on our expression of interest to the Australia Council for six year funding.

In the grand scheme of things the funding concerned might not seem like much but it would have enabled us to continue to attract broader support at a much higher level than this funding, multiplying it and its impact many times. It would have enabled us to plan ahead with our vision for a creative powerhouse centred in the national capital, connected to the surrounding region. It would link up artists and designers, community organisations and local businesses to foster an innovative and clever Canberra. Through some of our signature projects like DESIGN Canberra, which we intended to link internationally, and our plans to have Canberra listed as a UNESCO City of Design, we had high hopes and big dreams.

Delegates from all across the country travelled to Camberra to speak about the serious impacts the changes would almost certainly produce in their communities.

Unfortunately, it just got much, much harder. All the signs are that the new George Brandis Memorial Fund will be for project funding, not for the underlying operational funding which we mainly receive from Arts ACT but have relied on the Australia Council to supplement. At least that’s how it sounds from the Minister’s media release and the somewhat vague evidence in Senate Estimates. We love project funding but operational funding is what keeps an organisation ticking over, constantly adding the series of achievements that make for real long term success.

Multiply this thwarted vision a hundred or more times and what does it mean - it means one more step along the path to mediocrity.

All this was going through my head as I made my way up to ‘the House’. It flashed through my mind that I’d once heard some tough old wharfies refer to visiting ‘the Big House’, by which they meant prison. Is ‘the House’ as big as ‘the Big House’, I thought. Are people sentenced to ‘the House’ for anything in particular or is it just that sometimes they look like they should be. Perhaps it’s a bit like Australia itself, which I like to think was settled by those who either were convicts or should have been. Ah, the tricks your mind plays on you when you’re racked by pain.

This alien country we were visiting hove into sight, swept by rain and shrouded in mist. It might have seemed to be a land empty of life, in which no-one spoke a human language and instead only exhaled warm air, but luckily we spied signs of intelligent life.

We filed through security, which just reinforced the impression that we were travelling to another land, with the metal detectors and X-rays that usually populate international airports. At least no-one patted us down and the frontier guards seemed pretty friendly, especially given how many of us there were.

Then, true to our Australian heritage, we were escorted, like a chain gang of convicted felons along the wide airy corridors to our appointed meeting room where we proceeded to turn unhappiness into action.

‘What an admirable bunch’, I thought of my fellow delegates. Despite the great diversity, the level of focus was frightening. It was helped along by the Chair, who clearly had a degree in alchemy which qualified her to turn chaos into order. If only she could turn the base metal of this example of bad policy into the precious coinage of strategic vision – but that must be the higher degree.

We listened to a series of Members of Parliament - local members and Shadow Ministers - from the House of Representatives and the Senate. They all spoke well about the importance of arts and culture to Australia and to their local communities. What struck me was how some of those local members clearly know well the value of their local arts organisations because they know their constituents – they are obviously good local members.

It was unfortunate that Coalition local members didn’t use the same opportunity to express their enthusiasm for arts and culture - I'm sure they too would have welcome stories to tell. There was no sign of the Great Helmsman himself. Unfortunately in both cases being asked is not enough – you actually have to turn up to convey that love.

Here we go again. It all felt too familiar, much like previous eras I have lived through, when good things were undone by narrow vision for short-term advantage. Sometimes I think it’s better when government is inefficient – that way it does less damage.

See also

Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future 
‘The real danger for Australia’s arts and culture is not funding cuts but steady, unending neglect. The decline of Government arts and culture support can be attributed to four long-running factors. This I call a quadruple whammy, caused by lack of indexation, the cumulative effect of ‘efficiency dividends’, the trend towards project funding rather than operational funding and falling behind as the population and economy expands’, Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future.

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding 
‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less
‘The announcement by new Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield that he will step back to a degree from the decision of his predecessor about national arts funding is a good call – but not good enough. This is what happens when there is no policy framework or set of strategic principles guiding changes to programs or development of new programs. Flexibility is an excellent thing and so are attempts to develop new programs to support areas that might not have been able to gain support before. The problem is ad hoc policy on the run is no substitute for carefully thought through changes. In a context where there have been significant long term cuts to arts and culture funding in the last two budgets, particularly the 2014-15 one, these changes only worsen the situation’, Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less.

National arts and culture funding – follow the money
‘In the continuing furore over the transfer of funds from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts in the 2015-16 budget, most of the focus to date has been on the Australia Council. What has been happening to the funding of the Ministry for the Arts itself? Based on the publically available budget figures since 2012, it is possible to compare the level of program funding managed by the Ministry for the Arts and see the reduction in funding following the election of the current Government’, National arts and culture funding - follow the money.

Notes from a steadily shrinking universe 
‘Following the Big Bang the universe may have been steadily expanding but in the world of Australian Government arts and culture the universe has definitely been heading the other way. In the end does government of any shade really think at heart that Australian arts and culture is important? Why should it when it’s a vexed question for our society as a whole and we are ambivalent about its worth? Yet this part of the Australian Government’s public service is incredibly important. To have a real impact though, it needs to be refocused and reinvigorated to operate once again across the broader government landscape’, Notes from a steadily shrinking universe.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Getting wild out West – Western Sydney’s long unhappiness at arts funding neglect
‘Western Sydney has long been unhappy with the tiny share of arts funding – both national and state – it receives. Across Australia there are many hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major art galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture and they are the level of arts and cultural infrastructure closest to the very grassroots of our country – the Australians who vote, who get unhappy and who change governments. They rarely do it because of matters related to arts and culture but sometimes matters related to arts and culture, added to other concerns, can help tip things over the edge. More than a few of these organisations are based in the great mixed expanse of urban, suburban and outer-suburban Australia which is Western Sydney’, Getting wild out West – Western Sydney’s long unhappiness at arts funding neglect.

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister
‘I ventured out through the dark wilds of the Australian National University to hear the Opposition Spokesperson on the Arts, Mark Dreyfus, share his view of what a contemporary arts and culture policy might look like. It was a timely moment, given the turmoil stirred up by recent changes to national arts funding arrangements and the #freethearts response from small arts and cultural organisations and artists. Luckily, as he himself noted, he has a very recent model to work with. The National Cultural Policy is little more than two years old,’ Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister.

Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats
‘The impact of the changes to national arts funding flowing from the Budget are likely to be deep and severe. The main issue for me is what will now not be funded – by the Australia Council or by anyone else. There are hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major arts galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture’, Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats.

‘Having a go’ at Australia’s arts and culture – the Budget Mark 2
We are seeing is the steady skewing of Australia’s arts and culture sector as the most dynamic component, the one most connected to both artistic innovation and to community engagement, atrophies and withers. This is the absolute opposite of innovation and excellence. It is cultural vandalism of the worst kind, ‘Having a go’ at Australia’s arts and culture – the Budget Mark 2.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber 
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

National and local - putting arts and culture upfront
‘Arts and cultural policy is an important way out spelling out why and how arts and culture are important to both Australia as a whole and to specific states and regions. Developing arts and cultural policy for the ACT is unique because it is both the capital of the nation – hosting most of our national cultural institutions and a strong international diplomatic presence – and at the same time, an important regional centre’, National and local - putting arts and culture upfront.

The Indigenous cultural programs – what is happening to them?
‘The Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture – what is happening to them?’ Death by a thousand cuts – what is happening to the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government?

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.’ Real jobs in an unreal world.

Friday, June 5, 2015

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber

Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean and then lost its bearings. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. We might look like a go ahead, interesting kind of country, heading calmly into our future, but are we actually two different countries going in opposite directions?

Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests.

A father and his boy, Bronte Park, Tasmania 1950s. Almost, but not quite, the last man standing.

It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats

The impact of the changes to national arts funding flowing from the Budget are likely to be deep and severe. The main issue for me is what will now not be funded – by the Australia Council or by anyone else. There are hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major arts galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture’‘The impact of the changes to national arts funding flowing from the Budget are likely to be deep and severe. The main issue for me is what will now not be funded – by the Australia Council or by anyone else. There are hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major arts galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture.

The impact of the changes to national arts funding flowing from the Budget are likely to be deep and severe. It is highly likely that a whole layer of small to medium arts and cultural organisations – nationally around 150 likely to have been funded from a pool of over 400 applicants – is at grave risk. It happened in Queensland before and it could happen again, but this time across the whole country. This is not simply decimation – it's a massacre.

Unlike many commentators I have been less concerned about some of the issues raised by the stripping of a large chunk of funding from the Australia Council and its transfer to the Ministry for the Arts. The issue of arms length funding and independence from government of the main arts funding body raises important long-established principles that need to be discussed but it isn’t my main concern, my most pressing worry.

I’m not even mainly concerned that funds have been transferred. The reality is that there is a very large amount of arts and cultural funding that is not distributed through the Australia Council – funding for screen culture, support for the national cultural institutions, operational funding for the national arts training institutions and Indigenous cultural program support, to name a few.

What will now not be funded
The main issue for me is what will now not be funded – by the Australia Council or by anyone else. This is the hard, cold reality of these changes and I'm not convinced that many of those talking about them realise just how very, very serious it is.

There are many hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major art galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture and they are the level of arts and cultural infrastructure closest to the very grassroots of our country - the Australians who vote, who get unhappy and who change governments. They rarely do it because of matters related to arts and culture but sometimes matters related to arts and culture, added to other concerns, can help tip things over the edge.

Arts funding - rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats

Sign of things to come
In a sign of things to come the Australia Council has suspended its six year funding program for Key Organisations and will not proceed from the expression of interest stage which is part-way through, to the full application at this point. Existing funding until the end of 2016 will be continued but, after this, small to medium size arts and cultural organisations will struggle to continue.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

‘Having a go’ at Australia's arts and culture – the Budget Mark 2

What we are seeing is the steady skewing of Australia’s arts and culture sector as the most dynamic component, the one most connected to both artistic innovation and to community engagement, atrophies and withers. This is the absolute opposite of innovation and excellence. It is cultural vandalism of the worst kind.

There’s been a great deal of coverage of the impact of the most recent national Government budget on ‘the arts’. The first thing to say is that while we need to focus on what is happening with support for ‘the arts’, and on the Australia Council, it’s critical to remember that ‘the arts’ are only a part of the broader cultural sector and we have to be careful we don’t lose sight of that.

Still, I am concerned about the $13 million in ’savings’ mentioned in the comment in Minister Brandis’ media release, ‘The Government will find savings of $13 million through “efficiencies” to arts and cultural programs run by Screen Australia, the Australia Council and the Attorney-General's department.’ Over four years this comprises $7.3 million from the Australia Council, $3.6 million from Screen Australia and $2.2 million from the arts programs of the Attorney General’s Department itself. The savings for the Australia Council will be met through reduced funding to the ArtStart, Capacity Building and Artists in Residence programs. Other than this, what that means in practice is difficult to say, though it’s worth noting that amongst the arts programs of the Attorney General’s Department are what remains of the Indigenous cultural programs.
Craft ACT during DESIGN Canberra - an event which brings together artists, creative industries, education bodies and the general public to explore the central role of design in an innovative regional and national culture

Australia Council and Ministry for the Arts
Is anyone surprised that the Government has transferred so much from the Australia Council to the Attorney-General’s Department? The Coalition has never loved the Australia Council – alarmingly located at arms length from government. Even though it was established by Holt and Gorton, it has always been seen as the baby of Whitlam, who gave it statutory authority. Philosophically the Coalition don’t like agencies that are removed from government in any way, preferring to focus all their support through Government departments. It gives more control and is also cleaner and clearer in their less than enthusiastic embrace of any role for government in just about anything.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Valuing the intangible

We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance.So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

As usual the most recent discussion about ending services to Aboriginal homelands has been expressed completely in terms of physical infrastructure – roads, rubbish, water, housing. When the Intervention, or the National Emergency Response as it is more formally called, rolled into the NT in 2007 all the focus was on this – how many water tanks, how many houses with how many people in them, no consideration of whose country all the families were crowded onto, what languages people spoke – like seeing a coloured photo in black and white. No wonder they missed the point.

'It’s a gap in Australian culture that we don’t seem to appreciate our own culture – or our own language. We might complain that people don’t speak English but for us it’s just a way of saying things – we don’t appreciate that we are held tightly in its world view.' 

I’m not surprised – when I worked in Local Government decades ago the challenge was to get councillors to think beyond the garbage bins.

Fashion parade of Indigenous designs from Far North Queensland, the Torres Strait and NT, Cairns 2013.

It’s a gap in Australian culture that we don’t seem to appreciate our own culture – or our own language. We might complain that people don’t speak English but for us it’s just a way of saying things – we don’t appreciate that we are held tightly in its world view. All of this powerful phenomenon which surrounds us and shapes our view of the world so completely is intangible cultural heritage.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress

Australian culture is inconceivable without the crucial role of Indigenous culture. In the arts and culture sector Indigenous culture has always been seen as a strength to be celebrated, whereas in the mainstream of ‘Indigenous affairs’, there has always been a faint ambivalence and a lingering concern that Indigenous culture might be holding back economic development and "full" participation in  mainstream society.

Chou En Lai, the much respected former Premier of China, once famously (and perhaps actually) said when asked what he saw as the long term effects of the French Revolution, that it was too soon to tell. The same could be said of the Magna Carta, the birth certificate of Western democracy. I keep being reminded that it remains a work in progress and that the hard won gains we enjoy are fragile and need to be constantly protected and extended. The Magna Carta and all that followed it is very much an ongoing project.

This blog is about Australian culture – not human rights, democracy or Indigenous communities. The problem is that culture is about all those things – that’s what makes it so important.

Stop the closure of Aboriginal communities marchers reach a Parliament House long since empty, in all senses of the word.

Threatened closure of Indigenous communities
A few days ago I stood up in my small way in my home town, Canberra, as part of the campaign to stop the forced closure of remote – and not so remote – Aboriginal communities. At the same time thousands marched in their own home towns, villages or tiny ‘remote’ communities across Australia – and Australians and others across the globe also marched in places as far apart as Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Tauranga Aotearoa and Hamilton in New Zealand, Chicago, Denver, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC, the United Nations Headquarters and Honolulu in the US, Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa in Canada, and Hong Kong, London and Berlin.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

National and local - putting arts and culture upfront

In many ways getting a strategic, broad and visionary framework accepted across government is more important than funding. If the case is successful, then over time funding of various kinds will be more likely.

Arts and cultural policy is an important way out spelling out why and how arts and culture are important to both Australia as a whole and to specific states and regions. The ACT Government is in the middle of a review of its Arts Policy Framework adopted in 2012. The revised Framework will be in operation from the middle of 2015 so it’s important not to waste this opportunity to get it right.

The review raises many strategic issues about arts and culture – issues of much broader relevance than only the ACT. Many of these arose during the development of the National Cultural Policy and it's interesting to see them appear again in a more local and regional context.

'Wide brown land', sculpture above the marvellous Arboretum, by a superb Tasmanian design team, is a symbol of the links Canberra has to many parts of the diverse nation of which it is the capital

Developing arts and cultural policy for the ACT is unique because it is both the capital of the nation – hosting most of our national cultural institutions and a strong international diplomatic presence – and at the same time, an important regional centre.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Look after pedestrians and the economy will look after itself

Since July last year I’ve been fascinated by a series of articles by ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ journalists Ross Gittins and, more recently, Matt Wade, about the central role cities play in the modern economy. The articles draw on a range of recent research including that of the Grattan Institute.

In this most recent article Matt Wade comments on the importance of navigating the city easily for economic productivity. ‘Politicians are forever talking about new roads and, sometimes, new railway lines. But what about footpaths? Walking is by far the most important mode of transport in our most valuable economic locations – especially the CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne. But not nearly enough attention is given to how efficiently pedestrians can make their way around these key business hubs.'

Pedestrians cross Rushcutters Bay Park, Sydney

Changes in the nature of the economy, particularly the increased and increasing importance of companies based on knowledge, has made the ability to walk around business centres even more important than before. Exchanging of information at the most basic and, at a higher level, of ideas is central to the productivity of knowledge industries.

Travelling together through the city

Public transport is such a central element in a modern city. It has fundamental implications for how productive a city is, how culturally active and just how personally pleasant it is to live and work in.

Public transport is a functional necessity but it also has a symbolic importance in terms of establishing a shared public space that is not privately owned. I’ve been trying to pin down why #Illridewithyou took off so spectacularly as it caught the popular imagination after the Lindt Cafe siege.

Sydney train crosses the Harbour Bridge

It’s partly because it showed so clearly that the cesspools of racist bigotry are just that – isolated pools. It’s partly because of nuances – it doesn’t say I’ll walk with you, which was the original phrase it sprung from. It says ‘ride’. In a city which flourishes on a troubled public transport system, which is a leveller between people of different incomes, it says ‘ride’, that is on public transport.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Our capital cities are growing and produce most of our income

In an article from early 2015, economist Ross Gittins picks up a theme he has been following about the growing importance of cities and urban life. It's clear from his comments that we ignore our cities at our peril.

As he notes succinctly ‘We are a nation of city-dwellers. Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Our capital cities are growing and most of our income is being generated in them, notwithstanding the big expansion in mining, which is more about additional structures and capital equipment than workers.’

Sydney skyline - largest city in Australia

He continues ‘For at least the past 40 years, all the net increase in employment has been in the services sector, and the services sector exists mainly in cities. The arrival of the knowledge economy will only heighten this trend.’