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.

Being Canberra the march I was part of was smallish and chaotic but enough of that. It was good for a sense of history because I realised as we crossed Commonwealth Avenue Bridge that the last time I passed over it during a protest was when I was a student visiting Canberra for the 1971 Aquarius Festival of University Arts and (as you did in those days) we were demonstrating against apartheid outside the South African Embassy. How things change – and change again.

'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.'

I am well past marching anywhere – it’s too much like my misspent youth – but we have reached a time when so much I value about being Australian is being undermined. As they say, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. It’s the logic of the next step – your values, beliefs and history dictate and you can’t ignore them or you wouldn’t be who you are or even who you think you are.

'Indigenous affairs' and Australian matters
Having worked in the so-called ‘Indigenous affairs’ area I know how badly government has failed Aboriginal communities – and keeps failing them. In this area we are going backwards big time. Our fault, not theirs, despite what some may claim. So I marched – after all these years. I can’t believe it.

I don’t even see myself as having any particular link with Indigenous communities. I just have a basic belief in democracy, fairness and justice – just an inheritor of the Magna Carta overlaid with a long history of people who thought that democracy, trade unions and human rights were normal, that slavery should be abolished, that kids shouldn’t be sent down mines. I was taught well by my parents, who probably voted Liberal all their lives.

You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. It’s hard to take being Australian seriously without getting caught up in this particular failure of our history. This latest stage in the long sorry saga made me reflect on my own relationship with Indigenous communities and culture over many decades of my life. Throughout my history, with a long-standing interest and involvement in Australian arts and culture, whatever I was doing at the time seemed to keep intersecting with Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal issues.

'Change was in the air and it was what you did if you were in any way engaged in a modernising, contemporary Australia.'

When I was much younger – almost by accident – I found myself helping raise funds for the Gurindji after they walked off Wattie Creek station in the Northern Territory to re-establish themselves on their traditional lands. During the early seventies I took part in the National Aboriginal Day marches in Adelaide – marches in which the newly designed Aboriginal flag was first carried. I was involved in the Australian Cultural Association which helped support Indigenous bands, such as ‘No Fixed Address’ and ‘Us Mob’, by providing venues, audiences and promotion. I supported the Aboriginal tent embassy in North Adelaide and contributed to South Australian support for the establishment of the national Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra, helping raise petrol money for representatives from the South Australian embassy to travel to Canberra. Change was in the air and it was what you did if you were in any way engaged in a modernising, contemporary Australia.

Indigenous culture feeds the mainstream
Since then I’ve continued to find myself involved without any conscious decision because 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.

From 1980 to 1983, as Community Arts Officer at Noarlunga Council, south of Adelaide, I was involved in projects drawing on the history of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide plains. As ACTU Arts Officer, from 1986 to 1988, I linked up with the Trade Union Committee for Aboriginal Rights, particularly around Indigenous issues in relation to planning for union involvement in the Bicentennial celebration in 1988. As a result I ended up flying to Sydney from Melbourne to march in the historic five kilometre long, 15,000 strong national Aboriginal march in Sydney on Australia Day 1988. Community representatives from across Australia streamed into Sydney to make a highly visible point about the Bicentennial by those forgotten in its enthusiasm for celebration.

'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 communities and individuals who make it and live it.'

No matter how hard you might ignore it, it just keeps coming up. I joined the public service to organise the inaugural OZeCulture conference for cultural organisations using the online environment and found myself working with Indigenous content producers and designers discovering the possibilities of the online and digital environment.

Then, seconded to the Research, Statistics and Technology Branch of the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, I ended up working with Brian Kennedy, former Director of the National Gallery of Australia, to review the Indigenous cultural programs previously managed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and recently 'mainstreamed'.

Working with communities for serious results 
That project went nowhere but as a result of it I found myself in the area where I had the most involvement of all with Indigenous culture – and languages. For five years, from the end of 2005 until the end of 2010, I ended up managing the Indigenous languages and culture programs, firstly in the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, then in the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. 

These programs were part of a suite of Indigenous cultural programs supporting Indigenous visual arts, culture, languages and community broadcasting. It was a fabulous and fascinating time and I met deeply impressive people. It was just like being back in the community arts days of my youth when you didn’t have to convince anyone that arts and culture mattered – it just did.

During those five intense years, and for a brief period afterwards at the very end of my time in the public service, the Indigenous cultural programs achieved many things by working closely with community members to deliver serious results. Some of the major gains to come out of this period included: the Indigenous Contemporary Music Action Plan, Australia’s first National Indigenous Languages Policy and the extension to all the Indigenous cultural programs of an election commitment by the incoming Rudd Government to make triennial funding available for Indigenous arts centres.

‘It was a fabulous and fascinating time and I met deeply impressive people. It was just like being back in the community arts days of my youth when you didn’t have to convince anyone that arts and culture mattered – it just did.’

As a result of the introduction of triennial funding community organisations were for the first time able to shift their mindset from year-to-year survival with the burden of annual funding applications, towards planning for sustainability and forward thinking. This enabled organisations to have a clearer, long-term sense of purpose and to think and act more strategically. It led to improved projects and results due to the better planning that triennial funding afforded, providing an opportunity for organisations to expand into new areas of activity and to develop new strategic and innovative projects that required development over a number of years.

With funding for salaries for a period longer than one year, organisations could attract more skilled people, providing them with an opportunity to focus on longer-term work and to start to establish career paths for their workers.

From the perspective of government it had the added benefit of minimising the administrative burden of processing grants, many of which were only relatively small, freeing resources to allow government to focus on strategic projects. It also provided government with an unparalled opportunity to gain a better insight into the direction of the Indigenous cultural sector overall, by providing a clearer picture of what organisations wanted to achieve in the longer term.

This breakthrough culminated in widespread introduction of triennial funding over the following four years to the point where, to take just one example, virtually all Queensland Indigenous arts centres were triennially funded by 2014. This also made it possible to negotiate triennial tripartite funding for Torres Strait arts centres between the Australian Government Ministry for the Arts, the Torres Strait Regional Authority and the Queensland Government’s Arts Queensland.

During that period the Indigenous cultural programs were also responsible for the process of consideration by the Australian Government of ratification of the UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage. While ratification came close but did not in the end proceed, the work involved led to an important component of the National Cultural Policy which recognised and supported Traditional Cultural Expressions.

Shared awareness of centrality of culture
The achievements of this period showed how much can be gained from a co-operative partnership between Indigenous organisations and government, based on a shared awareness of the centrality of culture – not just for Indigenous communities but for all Australians.

I think a major reason these breakthroughs occurred was that the Indigenous cultural programs were based in the arts portfolio. Far from the deficit model of the government ‘Indigenous affairs’ universe, Indigenous arts and culture have always been seen not as part of a problem to be solved, but as a solution themselves.

The dynamic and innovative breadth of Australian culture is inconceivable without fully taking account of the crucial role of Indigenous culture in the complex mix. 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.

‘Far from the deficit model of the government Indigenous affairs universe, Indigenous arts and culture have always been seen not as part of a larger problem to be solved, but as a solution themselves.’

This is not to say that there are not positive changes coming from the agenda of the current government. The desire to reduce ‘red tape’, coupled with a de facto pause in the usual cycle of annual funding rounds, is having the effect of enabling the Indigenous cultural programs to move even further along a path begun years ago. Enhanced multi-year funding combined with a move away from the need for long-established and effective organisations to apply for funding year after year will serve to consolidate many of the earlier developments.

Whole-of-government and whole-of-community
Looking far beyond government involvement in Indigenous issues, I’ve said many times that good things can happen under any government. Each brings its own approach, direction and prejudices. The many layers of government organisation that service elected government include a vast array of activities, programs, initiatives, shiny achievements, bright ideas and a reasonable number of examples of a complete waste of money. In the midst of all this detail, sometimes little changes, even when government changes, and continuity can more often be the case than change. This can be a disadvantage but often it can work to the benefit of communities. It’s important for community organisations to ride the tide and make what they can of what exists, always seeking to improve it or at least minimise backwards steps, while always being ready to countenance outright opposition where needed. It’s as if a whole-of-government approach to community, whether good, bad or a mixture of both - even though it’s usually more an idea than a reality - calls for a whole-of-community response.

'Australians have lost the knack, forgotten how to make life uncomfortable for the comfortable – without that, things will continue to decline and little will improve.'

Where it all goes after this in terms of support for Indigenous culture is hard to tell. There seems to have been a widespread sense of disappointment with the mainstream funding of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. If there are no further cuts to the level of funding of the Indigenous cultural programs and they continue to be focused on the compelling results they achieve in communities, they may remain a powerful and positive force for good long into the future.

Having seen a lot as a fellow traveller in this area, and having continually found Indigenous culture always there, inextricably linked to Australian culture as a whole, I can’t believe how much we are regressing. ‘Poor fellow, my country’ indeed. As with improved working conditions and democratic rights, not much of good has come in this area without action and protest. Australians have lost the knack, forgotten how to make life uncomfortable for the comfortable – without that, things will continue to decline and little will improve.

One of the most valuable initiatives produced from the Indigenous Contemporary Music Action Plan, modest though it might have been, was ‘Breakthrough’, a program which provided support for emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musicians. One of the many bands to benefit from the program, 'Street Warriors', originally known as 'Local Knowledge', had produced a popular success with their earlier song ‘Blackfellas’. They recently reworked the song as support for the campaign to stop the closure of remote Aboriginal communities. Culture is always at the heart of the important things we value. Always was, always will be.

See also

History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research 
‘Cultural research has long term impacts in terms of our developing body of knowledge which stretch far into the future. Researchers are finding stories in our major cultural collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future. The collections of our major cultural institutions are becoming increasingly accessible to the very people the collections are drawn from and reflect. In the process they are generating greater understanding about some of the major contemporary issues we face’, History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research.

The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future
‘The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government. What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? There are a series of major factors which are hammering arts and culture organisations. These intersect and mutually reinforce one another to produce a cumulative and compounding long term disastrous impact. All this is happening in a context where there is no strategic policy or overview to guide Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build broad alliances and partnerships, never forget its underlying values and draw on its inherent creativity to help create a society based firmly on arts and culture’, The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future.

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support 
‘In the slowly unravelling universe of arts and culture support, organisations – whether they be small arts organisations or the largest of national cultural institutions – need to think seriously about their future. They need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This means developing strategies to survive the combination of drastic cuts and slow erosion already occurring and likely to continue into the foreseeable – and unpredictable – future’, Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support.

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

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

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.

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

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come
‘The inaugural Victorian Indigenous literary festival Blak & Bright in February 2016 was a a very important event for Australian cultural life. It aimed to promote and celebrate a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. It raised important questions about how the movement to revive and maintain Indigenous languages – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history – is related to ‘Australian literature’. Australian culture as a whole is also inconceivable without the central role of Indigenous culture – how would Australian literature look seen in the same light?’, Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come.

The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement
‘What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.

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.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. ‘Black Diggers’, ‘the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered’ is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

‘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 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?

Indigenous culture and the gap in Closing the Gap
‘Experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs shows that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects.’ The gap in Closing the Gap.

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.

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.

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