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.
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.|
Decades of arts and cultural activity, especially by community and cultural development practitioners, have shown the transformative impacts of involvement in cultural activity. Whether young unemployed coming to see beyond the limited horizons presented to them or those caught up in the health system experiencing the broader well-being offered by cultural engagement, the effects can be life-changing.
The usual procedure is to consult all relevant Ministers and their departments and to check with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Attorney-General’s Department to ensure there are no sticky issues raised by the treaty. The process can stall if particular Ministers or their departments have an issue or if there are any concerns raised by Foreign Affairs or the Attorney-General’s. If there are no issues identified the process will then proceed further.
Serious and cost-effective opportunity to build community resilience in region
The role the Australian government can play, especially through our cultural institutions, in reinforcing the significant role of intangible cultural heritage in nation building and building community resilience in other countries with which we have close ties is just as crucial. We can expect the same sort of benefits in communities in these countries as we have witnessed with the support provided to Indigenous communities by our Indigenous cultural programs.
A formal and systematic engagement with the UNESCO agenda is essential to complete the package and ensure that Australia takes advantage of the significance and value of the intangible cultural heritage of all Australians. It will enable Australia to maximise the considerable international benefits to be realised from our existing strong presence in the intangible cultural heritage area, both domestically and internationally. Seizing this opportunity depends on Australia –at last – ratifying the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage as a strategic priority, both for its inherent value and our own national interest.
Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world
‘What interests me in exhibitions about Aboriginal Australia is what they mean for Australians generally, even if most Australians won’t ever see them. After a mere 220 years, in many ways we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way. Burke and Wills were the perfect examples, undone because they were unable to learn simple lessons offered by the local people on how to make edible the vast supplies of food surrounding them. They starved to death in a field of plenty. It made me realise that we can gain a much richer grasp of Australia through recognising that First Nations culture and heritage is part and parcel of our own Australian heritage’, Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world.
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.
The grand design of things – the lost unrealised potential of the Powerhouse Museum
‘With its extensive collection of design of all kinds, from engineering to fashion to ceramics and jewellery, and with its links to industry, I always had high hopes for the Powerhouse Museum. Despite its fragmented nature, the Powerhouse was a great design museum precisely because it was also a museum of science and technology – and a museum of social history, which could place it all in a historical and social context. In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. That the Powerhouse failed to realise its potential is a measure of the lack of strategic vision, including from successive governments which have never properly grasped the power of culture in shaping society and the need for the long-term substantial commitment to enable it’, The grand design of things – the lost unrealised potential of the Powerhouse Museum.
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.
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.
Whatever the question, China is the answer
‘It has been said, only half jokingly, that whatever the question, China is the answer. China has its own distinctive problems but this has an underlying element of truth, especially in our current century, the much heralded Asian Century. Our major cultural institutions have risen to the challenge of the Asian Century, playing a leadership role in building the soft diplomacy which enables a deeper and more durable relationship with Asian nations. In the latest example of this engagement, the National Library of Australia has done what national cultural institutions do best – it has collaborated with the National Library of China to produce an outstanding exhibition, “Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644-1911”. This is a case of cultural interaction building enduring bridges that all the ore trucks in the world can't match’, Whatever the question, China is the answer.
The Middle Kingdom
‘When famed medieval Italian traveller and explorer Marco Polo first encountered China, the Cathay of legend, he saw it as a treasure house of exotic customs and riches. In many ways this is still an element in our own exploration of China. However China is not simply the exotic world of our shaky imagination. China is well on the way to becoming the Middle Kingdom of its traditional name. Australia has a long history of interaction with China. Many of the rich goldfield cities, like Bendigo and Ballarat, were built by Chinese labour and based on Chinese business. More recently, the Chinese in Australia are one of the largest components of the cultural diversity which fuels innovation and commerce in our major cities. For all its faults and political twists and turns I will continue to be fascinated by the Middle Kingdom and watch its inevitable rise with deep interest’, The Middle Kingdom.
Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘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 accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.
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.
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?
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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 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.
The island to the North – the islands to the North-East
‘The awkward relationship between Tasmania and the island to the North is not the only clumsy relationship between islands in this part of the world. The history of the ties between the island to the North and the islands of the Pacific is even more troubled.’ The island to the North – the islands to the North East.
Ignoring the neighbours – why our backyard matters
'My trip to Tahiti last year reminded me of the large issues swirling around the Pacific and of how uneven the relationship between Australia and the region has been. It threw up lots of issues about how local cultures adapt to the globalised economy. Producing artwork and performances for the tourist market is problematical. Yet it's also the fate of Australian culture generally. Is it swimming against the tide for all of us?' Ignoring the neighbours - why our backyard matters.