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.

He seemed to mainly focus on the film industry as an example of a creative industry but it is much broader than that, so it would be good to hear further elaboration of his view of what constitutes creative industries. We have to be careful that we don’t see what are still largely legacy industries as centrally representative of a new broader creative industry sector. Seeing the car industry as the epitome of contemporary manufacturing might be an equivalent – and the Labor Party has had a history of this.

'As you would expect from the man who would be Attorney-General in a Labor Government, he also placed the changes to the arts in the broader context of democratic freedoms.' 

He also emphasised the Labor focus on the arts being for all Australians. Later someone in the audience commented that what was needed was art that challenged all Australians, rather than just encompassed them but encompassing is a good start.

He expressed a strong concern about the cuts to the available funds for both the Australia Council and Screen Australia.

Broader context of democratic freedoms
As you would expect from the man who would be Attorney-General in a Labor Government, he also placed the changes to the arts in the broader context of democratic freedoms. He commented that the ‘way the Abbott Government was implementing its arts policies was one way it was diminishing our democratic liberties’.

He also spoke strongly about how the disruption to arts funding arrangements will mostly affect the small to medium arts organisations and artists. He talked about how smaller arts organisations provide the channels for artists to develop.

He outlined his view of the scale of the changes. The practical effect is that around 27% of the discretionary funds of the Australia Council, that is those not quarantined or already committed, have been removed. There was a $200 million cut to the arts budget in the 2014-15 budget and another $13 million in the most recent one, the 2015-16 budget. The impact of this is that the success rate for applicants for funding from the Australia Council will drop from around 20% to around 10-12%.

To conclude he flagged some ideas which potentially could be picked up in the new policy, seeking comment about them. These included developing art spaces, that is work and exhibition spaces for artists; a version of Artbank on tour; a focus on the importance of digitisation of national collections and an extension of the Public Lending Right Scheme to ebooks. He also flagged an enhanced focus on theatre in schools and music in primary schools, noting that there was less music education in primary schools now than there was 20 years ago.

Nothing to disagree with but not a compelling vision
Strangely, though I found nothing I disagreed with and much I liked, I didn’t get a sense of a compelling vision. Perhaps he feels the need not to stray too far from what the arts sector itself wants to hear. The man has serious provenance in the arts - his father is an important Australian composer - and, like Brandis, he has a genuine interest, though I sense a much broader one. I still remember a speech he gave at Parliament House in 2012 launching the annual report of the Australian Copyright Council, 'The Economic Contribution of Australia's Copyright Industries' and thinking at the time that he had a grasp of some of the critical issues in the sector. Yet the reality is that he has to speak on behalf of a whole party and, as the vicissitudes of the National Cultural Policy demonstrated, not everyone is as convinced of the value of arts and culture as he is.

'The man has serious provenance in the arts - his father is an important Australian composer - and, like Brandis, he has a genuine interest, though I sense a much broader one.' 

For me it all sits in the knowledge economy, which, as far as any one sector can, represents the future of Australia. This is something I keep repeating because it is so important. As mining declines this is all that will stand in the way of economic decline.

The creative industries, which are a central part of the knowledge economy, are important economically but they are also critical to the vitality of Australian culture. These developing 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.

The critical function of managing meaning
Where the arts and culture sector and the creative industries differ from other parts of the knowledge economy 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, like nanotechnology or biotechnology, do not. As part of Australia's culture sector they share the critical function of managing meaning, which distinguishes this sector from other parts of the knowledge economy.

'Where the arts and culture sector and the creative industries differ from other parts of the knowledge economy is that they 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.'

Thinking about the talk last night raised a number of questions which I’m sure Mark Dreyfus will be asked at some point:
  1. What are the changes since the National Cultural Policy was released – in both the general environment and the arts and culture sector itself – which require the policy to be further developed and what sort of changes does he think these will require?
  2. The second question crosses portfolios – when the Coalition Government was elected almost all Indigenous programs were centralised in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The arts and culture programs were some of the few which weren’t and while they, too, have been cut – like the other Indigenous programs – they have remained dispersed within the Ministry for the Arts in the Attorney Generals Department. What is the Labor Party’s view on where they belong?
The second question is a complex one and obviously goes to the whole issue of the best approach of the Government to Indigenous Australia. As someone who is familiar with the Ministry for the Arts and these programs, I would lean towards continuing to keep them in a place in the arts and culture area. However for this to work there would need to be a renewed focus on the broader area of culture rather than arts, intangible cultural heritage and the importance of issues related to UNESCO. Then it makes perfect sense.

Now though, with much of creative industries, cultural heritage (except for the national cultural institutions) and Indigenous culture having slipped from the main attention of the Ministry, it is marginalised. With a good Minister, the continued location of these programs in the Ministry and the Attorney-General’s Department could work well, especially because intellectual property issues and similar protocols linked to protecting traditional cultural expressions and traditional knowledge are so critical to building resilient Indigenous communities.

Needed - a powerful, strategic vision for Australian arts and culture
The overall message last night was that the Labor Party was recommitting to the vision of the National Cultural Policy expressed in ‘Creative Australia’ and a promise that the new arts policy being developed for the Labor Party National Conference in Melbourne in July would reflect this. The National Cultural policy, despite its shortcomings, expressed a powerful, strategic vision for Australian arts and culture. 

There are two important and very different areas where it probably needs to be updated. One is to encompass the rapid changes in the knowledge economy in only the last few years. The other is to link arts and cultural policy even more strongly to issues of human rights, democratic freedoms and freedom of expression and to two of Australia's greatest strengths – its cultural diversity and Indigenous history and culture. Then we would have a compelling vision. Is the Labor Party up to it? It will indeed be fascinating to see what emerges in July.

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.

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.

Election mode for Australian arts and culture – a policy-free zone?
‘A policy and the understanding of issues that leads to its adoption, provides arts and culture with a stature that underpins funding by providing a rationale for support. Otherwise funding will always be ad hoc and insecure, piecemeal, project-based, intermittent and at the mercy of whim and fashion. We have to get arts and culture to the stage where it is seen like public health or education and debated accordingly’, Election mode for Australian arts and culture – a policy-free zone?

Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda
‘There’s an election in the air and I was thinking about what would be a good list of positive improvements that would benefit Australia’s arts and culture, so I jotted down some ideas. They are about recognising arts and culture as a central part of everyday life and an essential component of the big agenda for Australia. They are about where the knowledge economy, creative industries and arts and culture fit, how arts and culture explain what it means to be Australian and how they are a valuable means of addressing pressing social challenges’, Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda.

Arts funding – it’s not all about the money
‘National Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, has said that being a strong advocate for the arts doesn’t mean delivering government funding and that an arts Minister or a government shouldn’t be judged just on the quantum of money the government puts in. This sidesteps the Government’s very real problems that it has muddied the waters of existing arts funding, cutting many worthwhile organisations loose with no reason, that rather than delivering arts funding, it has reduced it significantly, and that it has no coherent strategy or policy to guide its arts decisions or direction. The real issue is that a national framework, strategy or policy for arts and culture support underpins and provides a rationale for arts funding – and is far more important’, Arts funding – it’s not all about the money.

Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts 
‘Asked in the most recent Senate Additional Estimates hearings about cuts to Ministry for the Arts funding in the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook review, the Department of Communications and the Arts replied that there were cuts of $9.6m over the forward estimates. This seriously understates the cumulative long-term magnitude and effect of these cuts and underestimates, just as with the national cultural institutions, the long-term damage. Yet this is the real and permanent impact – a compound effect of creeping cuts’, Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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 this example 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’, A journey to a strange land ­– making sense of the senseless.

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.

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.

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 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.

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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