Thursday, December 15, 2016

Industries of the future help tell stories of the past – Weta at work in the shaky isles

After three weeks travelling round the North Island of New Zealand, I’ve had more time to reflect on the importance of the clean and clever industries of the future and the skilled knowledge workers who make them. In the capital, Wellington, instead of the traditional industries that once often dominated a town, like the railways or meatworks or the car plant or, in Tasmania, the Hydro Electricity Commission, there was Weta. It’s clear that the industries of the future can thrive in unexpected locations. 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. These skills which Weta depends on for its livelihood are also being used to tell important stories from the past.

I’ve just returned from a thoroughly enjoyable three week visit to the North Island of New Zealand. Despite landing only two days after a major 7.8 magnitude earthquake that produced long-lasting damage and thousands of aftershocks for several weeks afterwards, it was a country I felt very much at home in.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture

Australia’s arts and culture is at a critical stage. One of the issues confronting it is lack of any kind of shared sense of what the role of government is in encouraging our arts and culture. The whole set of interlinked problems with the relationship between government and Australia’s arts and culture can be reduced to a lack of strategic vision and a long-term plan for the future. This deficiency is most apparent in the lack of any guiding policy, like trying to navigate a dark and dangerous tunnel without a torch or flying at night without lights or a map.

This is the second in a series of two articles. The first one, ‘If the arts are important but not enough people know it, are they really important?’ looks at some of the critical issues raised by the current malaise in the arts and culture sector in Australia. This second article discusses some of the ways available to address it.

Australia’s arts and culture is at a critical stage. One of the issues confronting it is lack of any kind of shared vision about what the role of government is in encouraging our arts and culture.

Without a cultural policy to map out the destination, it's difficult to find the road forward, especially in unexpected circumstances.

Many of our current problems with Australia’s arts and culture come down to a lack of policy. If the Government doesn't have a policy that spells out what it thinks is important about arts and culture – and why – and what it intends to do about it and what that will lead to, then the present ad hoc and inconsistent situation will continue.

Monday, October 31, 2016

If the arts are important but not enough people know it, are they really important?

As the new landscape of Australia’s arts and culture emerge in the post-Brandis era, we are starting to see how organisations are adapting and the issues they are facing in doing so. To a lesser degree we are also seeing how artists themselves are responding. It seems clear that the absence of any overall strategic approach to arts and culture – whether from the Government or from the arts and culture sector – is having a deadening effect.

This is the first in a series of two articles. This one looks at some of the critical issues raised by the current malaise in the arts and culture sector in Australia. The second article, ‘Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture’, will discuss some of the ways available to address it.

We are starting to see what the new landscape of Australia’s arts and culture will begin to look like post-Brandis and his merry band of bright ideas. Now he’s no longer Arts Minister he can turn his full attention to the legal system – but at least the arts might be spared more havoc.

'Advocating the arts' forum panel at Canberra School of Art.

The week before last I went to a forum at the Canberra School of Arts about advocating for the arts. It covered a wide range of topics but I thought there were several things that emerged that are worth noting. I had planned to publish this article earlier but I’ve been distracted by all the events that have been on or are about to happen as part of Design Canberra 2016. I’ve been covering some of those but the implications from the presentation at the School of Arts are long term and worth considering more closely.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Putting culture on the main agenda – the power of policy

With the ongoing malaise due to the absence of national arts and cultural policy in Australia, it's worth reminding ourselves what beneficial impact good policy can have. To understand the power of policy to make an impact in the world, it’s worthwhile contrasting two recent major Australian Government cultural policies – the National Cultural Policy and the National Indigenous Languages Policy. This helps illuminate how cultural policy can promote the long view, innovation, breadth and leadership. Both policies showed that more important than funding or specific initiatives was the overall strategic vision and the way in which it attempted to place culture not just on the main agenda, but somewhere near the centre of the main agenda.

Government can do some very important things, but usually doesn’t. Sometimes in despair at the shortcomings of government, I’ve been forced to comment that it’s better if government is ineffective, so it does less damage.

The power of policy to connect - in an increasingly interconnected world it's crucial not to miss the boat.

However, when it works, even if it only moves the world one centimeter, because it is able to move everything that one centimeter, it can change the world. When I worked as Membership Manager for the iconic Powerhouse Museum in Sydney I was able to achieve some very useful things but they were mainly only of value to the Museum and its supporters.

'Government can do some very important things, but usually doesn’t'

In contrast when I worked for twelve years in the arts and culture agency of the Australian Government – under the various names and in the assorted departments through which it travelled – the policies and program I was involved with developing had an impact across a whole country.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Making ends meet – the brittle new world of arts funding

Everyone is still recovering from the shock of the announcement by the Australia Council back in May this year of which organisations had been successful in obtaining four year operating funding – and which had not. It’s not so much directly due to the transfer of funds from the Australia Council but more a matter of new applicants applying in a competitive funding round, with an expanding sector, yet limited funds and a shrinking arts budget. Planning how to operate in the arts landscape of the future is something everyone needs to do. Having a Plan B and Plan C will be critical.

Everyone is still recovering from the shock of the announcement by the Australia Council back in May this year of which organisations had been successful in obtaining four year operating funding – and which had not. For the moment life goes on for everyone involved, with both those funded and those not, trying to adjust to the brittle new world of Australian arts funding.

Limited and locked up arts funding has always been an issue with a growing population and an expanding arts and cultural sector - in an era of shrinking funding, the problem becomes accentuated.

On a rainy Canberra afternoon I thought ‘this will be good for farmers’, as I headed off to a briefing by the Australia Council for successful ACT recipients of four year funding for organisations. I was there because Craft ACT, an organisation I am on the Board of, was a successful, if small, applicant and needed to know how the funding will operate, what we need to do and what it means for the future.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Banish the bland – Kim Williams spells out a positive Australia

Australia needs more far-sighted strategic vision and discussion and less of the self-serving waffle we get from too many of our politicians. The creative and intellectual capacity of our people is central to a bright, ambitious and optimistic future and essential to avoid a decline into irrelevance, according to Kim Williams, former media executive and composer. He is an Australian who values ideas and his vision for a positive Australia is firmly focused on our artists, scientists and major cultural and scientific institutions.

The National Library of Australia puts on some fine talks, quite a few of which I have attended. Last night I went to hear Kim Williams, with his background as a media executive and a composer, talk about the promotion of a positive Australia. Williams has had a long and complex career and while the careers of all interesting people inevitably get mixed reviews, his seem to be more mixed than most.

Ignore all this and his talk was fascinating, especially in the historical moment in which we find ourselves. He ranged across many topics that resonated with my interests in Australian culture. I was particularly struck by his discussion of philanthropy, because it is an immediate practical issue for one of the projects I work on, Design Canberra.

The Kenneth Myer lecture was presented by the National Library, one of the institutions responsible for our national memory that Kim Williams values for Australia's future.

His talk, ‘Holding to true North’, the latest in a long-running series of annual Kenneth Myer lectures, managed to roam widely, as befits someone who has an extensive arts and business background. As the Library noted he has headed prominent organisations such as Musica Viva Australia, Foxtel, the Australian Film Commission, the Sydney Opera House Trust and News Corp Australia. How he ever survived as head of News Corp is hard to imagine - but then the answer is, he didn't.

‘Falling down in our education of future generations is the grand failure of our intergenerational duty of care’.

There needs to be more of this sort of talk in Australia and less of the self-serving, short-sighted waffle we get from too many of our politicians. Thanks are due to the National Library for providing the opportunity. Canberra seems to be the venue for both the best and the worst of what passes for our national political life.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity

Cultural diversity is critical to the richness and energy of Australia's arts and culture life and has a crucial role to play in innovation, that favourite word of the era. Where cultures intersect and different world views and perspectives meet, innovation is far more likely to occur. Unfortunately the importance of cultural diversity to our cultural life is not always reflected in what government chooses to support in the arts sector and how enduring that support is. As Parliament resumes after the election, talk will turn to the need for savings and the importance of innovation for Australia's economy. This is when clarity about the role of Australian culture is essential.

Cultural diversity underpins so much of value in Australia. It creates an exciting country which is enjoyable to live in. It also ensures innovation flourishes, because where cultures intersect differing world-views come into contact and fixed ideas and old ways of doing things are challenged.

This innovation, and the creativity that underpins it, is essential to the new clever and clean industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape.

The Aboriginal Memorial, 1987-88 Ramingining, Central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, natural earth pigments on wood. An installation in the entrance National Gallery of Australia of 200 hollow log ceremonial coffins from Central Arnhem Land. The Aboriginal memorial was created in response to the Bicentenary of Australia, which marked 200 years of European settlement. This is the single most important work in the Gallery and a powerful expression of the centrality of Aboriginal culture to Australian culture.

Culture and creative industries are pivotal to jobs and to income. For Indigenous communities in particular one of the most important economic resources they possess is their culture. It may not be mining but it mines a far richer seam in the long term – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value, just like our iron and coal.  

'It may not be mining but it mines a far richer seam in the long term – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value'

But how does government help cultural diversity grow – or not – through its support for culture? 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans

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. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. The many promises of design come together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all.

In a rapidly changing world, heading inevitably down a path of greater globalisation, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international), between globalisation and regionalism. It’s apparent across Australia, not least in the regional centre in which I live, Canberra – a town which also happens to be the nation’s capital.

‘There is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international), between globalisation and regionalism’

In recent years Canberra has reached a cultural critical mass, attracting more people to live, work and study in the city. This has been reflected in an increased level of positive national and international recognition. The annual Design Canberra festival is one sign of this.

Ceramics by artist Tjimpuna Williams, Ernabella Arts Centre, in a Design Canberra pop up, 2015. Design Canberra is firmly based on local creativity, but as a national festival located in Australia's capital, it has broad links. In a perfect example of cross-cultural and cross-national collaboration, the ceramics were created during a residency in Jingdezhen, China, in early 2015, with long-time Craft ACT member, Janet deBoos as host and mentor.

A vision for the designed city – design comes of age in the city of Burley Griffin
A celebration of all things design, Design Canberra is one of the most exciting initiatives of Craft ACT. Having started in 2014, Design Canberra is now entering its third year, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all.

Design Canberra: clever and clean – the knowledge economy of the future

See main article, 'Designs on the future'

This is part of the article, 'Designs on the future – how Australia's designed city has global plans', about the annual Design Canberra festival and the plans for its future. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all.

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 new and innovative ways of doing business.

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, in most cases centred on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.

Managing meaning
The creative industries are underpinned by the arts and culture sector and the artists and arts and cultural organisations, mainly small, that make it up and create the content which feeds into and inspires other sectors.

Design Canberra: culture in the backyard – the thread of design connects arts, culture and creative industries

See main article, 'Designs on the future'

This is part of the article, 'Designs on the future – how Australia's designed city has global plans', about the annual Design Canberra festival and the plans for its future. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all.

When I worked in Canberra on national arts and culture programs and policy for over 13 years I had little to do with Canberra itself. My focus was firmly everywhere else in Australia, rather than my own backyard. 

The OZeCulture conference, the national series of conferences for artists and cultural organisations using the web, was the reason I first moved to Canberra in late 2000. I had come from the Powerhouse Museum to join the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts to organise the first of the OZeCulture series and I was closely involved with all the subsequent conferences.

Culture in the backyard
Since leaving the Australian Government Ministry for the Arts in 2014, and moving into a new stage of my career in the arts and cultural sector, I have found myself much more engaged with local arts and culture in Canberra. 

As part of this I have become involved at the heart of developments with Australian design. Since leaving the Australian Government I have been a member of the Board of Craft ACT since late 2014 and, in parallel, an Adjunct with the University of Canberra through the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research in the Faculty of Arts and Design. 

All of these strands come together with my previous involvement in research and policy for creative industries in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra. The promise of Design Canberra was a major reason I was attracted to Craft ACT in the first place.

The thread of design
Looking back, almost 16 years later, it shows how design flows through so much of the arts and culture sector. It is illuminating to see how this thread connects Design Canberra with work I was lucky to be party to over more than a decade, within museums and other cultural institutions, government departments and creative industries.

See main article, 'Designs on the future'

See related article:

Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans
‘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. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. In a rapidly changing world, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international). This all comes together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all’, Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans.

Design Canberra: a whole world out there – building global connection through the UNESCO Creative Cities Network

See main article, 'Designs on the future'

This is part of the article, 'Designs on the future – how Australia's designed city has global plans', about the annual Design Canberra festival and the plans for its future. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all.

The UNESCO Creative Cities Network was created in 2004 to promote cooperation between cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development. The 116 cities which currently make up this network work together towards the common objective of placing creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their development plans at the local level and cooperating actively at the international level. The Network covers seven creative fields: Crafts and Folk Arts; Media Arts; Film; Design; Gastronomy; Literature; and Music.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The innovative power of art connects local and global – Craft ACT embracing diversity

As globalism proceeds apace, the counter-balancing world of the local and regional is becoming more important, anchoring us firmly in the places where we reside and create, where culture is made and lived. A set of Canberra exhibitions built around innovation and celebrating the achievements of craft and design connects local creativity and cultural life with the larger international significance of the themes and artists involved.

Like many other Australians who live in smaller towns rather than in our biggest cities, I like to celebrate the power of local culture. The fact that my local town is Canberra merely makes the link between local, regional and national more challenging, complex and perplexing – not to mention fun. Canberra was built as the result of a momentary nation-building frenzy and the power of that vision has never really abated. Still at heart it’s also a bit of a country town, with all that entails.


The result of a cross-disciplinary research project to develop and test a lego-like assembly educational toy to assist Japanese language learning for Australian children. The rectangular pieces are imprinted with images, Japanese words and phonics and click and connect together using colours to help match up the right pieces. The result is a correct construction of a Japanese sentence. Credits: Dr Yuko Kinoshita, Associate Professor
Carlos Montaña-Hoyos and Sam Tomkins. Prototype, 3D print, paper print. 2016. Image credit: Sam Tomkins. 

Dense and diverse works in a small space
A small cluster of exhibitions currently at the Craft ACT Gallery in Civic, Canberra's main city centre, offers a pleasurable and thoughtful mix of viewing. Like most of Craft ACT’s exhibitions, much gets crammed into a relatively small space.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The big picture and the 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 cultural policy or overview guiding the Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build wide-ranging 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.

On the eve of Britain's entry into the First World War, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’. They could as well have been uttered about World War 2, as fascism transformed Europe. In our times, as the world heads further and further towards the dead end offered by neo-liberalism and the racism and intolerance unleashed in the reaction against it, those words keep echoing in my head. As the whole world makes big choices, let’s hope we can avoid the slippery slope to a place we won’t like and certainly won't recognise – though our parents and grandparents might.

Arts and culture deals with fundamental values for our society and through its economic impact helps put food on the plate - it even designs the plate. The big picture and long view is crucial for its future.

The never-ending election campaign
The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government – for some reason the word 'unrepeatable' springs to mind. If this is a mandate for much at all I’d hate to see what being told to piss off looks like.

Friday, July 8, 2016

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 – but it was not to be. Unfortunately the Powerhouse always had a slightly fragmented nature. Was it about social history, design, science and technology or the crossover of all of them? All too often and for far too long it was something for everybody – a strength in itself, but also a great weakness, as it meant it fell between too many stools, well-designed as they might be. 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. As a result the Powerhouse should have gone much further and achieved much more. That it failed to realise that potential is a measure of the lack of strategic vision, including from successive narrow 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.

A long time ago in a universe far, far away – well at least Sydney in the second half of the 1990s – I worked at the once mighty Powerhouse Museum. I was the Membership Manager there for five years, a period of great gains when the membership doubled. This was after a skyrocketing increase followed by a distressing plummet straight after it opened – luckily before my time. When I started the Museum had been struggling to recover from those sudden subsequent shocks for several years without much success. It was my introduction to the Museum and confirmed my belief always to look for the long-term and be wary of sudden successes and equally sudden failures. I had promised myself I would stay for five years – what I thought was an inordinate length of time in a job at that stage in my life – and double the membership. Then, having well and truly achieved that goal, as the events of the Sydney Olympics wound down, some in the same precinct as the Museum, I made my own long jump and headed to Canberra for a marathon in the public service.

'Looking down on birds' - view from the Members Lounge down over a Catalina Flying Boat.

I'd made my contribution and that could have been that. But I couldn't forget the Powerhouse and I found myself drawn back there often. Since my time there I have been back many times, sometimes to see exhibitions, sometimes for other reasons. The Powerhouse tended to be a centre of attention that hosted events – roundtables about digitisation, workshops about Indigenous languages that brought together cultural institutions and community languages organisations, and forums about the intersection of communities and information technology.

'The Powerhouse tended to be a centre of attention'

Half of Sydney through its doors
When the Powerhouse first opened it had a huge impact. I remember being told that later visitor research showed half the population of Sydney had visited – once. Similarly the massive leap, then fall, in membership reflected this initial enthusiasm coupled with a popular belief that once you had seen the contents of a museum you had seen everything there was to see, forever.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Vote 1 Australian arts and culture – who is painting the big picture?

In this #AusVotesArts election Australians are voting on a great range of important issues. It could be a moment where we choose between the future and the past but it is never as simple as that. In this mix it’s all too easy for Australia’s arts and culture to come in second best – or probably more like third or fourth best, or worse. The problem is that while we have good solid policy offerings by those parties that actually have arts policies, no-one seems to be painting the big picture, one that threads arts and culture through the whole array of policies in an integrated way. This article is the second in a series of two about the arts policies of parties in this election. The first article, ‘Arts, culture and a map of the future – the limits of arts policy’, outlined what the various parties are offering – or not. This article considers what we need in a big policy that ties together all the disparate areas that arts and culture flows into.

The range of offerings from the political parties in this election that actually have arts policies are good and solid and valuable. If they were implemented they would lead to a definite and measurable improvement for Australian arts and culture. They are probably as good as we are going to get – and probably as good as we deserve unless we can somehow produce a deep change in popular views of the role and significance of arts and culture.

Looking from new Parliament House back to old Parliament House. Are our potential contenders for government looking forwards - or back?

Comprehensive strategies and specific initiatives
I think one of the great weaknesses of governments of all kinds is that they tend to have a particular kind of approach to policy. There might be a brief strategic overview, explaining why the policy area is important, but essentially what everyone expects is ‘initiatives’ and, of course, funding to undertake the initiatives. Policy then becomes a quick introduction followed by a list of initiatives. In the worst case it’s just a mish-mash of initiatives.

Arts, culture and a map of the future – the limits of arts policy

In the arts, from a virtual policy-free zone, we’ve now got policies – not as many as we could have hoped, but enough to be going on with. Some of them might even get implemented. Importantly, the others will help to frame the debate and offer ideas for the future. Those parties that have arts policies offer good solid and productive proposals which, if implemented, would lead to definite improvement for Australia’s arts and culture. However, that’s just the starting point. This article is the first in a series of two about the arts policies of parties in this #AusVotesArts election. This article outlines what they are offering – or not. The second article, ‘Vote 1 Australian arts and culture – who is painting the big picture?’ considers what we need in a big policy that ties together all the disparate areas that arts and culture flows into.

The election we didn’t realise we had to have until it was too late just became a lot more interesting. It didn’t take much because even though there are real issues at stake in this election, they keep being hidden away and drowned in hyperbole and bluster. In the arts, from a virtual policy-free zone, we’ve now got policies – not as many as we could have hoped, but enough to be going on with. Some of them might even get implemented. The others will help to frame the debate and offer ideas for the future.

Election arts policy - something for (almost) everyone.

I’m not going to criticise anyone for taking time to produce their policy. If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Better to take time and get it right. Of course, it helps if the policy is produced before the election. Otherwise we might get more of the sort of surprises George Brandis seemed so adept at. I’ve tried to capture any party which has an arts and culture policy – and any major parties which don’t. I even looked without success at the Australian Sex Party policies in search of one, since they have some quite ground-breaking policies on other major (and minor) social issues that take a refreshingly lateral and creative approach. They’ve managed to persuade Professor Ross Fitzgerald to stand as their lead NSW Senate candidate, so they must have serious substance.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Arts fightback – breaking out of the goldfish bowl

How can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? These current dire circumstances, where we face a national arts crisis the seriousness of which can’t be understated, may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question. It’s time for the big picture and long view for Australian arts and culture and time to get ready for a long haul effort to win hearts and minds.

We face a national arts crisis the seriousness of which can’t be understated. Looking forward, though, a far more important issue than arts funding is the question of how the broad arts and cultural sector can 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 it’s not important enough and 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. The current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question. It’s time for the big picture and long view for Australian arts and culture.

Election poster from an Auckland, New Zealand street, 2014

Bigger pictures to paint – no less than a fight for the soul of Australia
While there is an important campaign underway around arts funding we shouldn’t get lost in that alone. There are far more important issues affecting the future of arts and culture in Australia that underlie the question of funding. Many issues have been thrown up about which organisations were funded in the Australia Council four year operational funding round. Without getting lost in these, the real issue is how the overall arts and culture budget, except for brief moments, has always fallen short of a serious commitment. On top of this, that limited commitment has been steadily eroded. Even more crucially, Australian arts and culture itself is being threatened, with crucial institutions and traditions and long positive histories being trashed for short term greed and gain.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

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.

It will be interesting in this #Ausvotesarts election if we see many arts policies, in contrast to thought balloons or bland and meaningless statements about how such and such a politician ‘likes’ the arts.

Without good policies, our elected representatives are just warming their seats.

Back in ancient times when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister, faced with the prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party started reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. We know that Mark Dreyfus supports arts and culture and knows the arts sector. As yet we don’t know where the Labor Party as a whole stands. It has a website called 100 positive ideas, which is one positive idea in itself, but which, alas, has no sign of any policies about arts and culture. It promises more policies to come, so here’s hoping. Until it releases it’s arts policy, which I understand will be a new and improved cultural policy along the lines of the National Cultural Policy, we won’t know. I wonder if the updated policy will reflect Dreyfus’ interest in human rights – something sadly neglected in Australia in recent years. Whatever happens, it’s important that the Labor Party doesn’t reinvent the wheel.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Dear Treasurer – our arts are central to everyday life, why doesn’t funding reflect it?

In response to steadily diminishing support for arts and culture by government, it's crucial to recognise that Australia's arts are central to everyday life and should be firmly on the main national agenda. Apart from their value in maintaining a thriving Australian culture, the range of social and economic benefits they deliver and their role in telling Australia's story to ourselves and the world make them an essential service.

Like it or not, we’re all part of a double disillusion election, and an early one as well – as if we need any more of them, given some of the disastrous outcomes of past ones. Somewhere in the noise and dust, Australia’s arts and culture future could well be lost.

Tobacco drying sheds, North East Victoria: The creative industries are too important to become just another industry overtaken by history.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Silent retreat – is arts funding becoming project funding?

There’s lots to be worried about in the flurry of recent changes to national arts funding arrangements. Amongst it we need to be concerned at what might be the beginning of a bigger trend – the tendency for government to withdraw from longer term operational support for the arts in preference for short term, one-off project funding.

The arts and culture sector is contemplating the first full set of projects funded by the new Catalyst program and awaiting the announcements next week by the Australia Council of their decisions about which organisations will receive four year funding. It’s a good time to think about the implications of what has been happening in the arts funding landscape over the last year.

Amongst the many concerns about the recent changes to national arts funding arrangements I am deeply disturbed that we might be witnessing the beginning of a bigger trend – that is the tendency for government to pull back from longer term operational support for the arts in preference for short term, one-off project funding.

'We might be witnessing the beginning of a bigger trend – that is the tendency for government to pull back from longer term operational support for the arts in preference for short term, one-off project funding'

It’s a complex picture because in many ways the current Australian Government in its quest to reduce ‘red tape’, in many areas has moved even further along the path of multi-year contracts and minimal oversight, particularly in the brave new (and old) world of Indigenous Affairs. However, at least in marginal areas like arts support, it is a tendency that seems to be developing momentum. Potentially it marks a creeping government withdrawal from serious long-term effective support.

Parliament House in Canberra was designed so that anyone could walk on it to remind politicians that they answered to the will of the people - a message that seems to have been forgotten.

Even cheaper outsourcing
Perhaps we have to see this as a form of even cheaper outsourcing in the community sphere than at present, parallel to the more lucrative outsourcing dreamed of – and occurring – in the business sphere. After all, as Peter Shergold has pointed out, if government wants certain outcomes, a highly cost-effective (cheap) way to get them is by funding community organisations who live (and die) on the smell of an oily rag. Unfortunately project funding is a particularly erratic and ad hoc form of outsourcing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support

With arts support continuing to shrink cultural groups need to hope for the best but plan for the worst – and build broad alliances – what’s happening in the arts and culture realm is just a symptom of what’s happening far more broadly.

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 future.

Australia is not one country but two separate ones heading in opposite directions. One of these countries is heading into a future which is only slowly emerging from the mists created by deliberately ignoring or distorting science and the evidence it relies upon.

Strategic leadership in everything
This means strategic leadership like never before – something sadly lacking across the sector, particularly at the top end where this should be expected and demanded. The relatively limited and mixed response of large cultural organisations to the last few years of budget cuts is a clear sign of this. It should be a moment for them to drastically rethink what they do and how they do it, not tidy the edges.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities

Increasingly two critical things will help shape our economic future. The first is the central role of cities in generating wealth. The second is the knowledge economy of the future and, more particularly, the creative industries that sit at its heart. In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, both of these come together in a scattering of evolving creative clusters, a development is part of a national and world-wide trend which has profound implications.

It is becoming abundantly clear that in our contemporary world two critical things will help shape the way we make a living – and our economy overall. The first is the central role of cities in generating wealth. The second is the knowledge economy of the future and, more particularly, the creative industries that sit at its heart.

Creative clusters connect disparate small business and creative individuals to mutual advantage - the way bridges bring separate parts of a city into contact.

In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, both of these come together in a scattering of evolving creative clusters – concentrations of creative individuals and small businesses, clumped together in geographic proximity. A recent important article by Anne Davies in ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ outlines this development and some of its profound implications.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics

I’ve said that the traditional saying about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, should instead refer to ‘lies, damned lies and lies about statistics’. Cuts to national arts and cultural funding, while relatively small each year, have a cumulative effect far greater than at first appears and, in the long run, will undermine the effectiveness of national arts and culture support. Where the real disastrous impact of these cuts will hit home is when we also factor in the impact of population growth. If anything, there needs to be an expansion of arts and cultural funding to service the growth

I’ve said before when writing about negative gearing and public policy, that the traditional saying about 'lies, damned lies and statistics’, should instead refer to ‘lies, damned lies and lies about statistics’. The sad truth is that statistics don't lie, only the people who use them - often to dazzle someone who doesn’t understand what the statistics are measuring and how. This means the lies, damned lies and lies about statistics are usually coming from the mouth of some politician or lobby group or spin doctor for the well-off. This is particularly the case during elections. In contrast to lies, damned lies and lies about statistics, there's analysis based on research that is actually related to reality.

Australia's population is growing rapidly - it adds another person every one minute and thirty seconds. The implications for public services, including arts and culture, are profound. 

'The sad truth is that statistics don't lie, only the people who use them - often to dazzle someone who doesn’t understand what the statistics are measuring and how'

In my article about cuts in national arts and cultural funding, ‘Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding’, I noted that the cuts, while relatively small each year, have a cumulative effect far greater than at first appears and, in the long run, will undermine the effectiveness of national arts and culture support. In my earlier article, ‘Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutionsand its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy’, I looked at how this had affected our national cultural institutions.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

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.

Having written an article – even before it opened – about how interesting I expected the ‘Encounters’ exhibition at the National Museum of Australia to be, based solely on publicity about its content, I thought I’d better get there before it finished. The exhibition has now closed and very soon all the ancient objects borrowed from the British Museum will retrace their original paths from Australia to Britain. Why review an exhibition that no longer exists?

The National Museum of Australia sits on the Acton Peninsula in Canberra, on Ngunnawal country.

‘Encounters’ the exhibition, a brief moment in our shared history, may have finished, but it has left us once again to our own drawn-out real encounters with our predecessors on this continent. The exhibition may have finished but the experiences it speaks of continue. For that reason it’s worth reflecting at some length on the exhibition and what it meant from the perspective of Australian culture.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

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

There’s an election in the air, and an early one as well – as if we need any more of them, given some of the disastrous outcomes of past ones. 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.
Australian arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda - let's burn that bridge when we come to it.

Central to everyday life and the main national agenda
1. We want to see arts and culture recognised for the essential central role it plays in Australia’s social and economic life, with it included on the main national agenda, recognising its integral relationship with major economic and social factors such as economic development, education, innovation, community resilience, social and community identity and health and wellbeing.

Research, including extensive case studies, make this broader benefit clear. As far back as 2004, ‘Art and wellbeing’ an Australia Council publication by Deborah Mills and Paul Brown, examined this in detail. Tenacious social problems flourish when morale is virtually non-existent – and morale depends on a positive sense of self and community which involvement in arts and culture provides. It’s no exaggeration to say that in many cases it changes lives. The experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government was that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects. This is true of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. By building self-esteem and generating a sense of achievement, by developing a stronger sense of community, by increasing skills and capabilities through involvement in engaging activities relevant to modern jobs and thereby increasing employability, and by helping to generate income streams, however small, cultural activity can have profound long-term effects.

2. The focus on the economic role of arts and culture is similar to the focus on its community role – both spring from recognition that arts and culture are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The virtual world – research and commentary on Australian arts and culture

When I established my blog ‘indefinite article’, a couple of years back, it was because I wanted to research and comment on Australian arts and culture. This is my main blog that gets most views. It seems to have taken off. I’d always thought that, given the specialist subject matter – after all it’s not a popular culture blog like a cooking one – that it would grow steadily but no more, which all along is what I had wanted. The rate of growth has surprised me. Now, I’m starting to focus on the other blogs that have played second fiddle – about short humour, gardening and cooking and creative writing.

When I first established my blog ‘indefinite article’, a couple of years back, it was because I wanted to research and comment on Australian arts and culture, something I know something about from working for over 35 years in the arts and culture sector. I could have written about other subjects but that would just be me expressing my opinions like every other man, woman and their dog (and cat) on social media. ‘Who cares?’ I thought. ‘indefinite article’ is irreverent articles about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age. This is my main blog and it’s the one that gets most views.

Ages ago I used the phrase on this image, thinking that I had very cleverly been the first person to think of. Recently I saw the same phrase, virtually word for word, on an Internet meme. Whether my words just drifted around on their own and were picked up and reused or whether, more likely, it's just a case of a good idea appearing at the same time in many different widely separated places, is hard to tell. There are no secrets or possessions on the Internet. Here's my illustrated take on the meme.

On the morning of 25 February it passed 8,000 views and is now just over 100 views short of the next milestone of 9,000 views. It seems only a short time ago that I was celebrating having passed 7,000 views. That amount represented the total views from when I effectively started the blog, when I left the public service in late February 2014, to 25 February this year, a period of just under two years. My most recent jump of 1,000 views, from 7,000 to 8,000, took just 5.5 weeks. Three days later I was already a quarter of the way to my next thousand, 9,000 views. I seem to have settled around 1,000 views a month.

Monday, March 21, 2016

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 worthwile 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.

In a speech at the National Press Club on 16 March, Australian Government Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, commented about his joint responsibilities, ‘As Minister for Communications and the Arts I see myself as having responsibility for both the sinews and the soul of the nation. The sinews through Communications and the soul through the Arts. The sinews being that which is essential, connective and often unseen. And the soul, well the closest any minister comes to that in a secular, pluralistic democracy is the Arts Minister’.

Policy helps to see the wood despite the trees and also helps to see both through the fog of daily Government chaos. 

Government funding less important
His speech was almost exclusively about media reform but in questions afterwards he made some telling comments, which thankfully have been reported by Deborah Stone in ‘ArtsHub’.

He said that being a strong advocate for the arts doesn’t mean delivering government funding. He noted ‘I do consider myself to be a strong advocate for the arts. The arts isn’t something that should be seen as a luxury. The arts isn’t something that should be seen as an extra. The arts are core to who we are as a nation. They are core to how we express ourselves and how we interpret our past and how we look to the future. So the arts are core business for government. But it’s not just something for Government. Yes it’s appropriate that government provides funding to support the arts across the genres, but it is also important that the Government money is used to leverage philanthropic, corporate and individual dollars into the sector. So I don’t think an arts Minister or a government should be judged just on the quantum of money that government puts in. But we do put significant dollars into support for the arts.’

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival

Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation.

There has long been an interest in the potential of regional arts activity to revitalise regional communities. In parallel the economic potential of regional creative industries has also interested many communities. In fact regional communities seem to fall somewhere between two camps – those, like Bendigo, that see a role for arts and culture and creative industries and have been boosted by the engagement, and those that don’t and have languished accordingly. That list is long.

The closing event for DESIGN Canberra 2014 at the National Museum of Australia.

Regional arts and regional creative industries
The challenge is achieving a broad recognition of the important potential of arts, culture and creative industries and consolidating and expanding the link between local arts and culture and the local creative industries in the region.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

National arts policy – excelling in the mediocrity stakes

I am not too concerned who manages national arts funding. Both the Australia Council and the Ministry for the Arts have long managed numerous funding programs. I am more concerned about what is funded. The fact that the national pool of arts funding available to support the operational costs of smaller arts and cultural organisations has shrunk substantially is a deep concern. Watch as Australia’s arts and culture sector reels over the next five years from this exceptionally bad policy decision – and expect the early warning signs much sooner, rather than later.

As I have said on many occasions, I am personally not too concerned who manages national arts funding – whether the Australia Council or the Ministry for the Arts. Both bodies manage numerous funding programs, both large and small – and have done so for some time.

Small though my readership might be, at least it's something. I would be surprised if amongst the many voices in the arts and culture sector, I wasn’t one of only a few who have defended the role of the Ministry for the Arts as a funding body in this particular dispute.

A broad experience in the Australian and international arts sector, including as CEO of major cultural icons like the Sydney Opera House and London's Southbank Centre, and major cultural developments like the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, give added perspective to comments critical of Australian arts policy.

Upon reflection I think the Australia Council would be better at funding small arts and culture organisations. Apart from the Indigenous cultural programs, the main area where the Ministry does support such organisations – and does it well – is through its Regional Arts Fund, but that is devolved to other organisations to administer. However, none of that is my major concern.

The issue is what is funded – and what is not
I am more concerned about what is funded. The fact that the national pool of arts funding available to support the operational costs of smaller arts and cultural organisations has shrunk substantially is a deep concern. Watch as Australia’s arts and culture sector reels over the next five years from this exceptionally bad policy decision – and expect the early warning signs of the impact of this cultural vandalism much sooner.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The long hard road of regional revival – putting arts and culture through its paces

Unfortunately what’s often missing in all the analysis of economic and social problems in regional and remote communities is the importance of culture. Tenacious social problems flourish when morale is virtually non-existent – and morale depends on a positive sense of self and community. The long hard road of regional revival really puts arts and culture through its paces – but it delivers.

I’ve always been interested in the broader effects of arts and culture – the ripples that spread out through a community and often change the future, sometimes subtly, sometimes in very drastic ways. You can see it really clearly in smaller communities, even though it happens in all communities, no matter what size.

Unfortunately what’s often missing in all the analysis of economic and social problems in regional and remote communities is the importance of culture. Tenacious social problems flourish when morale is virtually non-existent – and morale depends on a positive sense of self and community.

Australia's regional heritage is immense - the challenge is to keep it as a living heritage.

For years we argued the case in government, explaining how involvement in arts and culture changes lives. The experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs was that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects. This is true of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. By building self-esteem and generating a sense of achievement, by developing a stronger sense of community, by increasing skills and capabilities through involvement in engaging activities relevant to modern jobs and thereby increasing employability, and by helping to generate income streams, however small, cultural activity can have profound long-term effects.

The long hard road of regional revival really puts arts and culture through its paces. This engaging video is more about the role of a visiting artist in reflecting a community back to itself, rather than direct involvement by community members themselves, but it’s still terrific. Strangely, while the video about the artwork shows clearly the role women play in holding a community together, the artwork itself doesn’t reflect this. Having said that, though, I love it. For anyone who has driven the long flat plains of Australia, the grain silos are unforgettable as they rise up out of the fields. The monochromatic images really sum up the even colours of the countryside and take on the colour of the concrete silos.

See also

‘indefinite article’ on Facebook – short arts updates and commentary
‘Short arts updates and irreverent cultural commentary about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age’, 'indefinite article' on Facebook.

Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans
‘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. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. In a rapidly changing world, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international). This all comes together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all’, Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans.

Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities
‘It is becoming abundantly clear that in our contemporary world two critical things will help shape the way we make a living – and our economy overall. The first is the central role of cities in generating wealth. The second is the knowledge economy of the future and, more particularly, the creative industries that sit at its heart. In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, both of these come together in a scattering of evolving creative clusters – concentrations of creative individuals and small businesses, clumped together in geographic proximity. This development is part of a national and world-wide trend which has profound implications’, Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities.

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

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 spent over five years working closely with Aboriginal languages revivalists who for many decades have been toiling away tirelessly in communities across the nation maintaining and reviving their languages – and I had the benefit of a good education on community languages as an unexpected bonus. I bring a particular perspective to it, as a former public servant who has had reasonably long and close experience with the role of government in supporting community efforts to save languages. I’ve seen the highs and lows and some of the successes and failures of government engagement with Aboriginal communities. Unusually this has been from a perspective provided by being only incidentally involved in the bloated government universe of ‘Indigenous Affairs’ and rather part of the support provided by the Australian Government for arts and culture.

The challenge for governments is translating inspiring speeches in Parliament into focused policy and action.

I don't particularly like talking about Indigenous languages because there are a host of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists who have plenty to say about them and know about them far better than I. However, because I am familiar with how government has intersected with Indigenous languages, I think I can add some useful comments about that aspect.

Long overdue – but better late than never
I was pleasantly surprised when the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address earlier this month, recognised the importance of Indigenous languages. I’d seen the annual report being provided to Parliament, outlining the failures (and some successes) of the Closing the Gap effort but after a while it’s easy to skim over the details. I’d been impressed that the Prime Minister made the effort to begin his address in the language of the Ngunnawal, local Aboriginal people of the Canberra region. However, apart from that, I hadn’t listened closely. This meant I’d missed the part of his comments about languages. When I saw a report on them in the media yesterday I was initially excited. This is long overdue. We’ve heard it before from Labor politicians such as Peter Garrett, who recognised how interrrelated languages were to other issues. His recognition culminated in the joint announcement with Jenny Macklin of Australia’s first National Indigenous Languages Policy in 2009 – but that’s the Labor Party, only half the story as far as major political parties are concerned.