Thursday, February 25, 2016

Venue lock down – a blunt instrument for a dire problem

The diminishing stock of city venues for live music performances under the onslaught of pokies and increasing concentrations of inner-city apartment dwellers has been a serious issue for contemporary music for decades. The legislation tightening controls on venues in response to alcohol-related violence is only the latest obstacle the music sector has to address.

City venues are crucial for a healthy live music scene and there have been concerted campaigns over many years to remove regulatory barriers and keep live music venues alive. Over the last 12 months the issue of venue lock down to deal with alcohol-fuelled assaults has become a major debate and it is overlapping with the live music issue.

Venue lockdown in Sydney city is a response to a dire problem using a very blunt instrument.

The power of good policy – historical tax distortions waiting for a fix

In a time when arts and culture support is being reduced incrementally, while the size of the economy and the level of both population and demand increases, where is the money going? What better uses is taxpayer money – whether actually collected or foregone – being put to?

We live in an era where arts and culture support – relatively small proportion of overall government expenditure that it is – is continually being cut and restructured. The argument seems to be that there are limited funds and many demands, that there is a 'budget emergency' or, beneath the surface, that government shouldn't be involved in this space at all.

In this context it is interesting to consider where government resources are allocated, how relatively worthwhile are alternative uses of taxpayer funds - whether actually collected or just foregone. The discussion around negative gearing takes us into just such an area.

Negative gearing has been distorting the shape and nature of our cities for a long time.

For decades negative gearing has been distorting the shape of our cities, our suburbs and our communities. It is an inefficient way to achieve the desired result. Because it has been around for so long, it's negative impact has been able to magnify, cumulative like lead poisoning.

Diversity underpins the innovation we desperately need

A major issue for arts and culture is cultural diversity. It underpins a rich and vibrant culture. It also has ramifications far beyond the area of arts and culture, creating a fertile ground for innovation, in areas as diverse as private sector economic activity and government policy.

I keep writing that cultural diversity is crucial to innovation because where cultures intersect, innovation happens. An article by Peter Martin, economics editor for 'The Age' newspaper, highlights that sharply. It makes complete sense in so many ways.

Martin writes that ‘Australia is going to have to use every resource it has if it's to make the most of the decades ahead.’ He then proceeds to emphasise how tapping the power of diversity is a critical part of rising to the challenge. He points out that ‘McKinsey and Co reported this year that the 25 per cent of companies most likely to employ female executives did far better financially than the other 75 per cent. Those that were also racially diverse did better still.’

Within some areas of the Australian government's public service the importance of diversity is well-understood. Elsewhere - in the public service and outside there's a world of change waiting. 

Social and cultural diversity pay off
This has been recognised by influential figures in the current public service, such as Martin Parkinson. Parkinson is the senior public servant who survived a near death experience at the hands of Tony Abbott, only to be resurrected by the incoming Malcolm Turnbull to become his new head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

UnAmerican Activities Committee

Reading reviews of the new film about the Hollywood screenwriter, Trumbo, I’ve been reminded of the legendary House UnAmerican Activities Committee, set up to hunt reds under the bed  – especially screenwriters – in the US in the late 1940s and 50s.

Only in America could I imagine something with such a bizarre name. What exactly were ‘unAmerican’ activities – apart from sympathy for a foreign power, did it include picking your nose in public, forgetting Mother’s Day, not eating enough pumpkin pie? 

I can’t quite imagine it in Australia – a House of Representatives UnAustralian Activities Committee. Hmm. We might have our national foibles, including a tendency to be taken in by our political leaders, even while we rail at them, but I can’t quite see it.

This article was originally published elsewhere in my blogosphere and has been revised for this blog.

See also

How to run down an essential service – adventures in the crazy world of Centrelink 
‘Of late I have been developing a close one-on-many relationship with Centrelink as I fulfill my destiny of sorting out stuff for my elderly relatives. It reminds me of dealing with Australia Post over many years. Everyone at Australia Post used to bend over backwards to help you. The problem was that their systems were so bad that even their own staff couldn’t get them to work. This is what Centrelink is like. In the crazy world of failing public service systems that are being overtaken by reality, the only solution is a work around. The tick the box approach that is being fostered in the new deskilled public service can’t handle complexity. The test of any system – or policy, strategic plan, program – is how well it handles the unexpected, the unforeseen, reality. This looks like failure to me’, How to run down an essential service – adventures in the crazy world of Centrelink.

Diversity underpins the innovation we desperately need
‘I keep writing that cultural diversity is crucial to innovation because where cultures intersect, innovation happens. In a world where change is fast and widespread can anyone afford not to mobilise all they have going for them – to survive, let alone to succeed? Cultural diversity is a big part of that picture’, Diversity underpins the innovation we desperately need.

The power of good policy – historical tax distortions waiting for a fix
‘The heated response to the tax debate around negative gearing debate and capital gains tax shows that if political parties adopt a clear policy, in line with their core values and aligned with popular concerns, then get behind it and explain it, people will respond. For decades negative gearing has been distorting the shape of our cities, our suburbs and our communities. It is an inefficient way to achieve the desired result. These are historical tax distortions waiting for a fix’, The power of good policy – historical tax distortions waiting for a fix.

Venue lockdown – a blunt instrument for a dire problem
‘The issue of venue lockdown to deal with alcohol-fuelled assaults is becoming a major debate. Of course venue owners are concerned and their argument that the policy will affect the hospitality industry may well be valid – but that, by itself, is not enough. It comes down to how effective the approach is at addressing the problem and how badly the hospitality industry is affected. The question is how finely different kinds of venues are distinguished from each other in a strategy to reduce alcohol-related violence. Dealing with it was never going to be simple or easy. However, like all government policy, it’s all too easy to go for the one size fits all approach which might look good but not work’, Venue lockdown – a blunt instrument for a dire problem.

Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems to arrive before it has even left

Election time seems increasingly to come around almost before the preceding one has passed on. At a pre-election ACT arts forum contenders in local elections pitched their policies and plans. There was too much talk of infrastructure and public art, not quite enough of local, regional and national (and international) synergies and nowhere near enough of the crucial role of operational funding and the importance of creative industries and the clever and clean knowledge economy of the future.

Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems increasingly to come around almost before the preceding one has passed on. Perhaps eventually they will overlap and we will be able to celebrate two Christmases, two Easters and two elections at once, thus saving time and energy. That’s very efficient in the new Malcolm Turnbull sort of way. In the ACT we will be really be having two elections at once – or at least in the same year, as both local and national politicians ask us to tell them how they’ve done.

Pre-election arts forum at local icon, Gorman House Arts Centre.

Last night on a hot summer evening I went to a forum organised by local ACT arts lobby outfit, The Childers Group. Its theme was ‘Vision and support: what’s planned and what’s needed for the arts in the ACT region?’ It was at Gorman House Arts Centre, one of the few old art deco outcrops still surviving on the Canberra urban plain. I was there from personal interest but also representing Craft ACT, since I am on its Board. Of course all the views expressed here (and anywhere, really) are my own.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How to run down an essential service – adventures in the crazy world of Centrelink

Cuts to government support for arts and culture are part of a much wider pattern of assault on the historic nation-building role of government. Services that maintain a safety net for those who fall through the cracks of the social system are being steadily eroded as governments focus on cutting costs rather than maintaining revenue in a time when the economy and the population are both growing.

Government support for arts and culture in Australia has been badly affected by a series of cuts and restructures which have had widespread damaging effects on arts and culture organisations, especially the smaller and less powerful.

The changes to the Australia Council are only a small part of a series of actions which have impacted the broad arts and culture sector. The Creative Industries Innovation Centre closed its doors in 2015 after the Government declined to support it. This centre played a major role in support for Australia’s creative industries.

With strong reservations in the current Government about the role of Government services and the value of public assets, more and more changes are likely as outsourcing picks up pace. Unfortunately any potential value in the changes will be overshadowed by the ideological agenda against the role of government.

However, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the cuts to arts and culture do not even begin to compare to broader cuts in funding for important government and community services. In many ways it underlines the importance of the arts and culture sector seeking alliances beyond the sector. This cold provide both an array of community partnerships and support and partnerships with increasingly important economic allies.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come

Happening this weekend is a very important event for Australian cultural life, the inaugural Victorian Indigenous literary festival Blak & Bright. It aims to promote and celebrate a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices.

The fabulous author and Indigenous languages revivalist, Bruce Pascoe, is co-headlining the festival. With 29 books to his name, including the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary award-winning Fog a Dox, he will help make an historic event. In the lead up to the Festival he has been interviewed about his views on Australian literature.

Melbourne from across the  River Yarra.

There have also been important developments in Queensland, with the state Indigenous languages organisations, the Queensland Indigenous Languages Advisory Committee, having a history of involvement with the Queensland Writers Festival. They recently had a smaller event along the lines of Blak & Bright in Brisbane. There have probably been other activities happening that I’m not aware of, though I’d be keen to hear.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The intriguing world of tiny exhibitions - Craft ACT shows what small organisations can do

Beyond the big blockbusters, across Australia small and smallish arts and cultural organisations are creating a cultural life with our communities - often below the radar - that belies their size. There are many examples - this is just one. Let's just be grateful and not lose it.

We’re all used to the great big blockbuster exhibitions with all their wow and flutter. They are great. What’s really intriguing though is the world of tiny exhibitions, a babbling brook of activity that flows away – often unnoticed – under the tall timbers of the big institutions.

At Craft ACT at the moment you get four of them at once – in one smallish gallery space. That takes some serious curatorial skill and a big range of talent for a curator to draw on. As a member of the Craft ACT Board I get to go to quite a few of our exhibitions but this set of four really entranced me. Like most other small or smallish arts and cultural organisations we have a strong team to produce our exhibitions – exhibitions coordinator, curator, installation team. Unfortunately, as with other similar organisations, they are all usually the same person – so they have to be good at what they do.

Even, found petals, found cloth, embroidery thread, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist

From East Arnhem Land to Canberra 
Before you even reach the gallery, at the top of the stairs, is a small but beautiful display of handwoven bags in ochre colours from the Ramingining community in East Arnhem Land – as far from Canberra as you can get in Australia. Early career artists Marley and Linda Djangirri Malibirr use traditional craft techniques to express stories of Yolngu culture and country. The work, like many in the other exhibitions, is for sale, but don’t think about it for too long – when I was there almost half were already sold.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts

Figures about national arts cuts quoted in the most recent Senate Estimates hearings seriously understate the cumulative long-term magnitude and effect of arts cuts and underestimate, 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.

In the Senate Additional Estimates hearings on 9 February, the Department of Communications and the Arts was asked how much funding was cut from the Ministry for the Arts in the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook and which programs would have to be discontinued and reduced.

The Department replied that ‘there were administrative program cuts of $9.6 million for the arts programs over the forward estimates…This is money within the Ministry that has not been allocated to anybody. The Ministry's budget has been decreased by $9.6 million. The major part of that is the $6 million in savings from not continuing with the Book Council.’

The former home of the Ministry for the Arts - SAP House, or as I used to call it, ASAP House. One of the many stops the Ministry has made in its circumnavigation of the public service and of Canberra as it has weathered the storms of policy and program upheaval.

A compound effect of creeping cuts
This seems to be a lot less than the figures in the table I provided in my earlier article, ‘Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding’. It is accurate – but limited – and doesn't tell us a lot. It seriously understates the cumulative long-term magnitude and effect of these cuts and, just as with the national cultural institutions, the long-term damage is the worst – a compound effect of creeping cuts.