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.

I hope the Library publishes his talk because I can’t possibly properly cover all the topics he touched on. I won’t mention his coverage of the history of Australian film and the central role it played in defining a national sense of identity, or the critical importance of music education. Music education is clearly his passion. He queried why education hasn't responded to the fact that the case for the value of music is ‘done and dusted’. In fact the way we are falling down in our education of future generations was central to his talk – as he called it, the grand failure of our ‘intergenerational duty of care’. Australia's relative position in comparison to the other economies with which we have to compete is a concern and it is declining all the time.

Acknowledging Australia’s three great strengths
He began his talk with an intriguing approach. He acknowledged the traditional owners, the least we expect at an Australian public address nowadays. His subsequent comments about the urgent and critical need for reconciliation, and its central nature for any kind of Australian future, were a clear sign that this was not just a formality. As he said the resolution of this great national failure is central to what it is to be a modern Australian.

He than added two other acknowledgements – the cultural diversity of more recent arrivals and its contribution to modern Australia, and the freedoms and responsibilities inherent in our democratic tradition, arising from the Magna Carta. From this he went on to talk in more detail about what this triumvirate of Australian identity meant.

The centrality of artists, scientists and major institutions
He emphasised the crucial importance for Australia’s future of our artists and scientists and major knowledge institutions, including the major cultural organisations, our ‘memory institutions’. Intellectual enquiry and creativity underpin any kind of distinct future for Australia.

‘Being a small nation that is almost wholly English-speaking, could be our greatest asset or our most dangerous weakness.’

In his view, the major institutions are vital resources for understanding the development of Australia, with a commitment to honest memory. Valuing their collections requires reimagining their connection with the community.

As he said, we are a small nation that is almost wholly English-speaking and doesn’t have the inherent cultural protection of those whose national language is not English, like the Danes, the Finns or the Swedes. In the world we live in, he noted, that unique characteristic is something that could be our greatest asset or our most dangerous weakness. Only one thing – effective policy settings – will determine which of these it is.

Need for a nuanced view of philanthrophy
One aspect of his talk which I found fascinating was his discussion of philanthropy. He has a strong background in philanthropic activity – and the Kenneth Myer lecture itself is a celebration, and a part of, what limited philanthropic tradition exists in Australia.

He expressed the firm opinion that there is a fight to be had arguing for the role of government in adequately supporting crucial national resources, like education and arts and culture. He saw them as central to Australia travelling into the future in any kind of positive way, as opposed to declining into irrelevance. However, as he commented, the flow of funds to creative endeavour is unlikely to grow reliably or well, though the value in upping the ante with old fashioned cash should not be underestimated.

‘Philanthrophy restores the direct relation with the community.’

What he was interested in was the broad gamut of philanthropy, including volunteering, which he noted was declining. He was particularly fascinated by the growth in a phenomenon such as crowdfunding. In his view where philanthrophy is important is that it restores the direct relation between the activity supported and the community. In his view we need to look at philanthropy in a more nuanced way.

Breakdown and fragility
The other topic he spent some time discussing was the abysmal level of our national political debate and the role in this of the daily digital avalanche of opinion and emotion fuelling aggressive social divisions from which it will be ever harder to rebuild. He noted that there seems to be a sense of breakdown and fragility, and there is a risk that Australians overall are losing their optimism and ambition and their sense of an internationally-connected future linked to Asia.

Having worked in the heart of the neo-liberal empire, with it's dislike of a role for government and its tendency to fan the flames of social division when it suited, it would have been interesting to hear him comment on the origins of our current malaise. This decline in trust, confidence and optimism didn't appear accidentally - it is part and parcel of the abandoning of the historical focus on the role of the mixed economy and the alarming growth of a winner take all mentality amongst the rich and powerful. The old notion of a ‘Commonwealth’, which both he and I find attractive – though whether it ever actually existed is debatable – depends on a shared sense of community, which neo-liberalism is fast eroding.

Repairing the damage
In his view we have a lot of work to do repairing the damage to date from superficial judgement, trite political discussion and plain bad policy settings. We also have much to fix up from a focus on process rather than outcomes and an obsession with the money rather than what the money is buying.

‘As a natural optimist, I have to say that currently we are not on a good trajectory.’

According to Williams, we are still hopelessly mired in mid-20th Century policy approaches. He commented that our future depends on the intellectual and creative capacity of our people, far above any of the other relatively insignificant and fading resources, like minerals or agriculture produce. He concluded ‘as a natural optimist, I have to say that currently we are not on a good trajectory’.

At the end I asked if he thought there was a risk that government could become irrelevant. As he responded, in the digital age, it’s entirely possible. As he pointed out, the digital world is deeply destructive of life as we know it. The internet enable autonomous self-organising functions independent of government. To deal with it, government needs policy substance. I can't help thinking it’s the age-old story, life is what happens while we – in this case, our government – are doing something else.

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.

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

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’, Putting culture on the main agenda – the power of policy.

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.

Vote 1 Australian arts and culture – who is painting the big picture?
‘In this 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. We need a big policy that ties together all the disparate areas that arts and culture flows into’, Vote 1 Australian arts and culture – who is painting the big picture?

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

Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity 
‘Cultural diversity underpins so much of value in Australia. It helps ensure innovation flourishes, because where cultures intersect, differing world-views come into contact and fixed ideas and old ways of doing things are challenged. This 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 national Indigenous cultural programs play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture. What is clear is that these programs have been affected by the range of cuts as part of the search for savings since the Coalition Government took office. Funding community organisations for services government would otherwise have to provide is a great way to get things on the cheap. If you don’t fund them at all, it’s even cheaper’, Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity.

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

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.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

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.

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