Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Why cultural diversity is central to Australia’s future promise – a refocused Labor arts policy?

Can Australia successfully navigate the treacherous and confusing times in which we live? Understanding the crucial importance of our cultural diversity to our cultural, social and economic future will be essential. Applying that in the policies and practices that shape our future at all levels across Australia can ensure we have a bright, productive and interesting 21st Century. An important part of this are the political parties, major and minor, that are increasingly negotiating the compromises that shape our world. The recent launch by the Labor Party of a new group, Labor for the Arts, is an important development. Combining as it does a focus from an earlier time on both arts and multiculturalism, it could potentially open the way for some innovative and forward-thinking policy.

Without a grasp of the importance of Australia’s cultural diversity to its future – culturally, socially and economically – we will find it impossible to navigate the treacherous and confusing times in which we are living. Due to failures of leadership and lack of vision we have drifted into a world in which diversity is increasingly under attack and borders are closing.

Innovation is applied creativity – and it’s more than a catchphrase
In this landscape it cannot be stressed too many times that cultural diversity is inextricably linked to pressing issues such as innovation – which is, after all, just applied creativity – because where cultures intersect, new ideas flourish. It fosters new approaches and helps breed the innovation needed for the modern knowledge economy and our creative industries.

Where cultures intersect, new ideas and approaches flourish.

However, for this to be reflected in strategic policy and the day to day decisions that flow from it, it is critical that decision-making bodies that affect our future understand it and its implications. This includes an array of organisations across Australian society at all levels – small and large businesses and their industry bodies, community organisations and local, state and territory and national governments. This includes the political parties, major and minor, that are increasingly negotiating the compromises that shape our world and determine our future.

A refocused Labor Party arts policy?
The recent launch by the Labor Party of a new group, Labor for the Arts, could be an important development. It was launched on 14 March by Tony Burke, Shadow Minister for both the Arts and for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia, followed by a panel with industry leaders discussing cultural diversity in the arts.

The publicity for the launch asked why only 8% of Australian artists are from a non-English speaking background, and how can the arts sector better embrace cultural diversity, moving ‘multicultural arts’ into the mainstream? These are good questions, though I’m not so sure that it’s a case of only 8% of Australian artists being from a non-English speaking background, but rather than only 8% are recognised as such.

‘It gives us an entrée into the countries and cultures from which migrants come. If we are indeed entering the Asian Century, we need every positive feature we have going for us to make the most of the opportunities presented.’

At the time the National Cultural Policy was being developed, figures which are now likely to understate the situation, indicated that in Australia more than 43% of the population were either born overseas or had a parent who was. Our cultural diversity, from the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, cultures and languages which underpin Australian culture, bolstered by the waves of migration, is an important national asset.

It also gives us an entrée into the countries and cultures from which migrants come. If we are indeed entering the Asian Century and a world where countries such as China will become increasingly important, we need every positive feature we have going for us to make the most of the opportunities presented.

In the tradition of building on our diverse histories we could do worse than follow the path of the ancient Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land who built a thriving trade and cultural interchange with the Macassans from the northern islands which much later became Indonesia – the Asian Century began much earlier than we realise.

Participation Australia’s arts and cultural life
Diversity Arts Australia, formerly Kultour, has highlighted the important data available about the extent of participation by people from non-English speaking background in Australia’s arts and cultural life. The Australia Council's 2014 report ‘Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts’ offers a snapshot of how Australians from different cultural backgrounds value and participate in the arts. The data includes:

  • 38% of people from non-English speaking backgrounds creatively participate in the arts, compared with 48% of others
  • 40% of people from non-English speaking backgrounds create art, compared with 48% of others
  • 64% of people from non-English speaking backgrounds feel there are plenty of opportunities to
  • get involved in the arts’, compared with 73% of others
  • 78% of people from non-English speaking backgrounds believe in the right to total artistic freedom of expression, compared to 68% of others

The previous Labor attempt at a national arts policy, ‘Creative Australia’, the short-lived National Cultural Policy, finally completed under the Gillard Government with Arts Minister Simon Crean at the helm was very good. However, the one feature that wasn’t as strong as it could have been was its recognition of the importance of cultural diversity. The National Cultural Policy acknowledged cultural diversity but in my view it didn’t recognise sufficiently how critical and central it was. As a result it didn’t practically reflect its importance in the package of measures ‘Creative Australia’ introduced to implement its vision.

‘We could do worse than follow the path of the Yolngu of East Arnhem Land who built a thriving trade and cultural interchange with the Macassans from the northern islands which much later became Indonesia – the Asian Century began much earlier than we realise.’

Yet the strongest message of all from the broad public consultation which helped produce the National Cultural Policy what that it had to reflect Australia’s diversity. I have argued this for years and I stressed it again in 2015 when I wrote to the previous Labor Shadow Minister, Senator Dreyfus, at a time when the Labor Party was starting to review its Arts Policy. I urged him not to throw the baby out with the bathwater but to improve on ‘Creative Australia’ in several ways, most importantly in its reflection of Australia’s diversity.

An approach from an earlier time pointing the way forward?
Burke succeeded Simon Crean to become Arts Minister for a short period before the Government changed hands. He was an enthusiastic and capable Arts Minister, delivering some valuable results for contemporary music in particular. Unfortunately he was there for too short a time for any proper judgement to be made about his effectiveness in the role. Now it seems this new approach, combining as it does a focus on both arts and multiculturalism from an earlier time decades before ‘Creative Australia’ could potentially address the shortcoming of the National Cultural Policy and open the way for some innovative and forward-thinking policy. It draws on Burke’s two Ministerial portfolios making it a potential good fit in Government. The challenge will be updating it to reflect the digital age and the importance of the link to innovation.

The likelihood of a Labor Government after the next election just keeps increasing as the dysfunctional factional in-fighting continues inside the Government. Arts and culture has fared better under current Minister Fifield and that’s to be welcomed. It’s good to see the sad mess that was the Catalyst program being tidied up – but it’s still just fixing up a disaster of the previous Minister’s own making. Is it any wonder there is interest in a fresh approach. Only six years after the launch – and subsequent crash – of ‘Creative Australia’, it will be interesting to see where the Labor Party might take arts and cultural policy next time around.

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.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

The 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.

Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future
‘The real danger for Australia’s arts and culture is not funding cuts but steady, unending neglect. The decline of Government arts and culture support can be attributed to four long-running factors. This I call a quadruple whammy, from lack of indexation, the cumulative effect of ‘efficiency dividends’, the trend towards project funding rather than operational funding an falling behind as the population and economy expands’, Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future.

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’, Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture.

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

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’, Making ends meet – the brittle new world of arts funding.

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.

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.

The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future
‘The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government. What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? There are a series of major factors which are hammering arts and culture organisations. These intersect and mutually reinforce one another to produce a cumulative and compounding long term disastrous impact. All this is happening in a context where there is no strategic policy or overview to guide Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build broad alliances and partnerships, never forget its underlying values and draw on its inherent creativity to help create a society based firmly on arts and culture’, The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future.

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

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

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.

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’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.

Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister
‘I ventured out through the dark wilds of the Australian National University to hear the Opposition Spokesperson on the Arts, Mark Dreyfus, share his view of what a contemporary arts and culture policy might look like. It was a timely moment, given the turmoil stirred up by recent changes to national arts funding arrangements and the #freethearts response from small arts and cultural organisations and artists. Luckily, as he himself noted, he has a very recent model to work with. The National Cultural Policy is little more than two years old,’ Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister.

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