Friday, April 28, 2017

Year Zero without a roadmap – arts funding chaos set to be repeated as Government sells regions short

The years of chaos produced by ad hoc changes to national arts funding, with no strategy or overall vision, seem set to be repeated. The Government's ham-fisted attempt to turn back the clock on the national capital by transferring Government departments to regional centres seems like our own (thankfully, milder) version of Year Zero. Though a response to a genuine problem, it is unlikely to produce any real benefits and could inflict major damage on one of Australia’s greatest national assets. It seems strange when, in many areas, particularly arts and culture, the Government has for years been steadily transferring roles back to Canberra.

In another desperate attempt to scrabble together enough votes to save its panicked ranks, the Government is plucking plans out of the air again. This time Australian Government departments are to be reviewed to identify which ones might be suitable for relocation to regional areas.

Main street, Ararat, Victoria. Regional development needs a more serious approach than pork-barrelling - understanding the crucial role arts, culture and creative industries can play in boosting regional economies and communities is a good start.

This is not just about Canberra because as John Wanna, Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, has pointed out, approximately 70% of the Australian Public Service is based outside of Canberra. Of course, despite this, it has become a discussion about Canberra.

This is a strange thing, given that one of the defining characteristics of Canberra as a national capital is that – unlike gigantic Sydney or Melbourne – it is also a regional city which is a centre for its own region. I used to like the fact that flying from Canberra to Townsville, for example, was a way of reminding politicians and public servants that they lived in a regional centre, with all the limitations that entailed.

It's illuminating to look at this issue in the light of what's happened with our arts and culture over the last few years.

Mixed track record
This Government has traditionally been supportive of regional Australia, certainly in the arts area, though it’s been a mixed track record. I’m sure this latest move is in no way related to anything to do with arts and culture. Though its long-running support for invaluable programs, such as the Regional Arts Fund, is commendable, there is little sign in its broader policies that the Government understands the crucial role arts, culture and creative industries can play in boosting regional economies and communities.

It’s not quite the Australian version of the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero, when cities were stripped of their assets and populations in a vain and bloody attempt to turn back history. However, the potential for severe damage is huge – as the disastrous attempt to move the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate has already shown.

‘[It’s]..a strange thing, given that one of the defining characteristics of Canberra as a national capital is that – unlike gigantic Sydney or Melbourne – it is also a regional city which is a centre for its own region.’

This is a response to a genuine problem – how to ensure one of Australia’s greatest national assets, the Commonwealth public service, better works for Australians. Unfortunately the supposed solution is the same sort of ham-fisted approach we have seen before. This is after all the same government that thinks increasing public service productivity – or productivity across the economy as a whole – is about no brighter an idea than working longer hours.

Swings and roundabouts
The problem with this latest ad hoc approach is that the hugely expensive business of relocating a government department mght make it more accessible to the single regional city and surrounding region it is moved to but at the same time it immediately becomes many times less accessible to every other regional area across Australia.

This is particularly a problem for a country as large as Australia. It also reduces departmental access to Ministers and national government as a whole and makes it less able to work effectively across government – already a huge weakness in the fragmented world we inhabit. Moving departments amongst the real silos is likely to create even more of the metaphorical ones.

‘The problem..is that the hugely expensive business of relocating a government department mght make it more accessible to the single regional city and surrounding region it is moved to but at the same time it immediately becomes many times less accessible to every other regional area across Australia.’

There are major shortcomings with essential services to regional Australia, particularly communications facilities. As Cathy McGowan, the independent member representing the seat of Indi in North East Victoria and herself a supporter of decentralisation, has emphasised, ‘there’s no point in having a decentralisation program if the internet and mobile phone coverage is not up to standard. Until the Government can demonstrate it can deliver infrastructure equity, there’s no hope for a successful decentralisation program.’ Moving parts of the public service while these failures continue will simply further restrict its effectiveness.

Policy on the run
Policy on the run in this area could be a disaster. Without integrating it with an overall policy framework for both regional Australia and for the national public service, including consideration of how the two are related, we’ll see yet more of the mediocre chopping and changing we’ve seen in the area of arts funding.

Within a carefully developed policy framework, it might be possible to move some parts of the public service from larger cities like Melbourne or Sydney, where office and home rents are expensive and traffic is congested. To do it successfully would require a grand national vision which firmly integrated regional Australia. I can't see anything like that coming out of this lacklustre government.

The last time there was anything even vaguely like such a focus was during the period the National Cultural Policy was being developed. At that time Simon Crean's role as both Arts Minister and Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government, meant there was consideration of how these policy areas were related.

There are powerful underlying reasons why cities and regions everywhere have developed in a hub and spoke arrangement and all the important facilities that service this, such as transport networks, have developed to reflect this structure. It would take more than a few politicians with a badly thought-through idea to turn around nearly a hundred years of history.

‘This is a response to a genuine problem – how to ensure one of Australia’s greatest national assets, the Commonwealth public service, better works for Australians. Unfortunately the supposed solution is the same sort of ham-fisted approach we have seen before.’

There is a strong impetus for many people to want to move to regional areas and we should foster this where it is suitable. However the hard reality is that cities, just like regional centres for those from the country and remote areas, have the scale, facilities and services to attract talent – especially young talent – and this is where it flows.

Undermining nation-building
This initiative also acts to undermine the whole national-building ethos which has been so important for creating an Australian national identity – in all its diverse complexity – and for making Australia more significant internationally than it deserves. Dislike of national government in Canberra is in reality dislike of national government per se. If you ideologically see that there should only be a limited role for government, then you aren’t going to be too concerned that you might be crippling it and reducing its effectiveness. That might even be a good reason to do it.

‘Dislike of national government in Canberra is in reality dislike of national government per se. If you ideologically see that there should only be a limited role for government, then you aren’t going to be too concerned that you might be crippling it and reducing its effectiveness.’

In fact, the idea of dispersing the public service does not come out of the blue. The context for this idea is the overall running down of the public service as a national asset over many years. Despite the crucial importance of the role it plays serving Australia through expert advice, risk management, strategic planning and financial prudence, successive governments have seen it as an easy target and a crude way to help balance the books. This has been going on for years, with the Labor Party contributing in its own way. This has a direct impact on the services provided to Australia’s regions.

Where the Government would be better turning its attention is to ways to link more effectively to regional Australia. Instead of the narrow, limited– and frankly, quite unimaginative – idea of simply moving departments or parts of departments, a whole range of means could be used.

'This is exactly the challenge that our national cultural institutions have had to face up to.... They have deployed a wide range of mechanisms to build links to communities across Australia....Unfortunately years of cuts have severely undermined their ability to do this.

This is exactly the challenge that our national cultural institutions have had to face up to, a challenge they have met with mixed success. They have deployed a wide range of mechanisms to build links to communities across Australia. Amongst these are skilful use of the online and digital environment, partnerships with regional cultural organisations, touring exhibitions and hosting what are often eye-opening visits by groups of students from regional schools. Unfortunately years of cuts have severely undermined their ability to do this.

A very different approach – regional networks for Indigenous services
In the area of services to remote and regional Aboriginal Australia, a very different approach has long been used. A widespread regional network used to, and to a significant degree still does, provide a link between Commonwealth departments and regional populations. This has been a real local presence of national government, not just some removal by rote from Canberra. However, the underlying tendency of the Commonwealth to centralise in Canberra has always acted against this.

This retreat from the regions has been most pronounced in the area of arts and culture, with the part of the regional network originally inherited from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2005 largely disbanded. This inevitably has a damaging effect on the quality of decision-making in the area of support for Indigenous arts and culture. Particularly with Indigenous communities, where overlooking local nuances and cultural differences can be even more risky than it is with any community, lack of local knowledge is a dangerous thing.

‘This retreat from the regions has been most pronounced in the area of arts and culture, with the part of the regional network originally inherited from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2005 largely disbanded. This inevitably has a damaging effect on the quality of decision-making in the area of support for Indigenous arts and culture.

The tendency for rotating Commonwealth public servants to move in an out of the area of the Indigenous cultural programs in Canberra for short periods between other jobs has also been amplified. This is compounded by the dangerous view held generally in the public service that public servants can pick up any complex area overnight and make informed judgements about it.

It seems strange to be talking about transferring Government departments to regional centres when, in many areas, the Government has for years been steadily transferring roles back to Canberra. If the Government is serious about better servicing regional communities, perhaps it’s time to have a careful look at the decline in this area.

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.

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, could be 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’, Understanding why cultural diversity is central to Australia’s future promise – a refocused Labor arts policy?

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.

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.

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.

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