Saturday, October 13, 2018

Changing the landscape of the future – a new focus on cultural rights

The arts and culture sector has spent far too many years pressing the case for why Australian culture is crucial to Australia’s future without seeming to shift the public policy landscape to any great degree. Perhaps a proposed fresh approach focusing on cultural rights may offer some hope of a breakthrough. What makes this approach so important and so potentially productive is that it starts with broad principles, linked to fundamental issues, such as human rights, which makes it a perfect foundation for the development of sound and well-thought out policies – something that currently we sadly lack.

The thing I like about going to a forum about arts and culture is that you never know who you will find yourself alongside. It’s definitely not a world of the colourless and quiet. In March this year I was at an Arts Front forum at the Brisbane Powerhouse to discuss framing arts and culture in terms of cultural rights.

Setting the agenda - sharing experiences and views from across the country at the forum on cultural rights.

At the start, as I sweltered in the riverside humidity, I found myself next to Frederick Copperwaite, a Bunuba man from the South-West Kimberley region of Western Australia. He is co-founder and co-artistic director of Moogahlin Performing Arts, based in Sydney, one of a powerful trio of First Nations theatre companies, comprising Yirra Yaakin in Perth and Ilbijerri in Melbourne – what not to be impressed by? Yet he was only one of a very weighty coterie of artists and others who have been working for many decades in the arts and culture sector to change the world for the better.

This forum was an important landmark because it represents a fresh approach to arts and culture, with more focus on the broader landscape of culture than simply arts and with funding much more a secondary issue. In fact, increasingly I think that we should separate crafting a strategy to strengthen and broaden Australia’s cultural life from the much narrower issue of arts funding. Of course funding is an issue that will never go away as long as we continue to recognise that government has a crucial and strategic role to play in broad support for our culture.

Making policy possible
The other aspect of this approach which makes it so important and so potentially productive is that it starts with broad principles, linked to fundamental issues, such as human rights, which makes it a perfect foundation for the development of sound and well-thought out policies. Of course, getting them adopted will be a much harder task.

At the heart of the idea is a cultural bill of rights and a compact that organisations and individuals – politicians, for example – can sign up to. It’s a different approach because, despite much discussion, the idea of an Australian bill of rights generally has never really taken off, certainly not with the major political parties or with other mainstream decision-makers.

‘[What] makes [this approach] so important and so potentially productive is that it starts with broad principles, linked to fundamental issues, such as human rights, which makes it a perfect foundation for the development of sound and well-thought out policies.’

Much of the impetus for this approach has come from First Nations artists and activists, who have a long history of linking their efforts for recognition in Australia to international human rights. Focusing specifically on cultural rights is where new insights may appear. Work has been continuing steadily following the forum and it will be interesting to see where it takes us.

The problem of bi-partisan politics
Initially I wasn’t sure if the approach would produce useful results. For one thing, in terms of the relatively narrow matter of political parties, it might make a bipartisan policy approach more difficult – its focus on both rights and policy make it an approach that the current Government would be likely to be uncomfortable with.

The Coalition approach to arts support historically has been to avoid a grand vision and framework, to focus on the larger, more established arts and culture organisations and to throw money at a problem when it arises and threatens to rock the arts boat. This means that apart from periodic visionary grand plans from Labor, like Creative Nation or Creative Australia, the Coalition has often managed to deliver more small pools of cash to the arts than Labor.

Overlay this approach with an inherent distaste for international treaties and frameworks and international bodies like UNESCO, and a cultural rights approach is likely to find some serious obstacles amongst the Coalition ranks.

‘Despite the potential pitfalls, an approach based on rights offers a new way forward. An agenda of cultural rights may sit uneasily with our current political parties – more with some than others – but the point to recognise is that political parties and their policies, or lack of them, are only a small, and increasingly smaller, part of Australian society.’ 

Amongst Labor, in contrast, there are potential opportunities. Labor has been more sympathetic to the role of international treaties and human rights frameworks. The incoming Rudd Government brought with it two important election commitments – to ratify the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity and to consider ratification of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It implemented both commitments, though fell short of the logical next step, which was to implement the Intangible Heritage Convention as well, since the thorough process of consideration found no barrier of substance to doing so.

Things have moved on since then, with seemingly no mention of the Convention in the current discussion about Labor arts and cultural policy for the next national election. However, there are synergies across portfolios, with Shadow Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus – himself a former Shadow Arts Minister – potentially sympathetic to an approach based on rights.

The big issues
Despite the potential pitfalls, an approach based on rights offers a new way forward. An agenda of cultural rights may sit uneasily with our current political parties – more with some than others – but the point to recognise is that political parties and their policies, or lack of them, are only a small, and increasingly smaller, part of Australian society. The real challenge is winning hearts and minds around the big issues – something even our increasingly narrow and short-sighted political parties are well aware of.

‘Flowing from these intellectual property rights is the potential to generate income streams for communities and artists and thereby make long term economic sustainability more of a reality than a dream.’ 

A focus on international agreements also has important implications for sustainability of communities, particularly but not exclusively First Nations communities. Linked to international approaches to cultural rights is the whole international intellectual property framework, which is critical to proper recognition of Traditional Cultural Expressions and Traditional Knowledge. It is also crucial to acknowledgement of the ownership rights of artists of their creative work. Flowing from these intellectual property rights is the potential to generate income streams for communities and artists and thereby make long term economic sustainability more of a reality than a dream.

Not an easy path
Those involved in this ground-breaking proposal recognise that this will not be an easy path. They have stressed that it is crucial to build on existing work and to establish an awareness of what is working and what barriers are there. Development of the idea also needs to occur both locally and nationally. Change will only come from embracing the truth about our shared history and being able to accept the fact that this will be an uncomfortable process.

Just how our political leaders at all levels will respond as this proposal is unveiled will be extremely interesting. It will be a decisive test of how well they walk the talk. For those who have no talk to walk, the reaction will be more predictable – still, it will all be illuminating. Australians are unhappy with politicians and this is just another test of which ones are worth keeping and which need to be archived.

From the forum it was clear that there is a strong view that it is too early to talk about a reconciliation process – as one speaker asked ‘when did we ever reach conciliation?’ He then went on to note that ‘the only way to achieve that is through telling the truth.’

A view that emerged strongly from the forum was that such a development would provide the bare minimum needed to ensure survival, dignity and well-being amongst First Nations communities. Yet this is also a shared undertaking – it is about developing a future cultural consciousness for this country that offers long-term benefits for everyone.

Social infrastructure – first steps to a solution
The potential importance of this approach has been recognised with crucial first steps being taken towards initiating public discussion about development of a National Indigenous Arts and Cultural Authority, after decades of lost opportunities and partial solutions. A view presented strongly throughout the forum was that for an approach based on rights to succeed, change had to occur in our cultural spaces and required the development of a cultural authority to underpin a coordinated and effective process. Such a body could help provide support for ‘the obligations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to maintain, control, protect and nurture.. [their unique cultural] inheritance and its myriad contemporary creative expressions.’

There will be a challenge here for our cultural institutions and arts organisations to respond to and it will be interesting to see if – and how –  they rise to the challenge. It will be a test of how strong their commitment is to responding effectively and practically to the complexity, diversity – and excitement – of contemporary Australian society and culture.

This is not a new idea but perhaps, finally, its time has come. I seem to recall that the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs at one stage commissioned wide-spread national consultation about a national Indigenous cultural body. In the end it was more convenient to decide that the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, more usually referred to as AIATSIS, fulfilled that role. Despite all the valuable things that AIATSIS does, it very definitely doesn’t provide all the things that were hoped for from such a body, but few government would willingly agree to another national cultural institution. We only have to look at how long it took to establish the National Museum of Australia to see how difficult it is.

‘This is not a new idea but perhaps, finally, its time has come.’

However, if a new authority didn’t involve the massive areas of responsibility of collections and exhibitions, it might be something that Government could agree to, especially if there was wide-spread support. Unfortunately the disappointing and short-sighted response by the Government to the Uluru Statement doesn’t bode well for the likely response from the current Government – if it survives long enough to consider any proposal.

The arts and culture sector has spent far too many years pressing the case for why Australian culture is crucial to Australia’s future, without seeming to shift the public policy landscape to any great degree. Perhaps this fresh approach may offer some hope of a breakthrough. Like all things, changing the ground rules – and the ground – is a long-term process, but like all long-term processes, it has to start as early as possible in order for momentum to build. As Keynes said, ‘in the long run we’re all dead’.

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.

Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world
‘What interests me in exhibitions about Aboriginal Australia is what they mean for Australians generally, even if most Australians won’t ever see them. After a mere 220 years, in many ways we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way. Burke and Wills were the perfect examples, undone because they were unable to learn simple lessons offered by the local people on how to make edible the vast supplies of food surrounding them. They starved to death in a field of plenty. It made me realise that we can gain a much richer grasp of Australia through recognising that First Nations culture and heritage is part and parcel of our own Australian heritage’, Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world.

Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia
‘The arts and culture sector has long suffered from a shortage of high quality, useable research and statistics. This makes what is available doubly important as we argue the case for the central relevance of arts and culture and the broader social and economic impact of involvement. New research demonstrates the positive scale of involvement, views on importance and trends in participation in Australia’s arts and cultural life, especially hands on involvement. It also shows a worrying decline in engagement and recognition in recent years and points to the need for a more strategic view by government’, Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia.

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.

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?

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 hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.

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’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

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.

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?

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’, Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda.

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.

Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

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.

Indigenous culture and Closing the Gap
‘Experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs shows that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects.’ The gap in Closing the Gap.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment