Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Why Australia still needs a cultural policy – third time lucky?

It’s no longer the pre-election campaign we had to have. It’s become the election campaign we can’t avoid. We are spiralling inexorably towards election day and Ministers and members have been plummeting from the heights of the Coalition Government like crew abandoning a burning Zeppelin. We may wake on 19 May to find we have a national Labor Government. With Labor pledging to implement an updated version of the short-lived ‘Creative Australia’, its national cultural policy, first promised by the Rudd Government, it’s a good time to reconsider its importance.

National cultural policies come and go – but mainly go. If the relentlessly negative election campaign currently being waged by the Coalition doesn’t succeed, we may find on 19 May that we once again have a Labor Government.

The school student strike against climate change inaction in March 2019 highlighted this as a pressing issue for our political leaders - Australia's culture and its relevance to Australian society is less obvious and more easily overlooked.

It’s certainly strange for an incumbent Government seeking a third term to make absolutely no mention of any achievements in its political advertising – but perhaps there’s a good reason. Depending on how the day turns out, it seems we may be entering a moment in Australian history where once again consideration of the potential of a cultural policy becomes relevant. If so, it will be only the third national cultural policy in our history.

Labor for the Arts
In early April, Labor for the Arts, the new group established by Labor specifically to argue the case that it is the party of the arts, released a statement about the Federal Budget and its generally disappointing stance on support for arts and culture. In a vision taken almost word for word from the National Cultural Policy discussion paper released in 2011 to initiate Australia-wide consultation about what the new policy might look like, Labor for the Arts outlined what Labor would do if elected.
  • Ensure what the government supports — and how this support is provided — reflects the diversity of a 21st century Australia and protects and supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's culture;
  • Encourage the use of emerging technologies and new ideas in new artworks and the creative industries, and enable more people to enjoy and participate in arts and culture;
  • Support excellence and world-class endeavour and strengthen the role for the arts in telling Australian stories here and overseas recognising the important role that the arts can play in Australia’s diplomatic efforts around the world; and
  • Increase and strengthen the capacity of the arts to contribute to our society and economy.

National cultural policies come and go – but mainly go. It seems we may be entering a moment in Australian history where once again consideration of the promise of such a policy becomes relevant. If so, it will only be the third national cultural policy in our history’ 

For those who want to read what could quite conceivably become Australian Government policy after May, the latest incarnation of the policy appears in the Consultation Draft of the ALP National Platform from April 2018, at page 167 of the 209 page document, just after ‘Sport’ and just before ‘Animal Welfare’. Unfortunately topics are not ordered alphabetically – either ‘arts’ or ‘culture’ would rate an earlier position. The relatively brief one page outline is general, while wide-ranging. For further detail it promises that Labor ‘will build on and further develop Creative Australia, the national cultural policy adopted by Labor in 2013.’

Quiet reminder
I hadn’t thought about the previous short-lived national cultural policy, ‘Creative Australia’ for some time – though, of course, as a major exercise in cultural policy, it’s not something you ever really forget. Professor David Throsby has written extensively on the economics of Australian arts and culture. His publication, ‘Art, politics, money – Revisiting Australia’s cultural policy’, published in ‘Platform Papers’ by Currency Press almost a year ago, gives a brief overview of many of the issues around a national cultural policy.

I was interested in the publication because I have a strong personal interest in cultural policy. This manifested itself during the days of the Gillard Government in my role as Director of the National Cultural Policy Task Force, set up to coordinate the development of Creative Australia, under the watchful eye of Simon Crean, the Federal Minister for the Arts at the time. David Throsby was both a key figure on the National Cultural Policy Reference Group and a contributor of economic research for the policy.

The Throsby paper has generated some considered commentary for good reason – its starting point is a major shortcoming in the approach of the current Australian Coalition Government to our arts, culture and heritage. The publication is slim but manages to touch on many issues. It includes an overview of the historical approach to cultural policy by Government at national level. Throsby also considers the role of the Australia Council and the review undertaken as part of the development of ‘Creative Australia’.

It also returns to the question of the state of the Australian book industry, an issue that was considered in some depth within Government in parallel with the development of ‘Creative Australia’, but which seems to have been largely forgotten – along with much else by this Government.

No policy, no plan, no idea
Without a firm and practical commitment to the strategic importance of arts, culture and creativity for Australia’s society and economy and to the principle of support for arts and culture, funding is merely a random sum of money without rationale or permanence. With a clear cut policy, funding is much more likely to be maintained and has hope of being increased in the future, even though the argument may still have to be made for how much and what for. Without it, funding will ebb away bit by bit with every wave of Government cuts, never to be replaced.

The Labor Party is more inclined to clearly enunciated policy, which it may or may not implement to varying degrees depending on priorities. The late, lamented ‘Creative Australia’ is an example. The Coalition tend to be more wary, preferring basic statements about underlying principles and seeing cultural policy as a form of social engineering. This can all too easily lead to its Arts Policy looking uncomfortably like the sum total of personal whims of the responsible Minister.

'The Coalition tend to be more wary, preferring basic statements about underlying principles and seeing cultural policy as a form of social engineering' 

The Coalition would probably be more likely to lean towards a framework or general statement of direction. Whether called a policy or not, a consistent and coherent position, clearly outlined, would be an improvement. However, we also have to take into account a general philosophical reluctance on the part of the Liberal Party for any form of Government role, including in supporting arts and culture, with a nod towards corporate and philanthropic support instead. At least there seems to be an acknowledgement that core Government funding enables organisations to leverage wider support. There has also been no sign that any Government would abandon support for our national cultural institutions – though they might grind them down so they can no longer adequately perform their core roles, let alone any of the new ones government dream up for them from time to time.

Why arts and culture have to be integrated into Government policy and strategy
As I have said before, nationally the arts sector must look more broadly than the narrow arts area, to the cultural economy and the broader knowledge economy within which the arts and culture sector are located. Arts and culture plays an important role in Australia’s social and economic life, with an integral relationship to key economic and social factors such as education, innovation, community resilience, social and community identity and health and wellbeing. Focusing on the important economic role of arts and culture is similar to a focus on its community role – both spring from recognition that arts and culture are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up.

'Increasingly 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. At their heart is the cultural economy and the developing creative industries which are based on the power of creativity and are a critical part of Australia’s future' 

Increasingly 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. They are mainly service industries, based on intellectual enquiry and research and exhibiting both innovative services or products and also new and innovative ways of doing business. At their heart is the cultural economy and the developing creative industries which are based on the power of creativity and are a critical part of Australia’s future, in most cases centred on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.

Cultural economy, creative industries and the knowledge economy
Where the cultural economy differs completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because it is based on content, it draws on, intersects with and contributes to Australia’s national and local culture. It is a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world by helping channel those who write the stories, paint the pictures and dance the dances that tell our story. It is underpinned by the arts and culture sector and the artists and arts and cultural organisations, mainly small, that make it up and create the content which feeds into and inspires other sectors.

'Where the cultural economy differs completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because it is based on content, it is a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world' 

In that sense it has a strategic importance that other sectors do not. Due to its links to Australia's cultural sector, it shares the critical function of managing the meaning of Australia and what being Australian entails, which distinguishes this sector from other parts of the knowledge economy.

Arts, culture, the cultural economy and creative industries also show promise in helping address central social challenges Australia faces, such as responding effectively and productively to cultural diversity and tackling Indigenous disadvantage in a practical and positive way. These industries depend on innovation and innovation occurs where cultures intersect and differing world-views come into contact and fixed ideas and old ways of doing things are challenged and assessed.

Policy provides rationale for funding
An arts or cultural policy and the understanding that underpins it and produces it, provides arts and culture with a stature that enables funding and makes funding more likely. Otherwise, as I’ve said previously ‘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. This applies to a Labor Government just as much as it does to a Coalition Government.

'An arts or cultural policy and the understanding that underpins it and produces it, provides arts and culture with a stature that enables funding and makes funding more likely. Otherwise…funding will always be ad hoc and insecure, piecemeal, project-based, intermittent and at the mercy of whim and fashion' 

The understanding of the issues that produce arts or cultural policy is crucial. Without that understanding and the commitment which flows from it, an arts policy or a cultural policy is merely empty words, not much more than vague rhetoric about how arts and culture is ‘important’. Lots of things are important – the question is how important? This is where funding can be particularly relevant because a commitment of funding shows that something is important. It just doesn’t show why it’s important or how important it is.

Show us the money?
When the Labor Government announced Australia’s first National Indigenous Languages Policy in 2009, some organisations criticised the fact that there was no new money attached to the Policy. What they failed to realise is that, in a period of successive Government cuts by both Labor and the Coalition, the existing Government program of support for Indigenous languages suddenly became much, much more secure. The adoption of the Policy also suddenly meant that access by Indigenous community languages organisations to important policy processes in education and employment became much easier. The work on developing a national curriculum by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority is a good example.

‘This is an opportunity to take a good policy and make it even better. ‘Creative Australia’ was developed after broad-ranging consultation far beyond the arts and culture sector by a government in office, with all the resources that entailed. There were four main features that weren’t as strong as they could have been and which could easily be fixed’ 

If the Labor Party is elected and forms the next national Government, it is crucial that a new cultural policy is not delayed by the same issue that held up the National Cultural Policy for so long, and, as a result, meant it had an extremely short life – that is the business of attaching funding promises to the Policy (and therefore identifying funding sources). To my mind that’s only the secondary part of the matter – what comes first and foremost is a strategic statement about how the Labor Party values arts and culture and where it sees it fitting in contemporary Australian life.

Making a pretty good policy even better
This is an opportunity to take a pretty good policy and make it even better. ‘Creative Australia’ was developed after broad-ranging consultation far beyond the arts and culture sector by a government in office, with all the resources that entailed. It had many of the potential shortcomings of a big Government policy – it side stepped dealing with the larger question of the relationship between art and culture and it reinforced a tendency to see audiences as consumers, rather than incorporate the remarkable rise of audience as creator as a result of the explosion of the digital and online universe. It also reflected the strong Government tendency to treat policy as an aggregate of initiatives. Yet, despite all this, it did try to address many of the strategic issues around Australia’s contemporary culture.

There were four main features that weren’t as strong as they could have been and which could easily be improved, if the will was there.

1. Recognition of the importance of cultural diversity. The strongest response from the national consultation was the need to acknowledge Australia’s cultural diversity, yet this was not a particularly strong feature of the Policy. It it is possible that the new approach of the Labor Party, combining as it does a focus on both arts and multiculturalism, with echoes from an earlier time decades before ‘Creative Australia’, could potentially address this shortcoming 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 between cultural diversity and innovation.

2. Highlighting of the important position of design, with its central role for both industry and society in the contemporary world. In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by governments.

3. Acknowledging the essential importance of intangible cultural heritage, which ensures that any focus on arts and culture is broad and inclusive. This must recognise the place of Indigenous intangible cultural heritage, such as Indigenous languages (present in ‘Creative Australia’) Traditional Cultural Expressions (also present in ‘Creative Australia’, but with no funding attached) and Traditional Knowledge.

However, it has to go beyond this because Australia’s intangible cultural heritage is far broader. Tellingly David Throsby has previously called for ratification of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, arguing that it is the sole remaining Convention yet to be ratified from the set of three that are at the heart of any effective Australian cultural policy. The others are the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, ratified by the Rudd Government in September 2009, and the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, ratified in August 1974.

Hopefully this earlier potential initiative from the days of the Rudd Government may reappear if the party is elected and proceeds to develop the shape of a full blown cultural policy. I’m not optimistic because the issue seems to have dropped out of sight since the days of the Rudd Government, both within the Labor Party and the Department of Communications and the Arts, which would be charged with implementing any new cultural policy. If it was to take this issue up, then together with an number of international conventions ratified by Australia which share a rights-based approach, it could potentially contribute to a new approach to Australian culture, based on a rights framework, currently under active discussion in parts of the cultural sector.

4. Re-establishing the link between the cultural policy and many of the broader issues relevant to culture being overseen by Australia Government departments other than those directly responsible for culture. This would be easier now because at the time of ‘Creative Australia’, the Arts area of the Australia Government was anywhere but in its previous home in the Department of Communications. Now it has finally returned to be part of the Department of Communications and the Arts, a new cultural policy could be linked to the Department’s responsibility for Australian content. As Creative Australia was being developed, it was originally going to incorporate more reference to the parallel 2012 Convergence Review being undertaken at the time, but this did not seem to eventuate.

‘Creative Australia’ for a brief period provided a window of opportunity for arts and culture issues to be considered on the main policy agenda where they belonged. The level of broad involvement by the Arts area of the Australian Government in whole of government issues was unprecedented for almost two years leading up to its launch. This shouldn’t be a rare event, something that only happens once in twenty years. Instead arts and culture should be permanently on the main agenda, an integral part of the consideration of all major policy issues.

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.

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.

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.

Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics – how population growth will magnify the impact of arts and culture cuts
‘I’ve said before that the traditional saying about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, should instead refer to ‘lies, damned lies and lies about statistics’. Cuts to national arts and cultural funding, while relatively small each year, have a cumulative effect far greater than at first appears and, in the long run, will undermine the effectiveness of national arts and culture support. Where the real disastrous impact of these cuts will hit home is when we also factor in the impact of population growth. If anything, there needs to be an expansion of arts and cultural funding to service the growth’, Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics – how population growth will magnify the impact of arts and culture 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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

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.

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.

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