Sunday, December 11, 2022

Revisiting the island to the North – a nearby foreign country

Many years ago sitting by a roaring fire in a wintry pub in the Central Highlands of Tasmania, I read that Tasmanians liked to call Australia ‘the Island to the North’. I’m a long-term Tasmanian-in-exile, so it’s interesting to think about Australia in the 21st century, as someone who hails from that tiny Southern island, looking at its much bigger neighbour as an immigrant.

The orange rocks of the Bay of Fires - close to where the island to the North and the island to the South were once joined

Living on the mainland I travel the back lanes of this unusual country, marvelling at the people. They speak a strange language, not all that different to Tasmanian, though I am aware that Tasmania has many languages – as does the island to the North. Deciphering them is the challenge. We are neighbours but sometimes I wonder if I am behind enemy lines.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Cool little capital - the ambition to make Canberra Australia's creative city

Arts policy in the ACT has been more miss than hit, even though intentions have been good and there have been some worthwhile achievements. Unfortunately often the achievements don’t seem to have sprung from an overall vision of a consolidated strategic policy, which has meant that their full value hasn’t been harnessed. There has been a history of consultation stalling and not producing fruitful results. However, the ambition is currently there and building on some of the previous work, there may finally be a policy that focuses support for the arts and links it to the broader landscape of culture and creativity - if only all the interlinked components can be recognised and implemented.

The history of arts policy – let alone any sort of broader policy about culture or creativity ­– has been an uneven one in the ACT. There’s been a succession of Arts Ministers, the last two of whom – Dr Chris Bourke and Gordon Ramsay – each made valuable contributions in their own way. Chris Bourke in particular established a long-running history of support by the ACT Government for ground-breaking DESIGN Canberra. Gordon Ramsay hinted at a vision by the ACT Government for a broader view of creativity and culture linked to creative industries just before the 2020 ACT election in which he lost his seat. Before them there was also an earlier consultation process to develop a new arts policy in 2015, which didn’t produce much in the way of new useful outcomes.

Craft ACT stall at DESIGN Canberra, it's major public initiative

Now Tara Cheyne, an energetic Arts Minister with strategic vision, has overseen the launch of a new, considerably improved policy, ‘Canberra: Australia’s Arts Capital – Arts, Culture and Creative Policy 2022–2026’. This means we currently have a national process underway to produce a National Cultural Policy to succeed the 2013 Creative Australia policy and complementing that at local level a recently-announced ACT arts policy. How the two policies might intersect will be an interesting question. It seems an ideal opportunity to revisit some of the critical elements that help ensure the success or otherwise of any policy aiming to foster creativity, culture or the arts.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Another bite of the cherry - revisiting a national cultural policy

When the last national cultural policy was being finalised in 2012, more than 43% of the Australian population or at least one of their parents were born overseas. Now, as its successor is being developed after a cultural policy vacuum of more than nine years, that figure has been superseded, with over half the population or at least one of their parents born overseas. This makes a strong focus on the dynamic promise of our cultural diversity essential for any successful policy. Unfortunately, the main shortcoming of the previous policy was that it didn’t make this focus as strong as it needed to be, which was a pity because the policy was otherwise very good and comprehensive.

Recently I opened the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend magazine to discover that Australia is now ‘the first English-speaking, migrant-majority nation, the only one on the planet, with 29.2 per cent of our population born overseas and 21.6 per cent born here with at least one migrant parent’. This is based on data from the 2021 census, so it may already have been overtaken. When the last National Cultural Policy, ‘Creative Australia’ was being developed, the available data indicated that more than 43% of the Australian population were either born overseas or had a parent who was. Given the lag in collecting and analysing data, those figures were almost certainly out of date at the time. 

The Aboriginal Memorial at the National Gallery of Australia - one of the great cultural treasures of Australia, now relocated to the heart of the Gallery.

Our cultural diversity, from the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, cultures and languages which underpin Australian culture, bolstered by waves of migration, is an important national asset. 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. It was developed after broad consultation – and that showed.

The new Albanese Government, and its Arts Minister Tony Burke, have been calling for submissions to help update the National Cultural Policy announced way back in 2013. Many organisations and individuals have been preparing submissions, reflecting the importance with which they view this process. The deadline is tomorrow and I've just added my own comments, informed by many decades of involvement across the breadth of the creative and cultural sector around Australia. They are also shaped by my previous role as Director of the National Cultural Policy Task Force which co-ordinated the development of 'Creative Australia', particularly the broad-ranging public and industry consultation. You can read my comments below.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

National Cultural Policy rises from dead to boost Australian arts, culture and creativity

A change in national Government means that much of the daily work of Government in keeping the country running continues as before, eased along by the continuity provided by the public service. However, there can also be drastic changes of direction and fresh starts and old and tested ideas reinvigorated. One area where this will certainly be the case is with Government support for Australian arts, culture and creativity, with consultation to update the policies in Creative Australia, the previous National Cultural Policy, getting underway without delay.

A change of Government, especially at a national level, can mark major changes in some areas and little in others. Most of the work Government does – essentially the everyday running of the country – often changes little from one Government to the next, no matter what the political flavour of the incoming Government. The long suffering public service continues to keep the ship afloat no matter how incompetent any particular Government may be.

Garma Festival 2008 East Arnhem Land

Promise and hope
However, left long enough incompetence can foil even the most diligent department and a change of Government can mark a fresh start in stagnant areas and energise a demoralised public service. There are likely to be many fresh starts in coming months, despite the hangover of debt and inertia inherited by the new Government. From my perspective, one of those areas of promise and hope is Government support for the arts, culture and creativity.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Talent time – Australian creativity in a global world

In an increasingly globalised world, Australian creative talent has been playing a leading international role for decades. Nowhere is that more apparent than with the Australian presence in the global film-making machine of Hollywood. One of Australia’s leading national cultural institutions has captured that phenomenon in a new exhibition about the role of Australians in Hollywood, celebrating iconic moments in contemporary Australian film and the people and stories that brought them to life.

Despite the wallowing by some Australians in insular inward-looking nostalgia and a backwards-looking yearning for a non-existent self-reliant Aussie past, for many decades Australian talent has been playing a central role in the global creative economy. 

The front entrance to the National Film and Sound Archive

Because the creative economy is based on content, it draws on, intersect with and contributes to Australia’s national and local culture and is a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world ­– it help channel those who write the stories, paint the pictures and dance the dances that tell our story. As part of Australia's culture sector and the cultural economy that derives from it, it shares the critical function of managing the meaning of Australia and what being Australian means. It is closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Labor election victory means renewed approach for Australian arts and culture support

Almost a decade of Coalition Government has ended, with a complex and ground-breaking result. During that long period the substantial and detailed work to develop a national cultural policy under the Rudd and then Gillard Labor Governments was sidelined. A strategic, comprehensive, long-term approach to support by national Government for Australian culture and creativity in its broadest sense was largely absent. Now we are likely to see a return – finally – to some of the central principles that underpinned ‘Creative Australia’, the blueprint that represented the Labor Government response to Australia’s creative sector.

Having been Director of the National Cultural Policy Task Force that coordinated the development of 'Creative Australia' under Crean and Gillard, I feel a great sense of deja vu this week - albeit looking back over almost ten years and a global pandemic. I can never say again that we don't live in interesting times – with all the consequences of that.

 A ground-shaking election means that there may be some important changes on the way for support for Australia’s arts and culture. I must admit that I had largely stopped commenting because at some point, you realise there is no more to be said about the same old, same old after almost a decade. Now we are likely to see a return to a revised blueprint that represented the Labor response to Australia’s creative sector ten years ago. Before the election, Shadow Arts Minister, Tony Burke, outlined what an incoming Labor Government would do for Australian arts and culture.

Election poster from New Zealand 2016

His most important comment was that ‘the first step is a comprehensive cultural policy.’ He went on to note that ‘a cultural policy isn’t simply an arts policy. Cultural policies have only been developed in Australia by Labor Governments. Paul Keating and his Arts Minister Michael Lee developed Creative Nation. Julia Gillard and her Arts Minister Simon Crean developed Creative Australia.’

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Driveway Dawn Services – reclaiming remembrance

I usually pass Anzac Day quietly, as befits remembrance. I try to avoid the flag waving and the speeches and the politicians – difficult as that is during an election. However, the day touches on so many issues that affect the future of Australia, that it always makes me think about where we have come from and where we are going. Lest we forget – or be doomed to repeat.

As Anzac day comes to an end for another year, I was thrilled to see the way communities have been reclaiming what has increasingly become a huge remembrance industry, beloved by politicians – especially in the middle of an election. Driveway Dawn Services, a short-term response to the global pandemic, could easily have slipped into history, once the pandemic changed shape. Fortunately they seem to have become part of a continuing history, taking the heart of remembrance back to families, friends and communities, where it all began.

Family connections
Anzac Day always makes me remember my five uncles, who all went to war to fight for a democratic way of life they believed in. They all served in World War 2 – on convoys to Russia, aboard motor torpedo boats in the Adriatic and in the air above Germany. Copying his big brothers, my father tried to join up too, but he was too young and his father refused to sign the papers – thankfully, or I might not be here.

The red poppies of Flanders

Most of my uncles were decorated, some more than once. One uncle was a navigator on the Lancaster bombers that fire-bombed Dresden. My mother-in-law was staying with relatives on the outskirts of Dresden that night and watched as the city burned. My uncle was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice. He used to joke that the casualties amongst bomber crew were so dire that they awarded medals to anyone who survived – though I’m sure they weren’t awarded for just turning up. Astoundingly, they all survived – when so many did not, including many they knew personally.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

The Asian Century was underway long before the British arrived

We are all used to being astounded as we see growing evidence of how widespread contact and trade was across the breadth of the ancient European world and with worlds far beyond. The Romans and the Vikings and many after them all roamed far and wide. This is the stuff of a hundred television documentaries that show just how interconnected the ancient world was. Connection, not isolation, has always been the norm. Seaways were bridges, not barriers – a way to bring people together, not divide them. Now important archaeological work confirms just how widespread that cross-cultural, international network was across the whole of Northern Australia, long before the British arrived.

For many years I worked in the Australian Government programs which supported the efforts by local communities across Australia to revive or keep thriving their First Nations languages and culture. As part of this I travelled to East Arnhem Land on several occasions to attend the long-running annual Garma Festival and visit the well-respected Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala. One of the first things that strikes you in East Arnhem Land is that you are far closer to Indonesia and Timor than you are to Perth or Sydney or Melbourne – or Tasmania, my original island home.

Ancient traditions of Aboriginal ceramics have contemporary equivalents. Ceramic pots by artist Tjimpuna Williams, Ernabella Arts Centre, in a DESIGN Canberra pop up mini exhibition, 2015. In a perfect example of cross-cultural and cross-national collaboration, the ceramics were created during a residency in Jingdezhen, China, in early 2015, with long-time Craft ACT member, Janet deBoos.

At the time the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, where I worked, was developing its important White Paper strategy, ‘Australia in the Asian Century’, under the leadership of Ken Henry. There’s no question it was an important marker for the future of Australia. This was when the first hints of what the Asian Century meant really began to appear. In East Arnhem Land I had heard about the close and long-running and amicable connections between the Macassans and the Yolngu people.

The Asian Century began long before our time
I became fascinated by discovering that the Asian Century had in fact commenced long before the British arrived. Much earlier than Cook, local Yolgnu communities in Northern Australia had formed long-running trade and cultural partnerships with the neighbouring Macassans from Sulawesi in what is now Indonesia. This was built on commerce but developed into far more. We might talk about the importance of the Asian Century but the Yolngu were already partnering with Asia long before Australia even existed.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Lifeblood of the creative sector – have your say on copyright reform

The Australian Government has released draft copyright reform legislation for comment, with input due soon. It is seeking feedback on the legislation, which will help the cultural, education, research and government sectors to provide services in a digital environment, and provide clear and reasonable access to copyright materials while maintaining the incentives and protections for content creators. As part of this, the Government is also reviewing other related copyright issues and wants comments on those as well.

The fact that we are still in the middle of a global pandemic and asking ourselves whether 2021 has actually ended and a new year begun is no good reason to ignore some of the important and pressing matters that keep arising. I discovered just before Christmas that the Australian Government had released for comment draft copyright reform legislation, with comments due in the New Year.

'It may not be mining but they mine a far richer seam – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value, just like our iron and coal.'  

Reforms to support content services in the digital age
I had to search far and wide to find information about it and in the end obtained my information initially from the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) website. ALIA sums it up, ‘The Federal Government is seeking feedback on draft copyright reform legislation, released on 22 December 2021. The copyright reforms will help the cultural, education, research and government sectors to provide services in a digital environment, and provide clear and reasonable access to copyright materials while maintaining the incentives and protections for content creators. ALIA, individually and through the Australian Libraries Copyright Coalition (ALACC) have been advocating strongly for reforms to support libraries in the digital age. The Government is also taking this opportunity to conduct a review of the technological protection measure (TPM) exceptions in the Copyright Regulations, as required by the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement, and is seeking input.’

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Revhead heaven – travelling together into the mobile future

Cars are at the heart of everyday Australian life. Even if they don’t interest you all that much, or even if you mainly use public transport, you probably also use a car regularly. The Sunday drive, the regional road tour, the daily commute are all as Australian as burnt toast and peeling sunburn. The annual Summernats road extravaganza in Australia’s national capital celebrates this mobile culture. With some imagination, it could be even more – celebrating a central, while challenging, part of contemporary Australian popular culture.

The annual Summernats four-day extravaganza of cars and loud revving motors has been a fixture on the Canberra calendar for as long as I’ve lived here – getting on for 22 years. Plenty of Canberrans hate Summernats because of the noise and the crowds and the petrol fumes. Whether they’d hate a large music festival as much is hard to tell. Maybe it’s the NIMBY syndrome – not in my back yard?

Interest in cars pops up in unexpected places. This one was on the traditional site of the Summernats event, EPIC (Exhibition Park in Canberra), but this was during the weekly Farmers Markets also held there.