Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Arts In Australia

An abridged version of this story was published in the October 2011 issue of Rolling Stone, the original version being cut due to the " dept needing more pages."  Here, the original is printed in full.

Illustration - which appeared with the abridged version in
the October issue of Rolling Stone - by Rocco Fazzari

In early May this year, Treasurer Wayne Swan handed down his fourth federal budget, one which included, amongst other things, “sweeping funding cuts” designed to bring the deficit back to surplus by the year 2013, a bold move and one which was met, predictably, with both praise and strong opposition.  2007’s Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was the catalyst for this tactical decision, and as such, despite the fact Australia was the only western country to avoid the crippling effects of the GFC, these cuts will be felt across the board, at least in the short term.

One area which escaped relatively lightly however was the Arts, even receiving a modest increase according to Federal Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean.  Conceivably, this suggests that Arts funding was never that high to begin with, but regardless (and perhaps surprisingly), the Arts is looking comparatively solid, particularly with the imminent release of some potentially compelling policy.  “The GFC did have a huge impact,” Crean concurs.  “But you’ve got to keep building, and that’s what we do.”

Building is indeed what the current Labor government is looking to do, an outcome (albeit a belated one) of the 2020 Summit held in April 2008, being as Crean says, “to develop a cultural policy”.  This comes at a time that, according to Kathy Keele – CEO of peak Arts funding body, the Australia Council – is crucial to Arts in Australia.  “Over the past ten years, there’s been an awful lot of work finding out whether artists are making a living, identifying what organisations we have and how healthy they are,” she says.

“Now that we’ve done that, we do need to look forward and say, ‘Look, I think most people do read and attend music, they’re well educated and there’s a lot more Arts in their education, so lets talk now about how the Arts are embedded in our society and how they help us develop communities’.” 

The result here, of the 2020 Summit and subsequent “ongoing discussions” with “cultural institutions”, is the proposed National Cultural Policy (NCP), something Crean has been quoted as saying is his “number one priority as Arts Minister”.

Federal Minister for the Arts, Simon
“The National Cultural Policy is the opportunity to define the importance of a Creative Arts to the development of a stronger, more sustainable, more self-confident nation,” he explains.  “The Arts and the creative industries are fundamental to a nation continuing to develop that innovative, creative edge. 

“So I want the Cultural Policy to be a statement about us, to define us as a proud, confident and expressive nation,” he adds.  “And also a nation that because of its innovation and creative drive, can match it with anyone in the world.  Not only match it, but better it.”

Executive Director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Groups (AMPAG) Sue Donnelly, along with Keele, is very supportive of an NCP, but she brings up a very pertinent point: “We haven’t heard very much at all in terms of what’s going to be in there,” she told me early in August, and this is indeed a very telling statement – not many people have been told what the NCP will entail exactly.  This is made all the more alarming when you take into account the fact Minister Crean has stated that the government is looking to implement this policy “by year’s end”.

When pressed to expand further, to explain what, exactly, the policy will entail then, (is it a charter that will provide specific funding to certain groups? Will it create support networks for the arts? Or is it just a statement of intent to support certain organisations and areas within the arts?), Crean’s office said (amongst other things), “A renewed National Cultural Policy will ensure Australia doesn’t miss important opportunities to tell our stories, educate and skill our workforce and enable our culture to connect with the rest of the world.”  This does not answer the question, and despite the fact Crean’s office has been given several chances to aptly explain, no viable answer has been forthcoming, not even in the Senate.

“I wanted to ask about the National Cultural Policy that the government announced it was going to develop at the last election, which no one seems to know much about in subsequent estimates hearings,” Senator Gary Humphries, the Liberal Senator for the ACT asked, quite pertinently, during the May Senate Estimate Hearings, and there were more than just a few people quietly agreeing with him. 

The idea for this particular National Cultural Policy (the first since the Keating government’s Creative Nation in 1994) was first raised at the 2020 Summit over three years ago.  The resulting report had the proposed NCP as something “… the government will further consider”.  From there, the idea was taken up by now ex-Arts Minister Peter Garrett, but reading now through Hansard, the official record of parliament, it would seem not a great deal more has happened since. 

I asked about this in the October estimates last year and was told that work was going on,” Senator Humphries again noted during the May Senate Estimate Hearings.  “I asked again in February and they said more work is going on. I am told now that even in May of this year, there is no formal role for involving the Australia Council… We are cutting it a bit fine, are we not, to start the formal process of work on this, presumably by some sort of consultative process with formal input from agencies, in the middle of the year?”

A very good question indeed, and one which Minister Crean’s office was again unable to answer specifically.  It almost seems Labor are looking to quickly capitalise on an election promise, favouring speed over quality – talk is cheap after all, and even then, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of it, not in the public arena anyway. 

In an effort to rectify this then, the government released a discussion paper in early August, which the accompanying media release explained was, “The next step… taking all previous submissions into account, and is consulting widely to ensure that the National Cultural Policy reflects the interests and aspirations of all Australians.” 

It is this paper, along with the Mitchell Report (a report being put together by philanthropist Harold Mitchell, investigating corporate sponsorship of the Arts), that will no doubt inform the eventual NCP, but is it coming a little too late? Deputy Opposition Leader for the Senate (and Shadow Arts Minister) George Brandis’ office says, “...the arts community should view the instrumentalist approach which underlies the discussion paper with skepticism and alarm.”  I would view it as a good idea which at this point, seems to have no structure, it seems to be rushed, and this is folly indeed.

Added to this is the fact Minister Crean cannot outline any specific outcomes of the NCP, and this is quite alarming.  For what good is a cultural policy that this late in the game, has no specific outcomes, and indeed, no specific outline? The NCP must be one of the most thought through, thorough and deeply considered pieces of policy in recent times; this is not the time to hastily fulfil a promise, this is surely a time to think carefully before we act – the NCP must reach the high standard all Australians demand, and deserve.

Samuel J. Fell

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