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Election outcome: time to ask our democracy some questions

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The arts sector is not alone in being overlooked by the incoming federal government: they’re not greeting any of the critical industries with a responsible approach to policy.

Yet the impact on artistic practice of such neglect is significant.

And that’s not just the impact of not having a cultural policy. It’s the impact of not having any responsible approach to critical policy priorities that’s causing widespread concern for artists all over Australia.

Artists are questioning the value and the future of their practice in an Australia with no response to First Nations voice, culture and disadvantage, to the climate emergency, gender equity, violence against women, public health and education, asylum seekers, public broadcasting, public integrity, wages and fair pay.

Artists are deeply concerned about the prospects of sustaining a practice in an industry that’s been quite deliberately destabilised by the actions of the former minister for the arts – a senseless action whose damaging consequences have yet to be overcome.

Artists are deeply concerned about the prospects of sustaining a practice in an industry that’s been quite deliberately destabilised by the actions of the former minister for the arts – a senseless action whose damaging consequences have yet to be overcome. With urgent issues outstanding and no visible prospect of redressing them, the concern is real, and entirely understandable.

We can judge the democratic values of a society by the confidence of its artists to develop a practice, take creative risks and show new work. Artists who question the value and the sustainability of their work find it difficult to focus on that work with rigour and care. And in a sector where artists’ incomes and career prospects are already in decline, this is bad news for Australia.

Perhaps all of this plays into the hands of the incoming government? – but no, that’s not quite true. I’ve enjoyed excellent conversations with Liberal and National backbenchers over the years, in particular those with regional constituencies, and they’re in no doubt as to the value of the arts to their communities, schools and local economies.

Indeed, the Coalition values free speech and freedom of expression. But free speech for whom? To whom? And under what circumstances?

Five years ago the former minister for the arts infamously asserted “the right to be a bigot” as a way of expressing his commitment to free speech, in response to a question by First Nations woman and former Senator Nova Peris OAM. The Government has been consistent in tolerating and indeed amplifying hate speech, in particular racism, so it’s clear that this kind of expression is welcomed.

What about free expression toward the public good? That’s not so welcome. Recently the Australian Government has been working on curtailing public advocacy on matters that are “contrary to government policy” – and yet the most important advocacy is that which is contrary to public policy. It can ensure a First Nations voice in the constitution, or reject the White Australia Policy, or prevent deaths from smoking, or support people with disability, or even end wars.

What about freedom of expression for artists? Artists who acted on their conscience to speak out about the ethics of a festival’s sponsorship arrangements were attacked for their “vicious ingratitude” by one of the Government’s former prime ministers. So incensed was the Government just one group of artists that they chose to undermine the entire arts sector by devastating the Australia Council’s new strategic plan and slashing investment in artists by over $100m.

Yes that’s five years ago, but sadly, as a nation characterised by the policies we implement, we have not moved on.

Deliberate choices have been made to prioritise – to privilege – some kinds of free expression above others.

Deliberate choices have been made to prioritise – to privilege – some kinds of free expression above others.

We won’t be seeing a national cultural policy under this government; it’s not a priority, and nor does it align with their values.

But while we won’t be seeing such a policy in writing, we will continue to see on a daily basis the indicators of what their cultural policy really is.

It’s one that rejects a First Nations voice to Parliament.

It’s one that ridicules the climate emergency, spends half a billion dollars to champion culture as conquest, passes white supremacist Senate motions, and uses asylum seeker funds for photo opportunities.

It’s not a written cultural policy, but it says a lot about the culture of the nation.

It’s essential that all of us have exactly this conversation with our local members. Is this how they understand Australia’s cultural policy? Is this the culture they hope will inspire our respect? Is this where our artists are supposed to draw their inspiration?

We’ve got a lot of good work to do to reframe the national conversation about where Australia’s going. And we don’t have a moment to lose.

Meanwhile, artists may be deeply troubled by they’re getting on with it, creating the work that moves and invigorates us – as well as the work that stops us in our tracks, offering us timely ways to question our democracy anew.

3 responses to “Election outcome: time to ask our democracy some questions

  1. Are you The Lefts Andrew Bolt?
    Has political discourse only existed in Australia for the past 6 years?
    Labor have addressed none of the issues you raise either.
    Thinking that a Shorten government would have solved climate change, indigenous peoples disadvantages, poverty, education, health and the arts is either disingenuous or misguided.
    Pick yourselves up and work with the current government instead of whatever the hell it is you currently advocate, please.

    1. Great comment

      “BEWARE THE PREACHERS
      Beware The Knowers.
      […]
      BEWARE Those Quick To Censure:
      They Are Afraid Of What They Do
      Not Know”
      Bokowski

  2. Call me a ScoMo-Phobe but the Morrison Government is going to be a circle of hell for many Australians. The independent arts community can expect nothing but the worst kind of oppressive and suppressive tactics. We’re talking Cold War East Germany.

    But what is possibly of equal concern is the feeling toward the broader populace from the artistic sector, particularly in those states that showed as much regard for artistic value as environmental value.

    How does one engage with and expend talent and energy for an openly dismissive and antagonistic audience … and does one even want to ???

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