Election 2019: Could cultural change be only days away?

How do the major political parties understand Australia’s culture and what vision do they offer for our future asks Esther Anatolitis, the executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts.

We’ve got Labor who’ve launched a comprehensive policy after extensive consultation; the Greens, who’ve released a considered policy without a launch nor consultation; and then the Liberals, no policy, no consultation.

Of course, just because a policy’s not in writing, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. While the Liberal Party have not made any specific announcements and have no policy on their website, commitments in the Budget include $498 million  to redevelop the Australian War Memorial, $50 million towards a Captain Cook statue on the site of First Nations peoples’ first encounter, and also some tourism measures outside of the arts portfolio.

These commitments celebrate the culture of colonial and military Australia, creating enduring symbols that foster pride in conflict and conquest as definitive of the Australian identity. Added to the culture wars, the race-baiting and the more recent outing of News Corp’s blatant bias, it’s little wonder that several of the party’s candidates are styling themselves ‘Modern Liberals’ – and little wonder that their backbenchers are leaking their own arts and cultural values and priorities to industry colleagues.

The Greens’ policy, A Creative Australia, recommits to their long-held principles on arts and culture by addressing fair pay for artists, games development and artists in schools. There’s also an ambitious commitment to create a $10 million a year “multi-disciplinary Creativity Commission to provide oversight, advice and structural support to the creative sector and beyond.” This would establish a much-needed independent body to offer valuable public advocacy and strategic direction across economic, education and social policy, bolstering a cross-government approach to arts and culture.

The Greens’ commitments address the supports that artists need to make great new work, including making sure that artists are supported by a living wage. To achieve this, they propose a Living Arts Fund as an opt-in scheme for “an income subsidy equal to the difference between [artists] other income and a living wage.”

A surprising proviso – one that would most certainly have benefited from consultation – is that the Living Arts Fund “will own a small share of every creative work produced by the participating artist, and have a non-binding right of first bid if and when it is sold.”

This mechanism is entirely unworkable: just begin to imagine how it could apply in practice across all artforms. Worse, it seems to want to inscribe an element of mutual obligation, describing that small-share ownership as being “in exchange” for access to a living wage. The flaw here is fundamental in principle. That exchange has already taken place: the artist is already making a massive contribution to the Australian culture by going about the work of being an artist. Cultural policies recognise this, ensuring that governments give back to the artist, not the other way around.

“The arts is a political issue,” Bill Shorten said last Saturday – and he’s right.

At Labor’s cultural policy launch last Saturday, Thomas Keneally illustrated this point with elegant cynicism: “Gough Whitlam once said to me, ‘Maestro, we knew if we gave you jokers a few dollars we’d get it all back in tax revenues’.”

The Labor policy draws on the values of their 2013 Creative Australia, itself the outcome of rigorous national consultation involving every element of the sector. This time fairness is foregrounded as a key policy objective, committing to “lead by example and make sure that government and publicly funded organisations have written policies on artist payment. Labor will also explore a standard for industry fees and end ‘exposure’ as a form of payment.”

The policy demonstrates Labor’s understanding of the threats to artists’ careers, committing to strengthen copyright, review the way grants are taxed, ensure Centrelink recognition and work towards achieving a living wage.

The need for this is urgent. The numbers of visual artists and craft practitioners are declining, and so are their incomes – both overall incomes, which are 21% below the average wage, and the incomes professional artists derive exclusively from creative work, which are below the poverty line and have dropped 19% in seven years.

Despite working longer and harder than ever before, more and more artists are living precariously, artist-run and commercial galleries have closed all over Australia, it’s taking longer for artists to become established, philanthropy is at peak demand, and the gender pay gap is worse in the arts than in any other industry.

Increases in public investment are needed to support institutions in meeting their responsibilities towards artists, which makes Labor’s commitment to restore funding to the Australia Council all the more important so as to strengthen the entire industry. And more is needed. The Greens also support restoring and indexing funding to the Australia Council “at a scale and ambition that reflects Australia’s commitment to and participation in the arts.” This is good news for artists and also for the sector that develops and presents their work.

Both Labor and the Greens have made clear commitments to accessibility, cultural diversity and regional arts. Labor will work to embed the arts in education and review the Major Performing Arts Framework for fairer funding that includes more artforms. Labor has also committed to end the trade in fake ‘Aboriginal’ style art that undermines artists’ incomes and harms culture – a commitment shared by the Greens – as well as investing in First Nations’ galleries, languages, dance and a national Indigenous theatre company.

So what kind of cultural change does Australia need most right now? Because it’s just days away. What will we choose? The kind of cultural change that rejects environmental lies, normalised racism and crass politics? The kind that publicly expresses confidence in our artists to create our future?

Many years ago, a state arts minister told me that arts and cultural polices are important because they have a “civilising” effect. I laughed – I couldn’t help myself; my first thought was: “What a horribly colonial thing to say.” And yet now, when I look at the character of today’s civil society, I wonder.

Perhaps we do need the arts to civilise us. We certainly need to stop and listen to 80,000 years of history, as Rachael Maza so powerfully put it when she spoke at the Labor launch. There’s a lot for us all to learn from all of our First Nations about environmental futures, cultural harmony and ethical politics.

“The arts is a political issue,” Bill Shorten said last Saturday – and he’s right. A cultural policy puts into writing the most challenging things about our how we foster our identities, tell our stories and live with one another. It invests in the ideas and the work that it can’t even imagine yet. And it champions the voice of the artist in our schools, public spaces and gathering places.

It takes courage to create and commit to such a policy. We need that kind of courage strengthening public life. Urgently.

3 responses to “Election 2019: Could cultural change be only days away?

  1. Depends what you mean …

    Prepare for the public broadcasters to be sold off quick smart !

    And the end of many cultural institutions altogether …

    That would a cultural change, I guess …

  2. The bipartisan ideology which shapes her view of the Coalition’s few arts initiatives can hardly be termed an objective assessment. One expects better from NAVA.

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