In this edited extract from Currency House’s Platform Papers, the cultural economist David Throsby, a Distinguished Professor of Economics at Macquarie University, reviews Australia’s fraught attempts to deliver a sustainable, wide-ranging arts and cultural policy – and on the eve of Budget 2018, points to where we could go from here.
The last national cultural policy was in 2013, when then arts minister Simon Crean launched ‘Creative Australia’, the country’s first comprehensive cultural policy since Paul Keating’s ‘Creative Nation’ 20 years earlier. It was buried by the incoming Abbott Government and since then cultural policy, and more specifically arts policy and its instrument the Australia Council, have been ignored when the Council wasn’t being attacked by Abbott- era arts minister George Brandis.
In this paper for Currency, Arts, Politics, Money: Revisiting Australia’s Cultural Policy launched last night in Sydney, Throsby reassesses the arts within wider cultural industries here and in Britain, the role the arts can play in soft diplomacy and their centrality to the development of remote Indigenous communities.
Throsby is especially critical of how political neglect and posturing have robbed Australia’s book industry and heritage sector of good governance. He also has pointers for the Australia Council for the Arts and in the extract below concludes with a list of ideas for the current Minister for the Arts, Senator Mitch Fifield.
BY DAVID THROSBY
Does Australia need a cultural policy?
We went through the business of formulating one in 2011-2013, but since then much has changed in the arts and in the cultural arena more generally. In the former area, developments include: there has been a succession of changes in the Federal Government’s rationale for providing public support for the arts; the means for delivering arts funding have been restructured; the circumstances of individual artists have fluctuated but have shown little improvement; the small-to-medium sector in the performing arts remains a powerhouse of ideas but is desperately underfunded; and there is no clear policy direction in dealing with the creative economy or managing the impacts of digital disruption on cultural industries.
At the wider cultural level, the change of government in 2013 brought with it new perceptions of Australian cultural values that were affected partly by nostalgia for the sort of cultural attitudes of earlier conservative administrations, and partly by global developments in which many accepted cultural norms were challenged if not overthrown. In this period we saw increased conflict over a range of issues with cultural implications ranging from immigration to the treatment of Indigenous Australians.
An opportunity exists for some government action focused more narrowly on the arts, an area where policy has been subject to far too much uncertainty in recent years.
Thinking about cultural policy means reflecting on the nature of what Australian culture is, and in our constantly changing society this is a continuing necessity. Cultural policy doesn’t have to be a document, the result of a formal process as it was in 1994 with Creative Nation, or again in 2013 with Creative Australia. It could be a more fluid and dynamic discussion, constantly re-invigorating debate and questioning the directions in which our cultural life was heading. So I am suggesting that, rather than another policy document at this time, we need to initiate a new and broadly based national conversation, an update, a re-think about who we are and where we are going.
In ideal circumstances Creative Australia would provide an excellent starting point for such a conversation. It is by no means a universally admired document, but the framework that it puts forward does provide an overview of the field that can be seen to rise above Party politics. Indeed its proposition that Australian culture is the embodiment of the distinctive values, traditions and beliefs that make being Australian in the 21st century unique—democratic, diverse, adaptive and grounded in one of the world’s oldest living civilisations, is one that is likely to be generally accepted, regardless of political leaning.
However, a proposal to start up a wide-ranging rumination on our culture and its values at this present time is most unlikely to appeal to the Prime Minister or his Cabinet, given the cultural conflicts that keep re-surfacing within the Coalition’s own ranks, the Government’s apparent lack of interest in the area, and its preoccupation with issues they would see as having higher priority. However, a debate about matters of relevance to a cultural policy does not have to be promoted by government. Indeed public discussion about all aspects of our culture and its values has a life of its own, and will continue without the need for government intervention.
Nevertheless, there must be some possibilities for government action in the cultural policy space. An alternative opportunity exists for some timely government action focused more narrowly on the arts, an area where policy has been subject to far too much uncertainty in recent years.
The Minister for the Arts, Senator Mitch Field, has shown a keen interest in the arts sector and concern for its problems—perhaps he could be persuaded that to press the re-set button on arts policy would be a shrewd move on his part. He could initiate a fresh look at the present state of the creative arts in Australia, now that the assaults of the last few years have receded. It would be a way for him to further his engagement with the arts community, and enhance his own profile, with a relatively modest investment of public money to make it happen. In political terms, it would help him counter the common misperception that only the Labor and Green sides of politics support the arts.
He could do this by putting together a policy package of measures and announce them as setting some new directions for arts policy. They could be sold to the public as an initiative to improve the ways in which the Government and the Minister facilitate the production, distribution and consumption of the arts in Australia, to the benefit of communities across the length and breadth of the country. He will have his own ideas of what might be included, but here are some suggestions for components for a new arts policy package, derived from discussion in this paper:
- A recalibration and expansion of the artist-in-residence programs in schools;
- A forum or series of forums on arts funding, perhaps including a broad discussion of the role of peer assessment in evaluating grant applications;
- In conjunction with the Cultural Ministers’ Statistics Working Group, persuade the ABS to re-establish the National Centre for Culture and Recreation Statistics;
- A program to increase funding for art centres in remote communities to enable expansion in their support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts in all areas of art practice;
- Re-establishment of the Cultural Industries Innovation Centre;
- Set up a feasibility study to consider the establishment of a Heritage Lottery Fund.
So much for formal policy measures. At the same time the Minister could look to some simpler, more immediate and relatively inexpensive ideas that could reinvigorate public awareness and appreciation of the creative arts, and celebrate the ways in which engaging with the arts can lift our collective spirits. Some suggestions are: an open day/night in theatres, galleries, entertainment venues etc. across the country with free entry and top artists involved, including random appearances or performances by artists in public places such as shopping malls, city streets, etc. linked to an overall theme that art can be fun; a range of local programs in metropolitan and rural/ regional cities and towns to get people/families engaged in creative activity—music, drama, writing, dance etc.; a Celebrate-the-Arts Day in Parliament House; provision of support for starting up Indigenous art fairs in some cities to complement those held in Darwin, Cairns and Adelaide; some surprising initiatives in international cultural/diplomatic relations, such as sending one of our major performing companies to North Korea; and an open day giving public access to historic government buildings.
Some of these suggestions may be quixotic, but they are all practical proposals for raising the national profile of the arts. They would complement the many existing activities such as festivals and public events and have a similar impact. For a small investment they could yield an immediate payout in public engagement and cultural participation.
What of the longer term? If it is true that articulation of a more comprehensive cultural policy is unlikely to interest government at the present time, is there any prospect of this in the future? For instance, the next time the Labor Party wins office, the idea of a national cultural policy might well be return to the table. The new Minister could retrieve Creative Australia from the filing cabinet, dust it off, and consider how much of it would be still relevant five or six years on. Certainly Tony Burke, the Minister who took over briefly from Simon Crean, declared his full support for the document at the time. The Party might still feel the same way. If so, the new conversation about where we are and where we are going could take on a much more ambitious agenda.