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Election art fears & side effects

Keith Gallasch: The Arts & the 2013 Election

Oscillation between deepening despair and jittery anxiety has been replaced by a sense of numb hopelessness in the last week of the 2013 federal government election campaign. If it weren’t for’s First Dog on the Moon and other doses of wisdom from that publication, The Conversation and Mungo McCallum in The Monthly, insanity might have ensued.

In contrast, the ABC’s ever-cautious entertainments, Gruen Nation and the tirelessly undergrad The Chaser, offer only mild relief. Perhaps one day we’ll have our own brave equivalents of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Meanwhile, with the polls having ‘determined’ the election outcome, hopelessness is slowly being usurped by fear of the election aftermath.

Peak panic

On the arts front, after all the hard yards peak organisations, companies, groups and individuals had put into debating the construction of the Creative Australia National Cultural Policy and the future of the Australia Council, a sense of impending doom has manifested late in the election campaign. Would the millions promised the arts via an expanded Australia Council be subject to an Abbott government’s austerity measures? [Among ‘austerity’ critics is US graduate economics student Thomas Herndon who famously revealed ‘austerity economics’ to be a fraudulent notion. Austerity has further weakened GFC-blitzed countries by pulling massive numbers of people out of economies that need empowered citizens, consumers and, not least, taxpayers. Queensland and New South Wales have already come to that Neoliberal party.] Despite Shadow Arts Minister George Brandis’ assurances that he’s not about to disappear the Australia Council, anxiety is widely felt in the arts community. We all know the Black Hole ruse only too well.

A “new arts coalition,” comprising Australian Major Performing Arts Group, Australian Performing Arts Centres Association, AUSDANCE, Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, Performing Arts Touring Alliance, Regional Arts Australia and Theatre Network Victoria has put it to the Coalition that the increased funding to the Australia Council be retained; all arts grant funding be fully indexed and the efficiency dividend dropped; national touring be increased; international cultural relationships developed; and the “industry connection with the education and training sector” be strengthened. If Abbott wins I imagine that the first of these requests is the only one likely to be met (pending the size of said ‘Black Hole’) but under what conditions, with Brandis already having declared the Council too Sydney and Melbourne oriented?

At the Blacktown Arts Centre in a one-off debate about arts funding with Arts Minister Tony Burke, Brandis declared, “Arts policy—and public money invested in the arts—have too often rewarded inwardness, mediocrity and political correctness, in the name of avoiding the elitist tag.” As Ben Eltham argued in his report on the debate in ArtsHub, Brandis’ aversion to ‘politically correct’ work doesn’t connect with his commitment to artistic freedom, his aversion to the inner city arts predominance doesn’t mesh with his high arts focus and his Hansard-documented proposal that “a direction by the Minister will in all cases prevail over a direction by the Board,” bodes ill in terms of ministerial influence—although the shadow minister said that it would not affect funding decisions.

Keep moving regardless: A Ministry of Culture

Griffith Review Editor Julianne Schultz at a Currency House (the publisher of Platform Papers) Art and Public Life Breakfast on 14 August adopted a long-term view, arguing for the establishment of a Ministry of Culture (instead of the arts being tossed from mixed portfolio to mixed portfolio government to government). She acknowledges that “The intersection of politics, authority and culture makes us nervous about being directed by the state,’ but, if we are to fully recognize the importance of culture “as an essential pillar…for any successful society or civilization” then we must do more than pay it lip service or having it “tacked on to another ministry.”

Schultz points to the way in which “thirty years ago [the environment] was not something that was valued, now it is.” Similarly, “the cultural economy is now significant; it reaches into everyone’s life every day…” She adds, “[D]epending on the personal commitment and interest of the Minister [for the Arts] is good, but not sufficient. It runs the risk of maintaining a patronage model, which rarely transcends subsistence.” A key advantage of having a Ministry of Culture says Schultz, is the opportunity it provides for negotiating with other ministries and departments, many of which invest in art and culture in various ways.” There is currently no cohesion:

“At the moment not even all the national collecting institutions answer to the same minister, heritage is in environment, cultural diplomacy and UNESCO are in DFAT, industry assistance for the creative industries is in innovation and climate change, tourism and sport are elsewhere, trade is not linked in any consistent way, broadcasting is in broadband and the digital economy, there are programs in education and health, and regional affairs funds the building cultural facilities and gives prizes for regional arts. And this is just the beginning. There are cultural activities and arts programs in immigration, Indigenous, communities and other departments—even defence spends hundreds of millions a year on cultural activities.”

Following the Government’s adoption of a national cultural policy and the re-shaping of the Australia Council, Schultz’s proposal is a welcome and logical one although it is hard to imagine a Coalition Government establishing a Ministry of Culture—the title likely to bristle with Soviet era connotations for some. Artists might worry that such a ministry could be tempted to exercise authority by intervening in the (already diminishing) arm’s length funding procedures and policy making exercised by the Australia Council and Screen Australia.

Julianne Schultz delivered her paper at a time when the arts were getting little if any traction in election campaigning. Every little bit counts, even this likely very contentious long-term proposal.

Arts overshadowed

I guess that many of us naively hoped that the arts were in a stronger and safer position as a result of the Creative Australia outcomes. Most of us have doubtless been focused on anxieties about health, education, employment, the low profile of the environment and the major parties’ race to the bottom (no moral compass needed) in dealing with the refugee issue in the most disgracefully self-serving campaign I can recall.

There was a glimmer of hope for TAFE in Kevin Rudd’s apparently off-the-cuff suggestion that the federal government take it over—doubtless too late for arts teachers in TAFE NSW and the hundreds of other TAFE teachers gone in Victoria while the country cries out for skilled labour.

Be afraid

The Coalition has charged the Labor Party with running a scare campaign about austerity cuts. Why shouldn’t we be afraid if we have such a limited idea of the extent of Coalition budget cuts?

The time has come for the public to demand that budgets be delivered no less than four weeks before the election date, and that they be costed by Treasury and not outsourced in a calculated, dogmatically Neoliberal attempt to convince the people of Australia that their Public Service is not trustworthy.

I do live in fear—of unnecessary and cruel austerity measures, for what they will do to the already poor, those who will join them, the unemployed and the marginally employed, many of them artists. I also worry about refugees, the environment, whoever wins, and I’m anxious about a B-grade NBN, unable to adequately serve businesses and especially the arts.

These accumulated concerns make it very difficult to think in terms of making an ‘art vote,’ not least because Labor and the Coalition’s responses to refugees and the environment are equally deplorable.

The arts vote

Artists and artsworkers I’ve spoken with agree that Labor has a comprehensive arts policy and welcome the $235 million Creative Australia already being allocated by the Australia Council and Screen Australia. The Coalition has no clear plan, let alone figures. Brandis says, “Whatever economies there are in the portfolio will be modest and will be apparent from the costings…I think people in the arts who listened to Mr Burke’s scare campaign will be very happy.”

From what I’ve been hearing, not a few artists—and their audiences—will vote Green where they can and spurn Labor in their disapproval of the party’s asylum seekers and environmental policies. They assume that whatever the Coalition does, much of what Labor has made will stay intact even if trimmed. Although censorious, elitist and inclined to interference (witness the Melba Foundation multi-million dollar direct funding scandal), LNP governments have had enough arts sympathisers among their supporters in the past to require them to maintain and even grow arts funding.

Should artists have lobbied more strongly during the campaign? Marcus O’Donnell writes in The Conversation, “the arts lobby seems to be missing in action this election, and secondly, given most publications have arts editors and arts sections this area ought to have been given more coverage.” The new “arts coalition” certainly came late on the scene, if with large representation, and Julianne Schultz’s proposal for a Ministry of Culture offered politicians a significant policy opportunity which, however, they were unlikely to pick up. As for media coverage Artshub and especially (as O’Donnell points out) The Australian, have provided recurrent coverage. But there has been little else.

Even had there been a more active arts lobby and wider media coverage of arts policies during the election campaign I suspect that ‘arts voters’ would, to put it bluntly, be voting about more than the arts. Art is about more than art.

Getting hysterical

As politics and opinion making become increasingly un-nuanced and absolutist, hysteria ensues. But having a good laugh or a copious weep, or both at once, can provide relief. My daily solace comes in the form of First Dog on the Moon. My favourite pre-campaign episode (among many like Night of the Living Rudd) features the retiring Black Caviar who insists, to everyone’s surprise, on having her lips sewn up (as did Mike Parr) in sympathy with imprisoned asylum seekers who had done just that. What First Dog says about Australian sporting and anthropomorphic inclinations, protest and politics, and performance art, is complexly funny and sad.

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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