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2010 election

wishlists on the way to policy

keith gallasch: national cultural policy discussion

Families Last Families Last
photo Deborah Kelly (copyleft)


As David Throsby has argued in "Does Australia Need a Cultural Policy?" (Platform Paper 7, Currency House, January, 2006) we need consistency, not "policy by review"—Nugent, Myer, Strong and the various 'initiatives' have come from pressured Arts Ministers, not from the Australia Council which then has to execute the initiatives. As Throsby points out it makes Ministers look simply "reactive," responding to problems, often inadequately, and then, as with the major performing arts organisations, having to address them again.

The difficult thing about major policies, like a Human Rights Charter or a national cultural policy, is that they can be expressed as well-intentioned grand generalities or, evasively, as mere motherhood statements. Interestingly, once Peter Garrett put out his 'over the summer holidays' request of ideas for a policy (closed Feb 1, 2010), most of the responses were not policies per se but funding and other strategic wishlists, if quite policy indicative ones.

Some writers who contributed to the discussion questioned the very notion of having a cultural policy: would it define our diverse cultures too narrowly?; allow for the revival of the Howard government's invocation of the 'un-Australian'?; limit artists’ right to agitate? Like those who object to having an Australian Human Rights Charter, some of these writers feared greater political and bureaucratic intrusion into and regulation of the arts. Other respondents saw a cultural policy as a means to cementing into place the hitherto uncertain standing of art in Australia. Some wished to redefine art, making it one part of the creative industries. One writer argued that art is irrelevant to the cultural lives of many Australians.

The majority of responses focused on the plight of individual artists and organisations in the 'small to medium' sector, the lack of a pervasive arts policy in the education realm, extensive regional disadvantage, shortage of artist workspaces, constrained library and other collections and limited arts coverage on ABC TV.

Writers saw potential correctives in the shape of private sector investment in the arts (through means similar to film funding tax rebate mechanisms); greater pressure to promote philanthropy for the arts; the redistribution to the small to medium sector of funding allocated for major arts institutions; audience development campaigns; improved television reporting and wider access to the arts through digital media; the creation of artist-specific tax and unemployment benefit schemes (side-stepped when Garrett introduced Artstart); and support for more art-led urban renewal ventures like Renew Newcastle. A few respondents argued that if we are to have a national cultural policy, a discrete Ministry for Culture & the Arts would be warranted. Garrett is Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts, but the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts covers a number of portfolios in which, as Christopher Madden has commented, the arts sector is a small player ("In defence of the Australia Council," ArtsHub, August 2

Central to the online discussion and subsequent debate is a desire for guaranteed equitable access, socially and geographically, to the means to enjoy, participate in and make art. Let's hope that the pressure currently applied to the major political parties to develop a national cultural policy persists beyond an election that is not likely to resolve the matter. Let's hope too that Australians can move towards acknowledging that the arts are not discrete from culture, but are integral to it, nurturing and making culture. Just because more Australians are engaged with art does not mean that this understanding is inherent.

For a brief guide to books, essays and online material go to: A short guide: national cultural policy

Deborah Kelly is a leading Australian arts activist whose works include Tank Man Tango: A Tiananmen Memorial Families Last was made in 2010 in response to antigay pronouncements from Family First candidates

RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 pg. web

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

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