By Miriam Williamson
The position of the arts in the Australian political landscape has ebbed and flowed over time.
In early May this year the arts sector waited with anticipation for the launch of the National Cultural Policy, due to be launched the week of the 2012-13 budget, only to be disappointed it had become victim of the federal budget surplus.
Prior to this, Australia’s only national policy with a vision for the arts and culture was Creative Nation introduced by then Prime Minister, Paul Keating in 1996. Unfortunately when he lost government 18 months later, the policy was shelved.
The process of developing a National Cultural Policy has been unusually long, dating back to 2007 when then Shadow Minister for the Arts, Peter Garrett included it as a component of the Australian Labour Party’s New Directions for the Arts.
On taking the arts portfolio in 2010 Arts Minister, Simon Crean has been far from complacent. The arts portfolio, Office of the Arts, is now advantageously placed within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
In August 2011 the Minister released the National Cultural Policy discussion paper, calling for comment. Hundreds of responses were received, 378 of which can be viewed on the National Cultural Policy site. The number and breadth of submissions reflects the sector and community’s enthusiasm for a new policy.
As part of the consultation process a cultural policy reference group was formed, made up of 21 significant people representing a range of interests from across the arts and government.
The National Cultural Policy will provide the framework for government support for the arts, culture and creative industries for ten years. It is anticipated the policy will now be released later this year.
On 13 May, the report on the independent review of the Australia Council was released, producing 18 recommendations supporting dramatic changes to legislation, governance and funding. This positioned the Council to be more responsive to increased technology and innovation. The review, conducted by Angus James and Gabrielle Trainor, was commissioned by the Minister to assess whether the original purpose of the Council is relevant today. Included in their methodology was an online survey receiving 2,007 responses. The report is available for public viewing here.
As our national arts funding body, the Australia Council was established 43 years ago and legislated under its own Act (Australia Council Act 1975). The Act clearly defines its functions, including funding decisions that are at an arms length from the government.
However, like all government authorities, it is not immune to the priorities and ‘culture’ of the government in power. Its role as advocate and its influence on policy has varied under successive governments, as has the department to which it is accountable.
The review addresses criticisms of arts funding allocated by rigid arts board structures that no longer reflect the diversity in the field. Recommendations call for a more flexible approach including a ‘pool of arts peers’ (a successful Canadian model) that can be drawn on to assess applications across art forms. This model is more transparent and allows funding to be responsive to changing priorities, for example digital art forms.
It also recommends that the Council take a stronger role in advocacy and research (to inform policy), leaving the responsibility of policy and program management to the department.
The review calls for the Australia Council to be legislated under a new Act through parliament, similar to the template used to establish Screen Australia. This would allow a restructure in governance bringing it into line with conventional boards. It is proposed the Board would consist of people with a strong arts background, who would select the Chief Executive Officer, the Minister appointing the Chair. This is a way of de-politicising appointments.
Included in the review is the suggestion that the government consider a role for the Australia Council based on the White Paper on Australia for the Asian Century currently being prepared by former Secretary of Treasury, Ken Henry.
It may be fortuitous that the National Cultural Policy was delayed, allowing it to consider both reports, and perhaps source increased funding prior to being launched. By this stage the implementation of the National Broadband Network will also have progressed.
The government will respond to the recommendations of the Australia Council review in the Cultural Policy. It remains to be seen which of the recommendations (if any) will be adopted.
The government needs to move quickly if it is serious about change. On 16 May, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a 500-day campaign leading up to the next federal election. Creative Nation was introduced eighteen months prior to an election and was not picked up by the incoming government. It would be unfortunate for any major reforms in arts policy to once again be at the mercy of the electoral cycle.
References and further reading
Sydney Morning Herald, Deja vu as Australia returns from smoko for Asian century
ComLaw, Australian Government, Australia Council Act 1975
Australian Government, Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport, Australia Council Review, National Cultural Policy