By Dale Maxwell-Smith
As the Federal Government calls for submissions on the proposed National Cultural Policy, now is an ideal time to talk about cultural policy in Australia.
This is an opportunity to contribute to the cultural policy that will shape government decisions for the next 10 years. A chance to consider and debate whether Australian arts and culture are headed in the right direction and what is required of a National Cultural Policy.
For many years the cries of the arts and heritage sector have gone unheard. Despite the fact that the creative and cultural industries contribute more to the national GDP than industries such as fishing, forestry or agriculture there has been no guiding policy to direct government support and funding.
The last time Australia had a cultural policy was Keating’s Creative Nation almost two decades ago. To put this in perspective, when the last cultural policy was released in 1994, the potential of the Internet as a forum for arts and culture had not even been dreamt of. This is long before Google, Youtube, blogs, or social networking sites.
The Internet is not the only major change in this time. The cultural neglect of the Howard era has meant that for 11 years government policy and funding failed to keep pace with the changing needs of artists and audiences. The result has been seriously detrimental to Australian culture.
Many individuals, organisations and communities have battled on despite government disinterest and chronic underfunding. Their efforts have kept the sector alive but there is room for vast improvement. Put simply, there is a lot of catching up to do.
In 2009 the Labour Government announced it would be delivering on its election promise to develop a new national cultural policy. The announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by many of those in the arts but as yet we are still waiting for the final policy.
Industry support groups such as National Association for Visual Artists (NAVA) have long been advocating for a national cultural policy. NAVA together with many other organisations, including the Arts Law Centre of Australia and the Council for the Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, made detailed submissions to previous Arts Minister, Peter Garrett, in 2010. It is these initial submissions that inform the current draft policy.
Simon Crean, current Minister for the Arts, released the National Cultural Policy Discussion Papers on the 11th of August 2011, inviting Australians to make submissions in a second round of consultation, before the final Policy is released in 2012. Also recently released are the Strategic Digital Industry Plan: Creative Industries, a Strategy for 21st Century Australia, the Review of the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986 and Regulations, the National Arts and Disability Strategy and the Convergence Review Discussion Papers.
This recent spate of policy papers, discussion papers, submissions and reviews has left many wondering if the Government will ever stop producing documents long enough to implement any of the policies. But there is a reason for this seemingly endless consultation process. As the slow moving bureaucratic machine finally takes the arts seriously and the wheels of change are set in motion, there are a lot of creases to iron out.
All this talk will not necessarily solve the problem, but considering how long the arts and culture have been ignored these discussions are a good starting point. To be fair, the current Government has done more than just talk about the arts. The Government has made important advances by introducing resale royalty rights and redrafting the sedition laws, which were in danger of restricting artistic freedom. They have also increased Federal arts funding, providing much needed support for new grants and programs. Unfortunately for NSW, this new funding comes at a time when their State Government is cutting small arts grants funding and film funding.
So where does that leave the National Cultural Policy? The proposed cultural policy does not address Australian culture as a whole but a narrower definition of culture, specifically core arts, creative industries and cultural heritage. While cultural economist, Professor Throsby makes a strong case for a general cultural policy addressing an overarching approach to culture, this kind of policy is beyond the scope of current review.
Reactions to the Discussion Paper have been mixed and many individuals and organisations are still preparing their responses. Cultural commentators have described the papers as naïve, limited, ‘thin on details’, even ‘content-less gobbledygook’. What the Paper does address is the need for the arts to reflect modern Australia, the importance of Indigenous heritage, support for innovation in ideas and technologies, increased access and participation, assistance for those who excel in their field, international engagement, and increased social and economic engagement with other sectors: all admirable aims.
The naysayers have a point. The four goals of the Paper do appear to be a mishmash of different ideas bundled together.
Ben Eltham, writing for ‘Crikey’, ‘Arts policy converging into a government hash’, quotes an unnamed senior state government arts policy advisor admitting ‘the goals are a bit of a dog’s breakfast’ and many would agree. Four goals for culture for the next 10 years is far too limited. It sounds like someone decided four goals would be a good structure and then set about squashing as many of the cultural needs of Australia as they could into those few bullet points. A brief look at the wording of the goals themselves and the problems become clear.
Goal 1. ‘To ensure that what the Government supports — and how this support is provided — reflects the diversity of a 21st century Australia, and protects and supports Indigenous Culture.’
Australia’s rich aboriginal heritage is an integral part of its diversity. This goal however is the only one to mention Indigenous Australians directly and it does so by tacking the entire issue on to the end of another aim. It is widely recognised that the concerns facing Indigenous arts and culture are extremely complex and unique. These issues need to be addressed specifically rather than as an add-on to general ideas of diversity. For example, the Paper identifies indigenous language as an area requiring a policy of ‘maintenance and revival’ yet this is not mentioned once in the goal relating to Indigenous Australians.
Goal 2. ‘To encourage the use of emerging technologies and new ideas that support the development of new artworks and the creative industries, and that enable more people to access and participate in arts and culture.’
By combining these objectives, the issue of participation becomes secondary to that of innovation. Increased participation through innovation sounds great but what about methods that have been successful in the past? It is important to focus on participation as a goal in itself. The mainstream focus of the Paper acknowledges the concerns of the arts and cultural industries about the need to encourage more participation and at the same time quotes the ABS statistic of 90% participation in culture without question. This statistic is misleading. It includes watching television and films as arts participation. A policy that aims to promote Australian culture needs to take into account local content. It should also give less weight to such passive forms of cultural consumption, given that the social and economic benefits referred to in the paper relate almost exclusively to active participation.
Goal 3. ‘To support excellence and world-class endeavour, and strengthen the role that the arts play in telling Australian stories both here and overseas.’
The only benchmarks of excellence provided are Academy and Grammy awards. Most people would recognise that these awards do not necessarily relate to excellence in the arts but rather commercial success. Promoting Australian stories is a commendable objective that will succeed through support for touring and international exposure. Celebrities in line for major industry awards are not where funding should be focused. Nor should celebrity status be seen as necessary for artistic success. Excellence should be encouraged through recognition of developed skills and ingenuity as well as for exceptional arts projects and community engagement.
Goal 4. ‘To increase and strengthen the capacity of the arts to contribute to our society and economy.’
This goal encompasses an extensive array of objectives. Among those mentioned in the paper are the role of education in the arts and the connection of arts and culture to other sectors and government initiatives. One key area in realising the goal has been ignored. The role of support agencies such as NAVA and the Arts Law Council is essential to strengthening the arts. These types of organisations are critically underfunded and many other smaller organisations rely exclusively on the work of volunteers. Without increased funding to such organisations, the benefits of developing better policy and increased legal protection for artists and cultural producers will be limited.
Many other challenges remain for the policy to overcome.
Although more Australians than ever are engaging with arts and culture, the view that the arts are elitist remains prevalent. As a country with vast regional and rural areas, access remains a very real issue. The division of powers and funding by federal, state, and local government who traditionally share responsibility for promotion of the arts means that for the policy to succeed a high level of cooperation is required.
The omission of any mention of copyright law in the paper is a mystery. Simon Crean has said that as intellectual property policy falls under the umbrella of the Attorney General’s department, it is not within the scope of the National Cultural Policy. A policy which relies on collaboration yet does not have the support of other departments is cause for serious concern. Other Arts Ministry publications, such as the Strategic Digital Industry Plan, are able to engage with intellectual property concerns, calling into question the government’s commitment to a National Cultural Policy.
The Minister for the Arts has also admitted that at this point no extra funding is planned to implement the policy. Whilst better allocation of existing funds in line with an overall guiding policy is essential it will not solve the problem of underfunding. In a country where defence spending is triple the entire spending of three levels of government on arts, culture and heritage including the ABC, community radio, and all public libraries, surely we can spare a few more dollars to kick start the new National Cultural Policy.
Taken as a whole, the paper presents some exciting areas for policy change. Australian arts and culture are finally beginning to command some of the attention they deserve. This is an opportunity to advocate for a stronger arts sector and better funding which our cultural industries desperately need.
The proposed policy is far from perfect but now is the chance to suggest improvements and be involved in insuring that the creative industries, core arts and cultural heritage are a required consideration in government decisions.
The National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper
Ben Eltham, Arts policy converging into a government hash
Scott O’Hara, What’s a new National Cultural Policy for?
Helen O’Neil, Ratbags at the Gates