Kim Williams. Creative Arts Policy Formulation

May 26, 2015

Policy Series 

I have been giving presentations recently in which I have exhorted the creative community to accept responsibility for: –

  1. Writing refreshed meaningful arts policies for federal political parties to inform a renewed approach for support and activity;
  2. Forming renewed priorities and objectives for national arts training and other tertiary institutions which address evident misdirection and negative trends; and
  3. Advocating coherent and well-formed detail in school curriculums of our primary and secondary systems which are devoted to the arts generally and music specifically as fundamental rights for all Australian students so as to improve the national capacity to think, concentrate, learn and appreciate creativity.

Our society is increasingly governed by several sustained characteristics, which are profoundly unhelpful to clear direction in national policy construction and commentary equally. These trends have manifest impact on the process of policy formulation and are seen particularly in:

  • Politicians and their bureaucracies increasingly debasing, through neglect and disengagement, creativity and intellect as the vital crucibles of the national future;
  • The broad commentariat often being disconnected from informing debate (often from rigid ideology or old fashioned ranting) about creativity, imagination and innovation as being central, indeed vital, to a national future which is confident and meaningful;
  • Money being treated as the measure of value in all things rather than as one of many measures; and
  • Our society adopting a perilous course to celebrate the anti-intellectual and what I would describe as the triumph of general ignorance where dogmatic assertion is preferred over considered respectful discussion which aims to test ideas and assumptions from informed knowledge based study, so as to arrive at evidence supported approaches focussed at all times on real outcomes.

It is time to stop the marked, steep and growing decline in the policy content and resourcing of creative arts endeavour; in training institutions; and to address the primary need for schools to be transformed in according arts education (with specialist teachers) as important a priority as reading, maths and science.

For too long the creative community of practitioners and critics in the performing and visual arts, literature, cinema and television production and their many extensions across the digital domain, have tolerated the rise of simple-minded empty policy to rule the day, absent coherent analysis and objective focus on outcomes. We have all stood back for the last two decades and more, watching virtually helplessly as the erosion of standards and of resource commitment allied with the corrosion of language and policy process has marched on relentlessly. It has been essentially unchallenged as we have become too accepting of the second best, of poor execution and timid feedback.

Two decades is a long time in a connected world, especially one where the internet and digital technology generally has changed forever the nature of information access, exchange and the direction of society through politics, commerce, creativity, education and communication. Continuing fragmentation is guaranteed – the ferocity of attack and the velocity of change will only grow. Merit, ingenuity, speed, flexibility and performance increasingly rule the digital day. Australia is losing out in this process because of national policy failure as reflected in depleted institutions and moribund approaches. It is time for reinvention and positive connected action.

The urgency of public policy renewal in education and the arts is impossible to over emphasise because the old models don’t work any longer. We need to think and behave differently. In an era where the settings change daily and where ‘the internet of things’ will see over 75 billion connected devices by 2020, it is an immediate necessity that a considered comprehensive review of policy and settings takes place to recalibrate for this century and beyond. Creativity and imagination are core elements in the skillsets needed broadly for the nation to win through before we focus more closely on creative ‘cultural’ production and its many standalone merits.

We are a small country at ‘the bottom of the world’ (notwithstanding the internet) and condemned to irrelevance if we do not arrest the current trends. We have many parochial pillars which whilst ‘cheerful’ to some, are venomous to national ambition and achievement. After all a nation of 24 million which speaks English is either profoundly advantaged or potentially disabled as a result almost entirely of its public policy settings and the outcomes they achieve and reflect.

Examining arts policy specifically, the ALP has an arts policy which tries to accommodate all comers. As a result it has little durable essence or meaning other than providing a recital of modern clichés. The federal Coalition has no published arts policy at all. None. The Greens offer a telegrammatic set of populist, disconnected ‘thought bubbles’.

It is essential that we honour our duty of intergenerational care and accept the need for national ground up policy (and allied resourcing) review to ensure a healthy, dynamic creative landscape which is innovative, connected and ambitious on the one hand and appropriately trained, resourced and critiqued on the other. A meaningful wholesale review of the policy and commercial settings on that which comprises the creative landscape is way overdue with a clear eye on the future and its myriad creative, technology, commercial and behavioural change challenges in the sort of way we all recognise as necessary in the connected cross border universe we now live in – one where dramatic disruption rules.

As that vulnerable little English speaking country there is no future in being bland! We need bold confident national futures which only come from ground plane policy review and the ambition it adopts. It is imperative that stakeholders work together to fashion a fresh positively integrated approach which understands this radically changed environment.

The failure of political agendas in creative life is, I suggest, our collective failure. The absence of fresh, relevant, compelling approaches reflects a failure to renovate thinking where many working settings are frozen in a time capsule – reflecting a failure to renovate thinking over the last 25 years. It is a disturbing example of a vacuum in effective action – in my view sadly embodying Australian complacency. I say so because it would seem to me that many of the working settings we have are from long ago in their policy, regulatory, financial and industrial frameworks. Let alone letting consumers and their changed behaviours into the policy room as a core governing discipline.

The cryogenic policy list is a very long one including such examples as: –

  • An Australia Council which has become increasingly an instrument of the bureaucracy and not an independent informed advocate in a robust contemporary way for policy and the rights of creators, distinctive work and audiences.
  • There is the equally tortured territory of sacred cows such as peer review which needs re-examination. I would firmly contend peer review is frequently no such thing but rather an instrument for mediocre compromise over petty ‘village sharing’ of ever diminishing spoils.
  • And we need to address the descent into mindless managerialism which has encroached into all spaces and now dominates so much of creative policy, decision-making and serving at the altar of process and not of delivered outcomes.
  • We have gone backwards in arts education school curricula ever since the 1970s in a process of dumbing down to lowest common denominators where the privileged are cared for separately and all others are now condemned to opportunities being closed off with transformation denied.    
  • Copyright laws are inadequate and outdated, unequal to the task in confronting theft and defending the absolute rights of creators to protect their work.
  • Content regulation approaches are essentially unchanged in their core fabric and remain disappointingly true to views which drove policy with the precursors to the Australian Communications and Media Authority – most recently the Australian Broadcasting Authority and before that the ABT and the ABCB before that. For many those will be acronyms that are meaningless but they require mention because thinking that informs regulatory formulation hasn’t been revisited in decades.
  • Then there is a dysfunctional absence of any minimum enforced criteria about Australian content outcomes on the national broadcasters (whilst there are some minimum public bargain outcomes on commercial broadcasters). This has been allowed to linger for decades on a self-interested, inaccurate but convenient altar of editorial independence, matched with an inevitable plaintive cry as to being poor and under resourced by the ABC for example, voiding the whole issue of identified priorities and choices reflected in expenditure outcomes made by it, while hopelessly antiquated, inefficient structures and practices persist.
  • There are too many outmoded forms of industrial and other agreements which limit creative freedom, before we even venture into proposals for media constraint in 2013 which made it clear Australia was to be very much a ‘Je Suis Non Charlie’ jurisdiction.   We should never forget what happened then.

The list is very much larger but serves to show that all too often such inheritances bedevil the possibility of clear thinking, limit and censor fresh options and confine opportunity to innovate and drive better outcomes from strong, flexible frameworks which comprehend our national vulnerabilities. All of which provides an extended example of the need to renovate the policy house.

We in the creative community need to review the core logic that underpins the support on which many rely so that we can aim to make the policy and related resource settings fit for purpose over the longer term. We need to get back to the good elements in how it began in a few decades ago – we did it. Together. It was often messy. It was invariably colourful. But we made it happen.

The political parties have bad policies or no policies because we do not challenge them. We do not write them. We have to get back in the policy process on the ground floor with refreshed standards, better understanding of successful policy principles and objectives built on performance and relevant methods, which will provide fresh directions.

I don’t offer assurance on delivered solutions beyond a strong plea to work together, refashioning directions and priorities built on common recognition that policy travels poorly and demands fundamental change. I do so because it needs to be an effort in creative community commitment to its own future to have durability and a sense of personal and professional responsibility.

We need a dynamic approach which gathers the spectrum of interests necessary to produce invigorated policy capable of application and evolution over the medium to long term, informed by a range of practitioners, creative community organisational leaders and policy hard heads so that it is practically primed for advocacy and implementation.

The review requires a group comprising: a tight range of selected primary creators (chosen by a group of creative elders in the key disciplines – across the performing and visual arts, design, writing and the video production media); the heads of the leading representative bodies in the creative community; allied with experienced recent former policy leaders from such relevant national departments as Treasury and Prime Minister and Cabinet. Clearly any such group needs to take account of gender and indigenous balance to ensure it speaks for modern Australia. It should be led by a senior member of the creative community.

The group should be tasked with the challenge to forge a program for lasting reform which addresses issues holistically and doesn’t repeat the present cycle of tired twentieth century policy recitals condemned to irrelevant Incrementalism mired in an often dogmatic past.

That group needs to have an agreed contemporary Terms of Reference which doesn’t try to restrain and contain thinking so that the task is approached with a wide mandate governed by Barbara Tuchman’s definition of wisdom – applying judgement with access to experience, ample available information and lots of common sense! The group needs to proceed as follows: –

  •  First, to run a core diagnostic program resolving the list of key issues;
  • Second, to weigh the range of options, debate merits and weaknesses, refining the priorities and outcomes to be targeted so as to have an integrated tough spirited policy model with clarity in its direction which is capable of extended advocacy;
  • Third, to conduct representation, research and review with key stakeholders across the spectrum of interests in the creative community, within the diverse elements of the commentariat, the academy and the broader general community (- the citizenry of audience, parents and taxpayers equally); and
  • Fourth, having refined the policy framework and priorities commence the arduous task of political representation to the various parties aiming to forge a fresh outcomes based approach informed from evidence as tested by debate in the community.

The task is not without challenge but the policy product is essential to commencing a better approach which draws from the creative community itself agreeing to refashion priorities for long term improvement in actual outcomes engineered for a future with robust standards.

The richest and most energetic societies acknowledge the centrality of creativity to their health and wellbeing and as core to the resilience of their critical culture. It has always been my view that Australians generally do not receive criticism well. Further our inability to receive criticism is matched only by our inability to give criticism – in ways which are professionally focused – thoughtful, caring, constructive and nourishing. Creative work and its health are dependent on a forensic approach to review and judgement. Informed, shared and vigorous opinion matters in this turbulent and unpredictable period.

Creative endeavour has never been more fundamental to developing a modern society. One open to change which is flexible and energetic, reinforcing and celebrating the intellectual capacity, capability and originality of its citizens. From a national commitment to creative endeavour; invention, employment, debate, national confidence and good social values follow. History provides the body of evidence.

In too many areas of Australian policy delivery we have progressively arrived at stultified, formulaic approaches which operate to the detriment of ambition, skill, performance, review and reward. We need to change approaches in order to achieve better focus and delivery.

The cycle of refreshed change in public policy will be with us ever more as long as there is a dependence on regulatory obligations on the one hand and investment from the Commonwealth (and States) in various forms on the other. Too often recently support has been taken as a given, with a governing immature outlook of subsidy or quotas being a ‘right’ which has been countermanded by opposition which has often relied more on prejudice than forensic, fair minded appraisal.

Support in the modern era requires an articulated rationale, allied accountability and periodic review as to benefits from actual outcomes. That approach must lie at the heart of an invigorated approach to creative policy formulation by the participants. Only good work informed from strong thoughtful argument with a focus on results, will go the distance.

No doubt these are confronting times. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the bywords for modern world settings. Current times do not allow for the bland. And yet in Australia today there is often a disconnectedness from ideas that produce great, compelling work. Almost all successful creative work has a mainspring from originality and is rooted in a nation’s stories – things of enduring value. They are the products of real risk taking – nothing good ever eventuates from creative caution. There is no point in in the 21st century as a small English speaking population, in a digitally literate world, in being bland.

We must strive for a policy voice that renews the reasons to celebrate creativity and intellectual courage. Reasons to win national respect and political commitment. Reasons to renew many specialist depleted training institutions. Reasons to revitalise curiosity, creative originality and drive innovation fearlessly. Reasons to speak out, making sustainable connection with new and old audiences. We need to back, defend and promote that which is about fresh Australian creative adventure.

We all need to have our feet on the ground and to be utterly realistic in recognising that changes in the world’s operation mean that standing still is not an option. Confronting these potent forces driving dramatic reconfiguration is not easy. Relevant different responses are essential if we are to drive a sustainable future. We must all defend and promote substantial creative policy renewal with conviction because these things really matter!

Kim Williams has had a long involvement in the arts, entertainment and media industries here and overseas and has held various executive leadership positions since the late 1970s including as chief executive at each of News Corp Australia, FOXTEL, Fox Studios Australia, the Australian Film Commission, Southern Star Entertainment and Musica Viva Australia and as a senior executive at the ABC. Melbourne University Press published his first non-fiction book Rules of Engagement in 2014.



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