Why do LNP Governments hate the arts and universities?

LNP Governments’ vindictive attitudes to the arts are obvious from the widespread cutbacks they have imposed on the sector. Ditto universities which have been forced to rely on overseas students to make up funding shortfalls and are then attacked for doing so.

There are a variety of explanations. Rob Gerrand, novelist and a former arts administrator suggests: “I can only speculate that many on the right may view the arts as hotbeds of progressive thought, which shouldn’t be encouraged, if not discouraged, so that the big companies should get funding, but the smaller ones shouldn’t be on the public feed.”

“I remember when I was at the Victorian Arts Centre I commissioned some research that showed more people went to arts events than the footy. It showed a pattern a bit like gambling: some, 25% never went apart from watching TV; 25% went (to arts events) very occasionally; 25% went from time to time and 25% were committed attenders.” The gambling comparison is, respectively, never bet; odd Tattslotto ticket; Melbourne Cup wager; and regular gambler.

“The definitions of arts included film and TV, theatre from tiny venues to MTC type subscription series to musicals, music from huge pop concerts, live rock and jazz, to symphonies and esoteric chamber works, dance from classic ballet to modern jazz, and galleries from NGV blockbuster events to regular visiting of small galleries, “ he said.

This is confirmed by ABS 2017-2018 figures on attendance at cultural venues and events and participation in cultural activities and suggests a second reason for the neglect – the government simply doesn’t understand how many in the community enjoy or are involved in the arts.

This involvement level may, however, be under threat as the LNP’s economic policies have created a society, according to the OECD, which lags well behind other countries in work life balance – ranked worse than the US and lightly better than workaholic South Korea.

Particularly as under conservative governments almost every cultural institution or arts organisations has faced cutbacks.

The National Library of Australia base funding, for instance, has fallen by at least 15%, accounting for inflation, between 2009 and 2017-18. The National Archives funding has fallen by 10% in real terms every year since 2014 and has lost 74 staff. It has also just spent almost two million dollars, which has to come out of its budget, on the Palace Letters case.

Moreover, the $250 million arts package announced in June announced in June is not likely to be distributed for another three months because Arts Minister, Paul Fletcher, is sitting on it. These were grants announced by the PM on the grounds that they would benefit tradies working in the arts which suggests another reason for LNP attitudes – ignorance of arts participation levels and political calculation lead them to imagine it is good politics to be seen to be dismissive of arts, culture and universities.

The impact of support announced for the film industry is also doubtful and unlikely to have any medium term impact. It will actually benefit overseas players as Bob Weis, a former AFI Chair and successful film producer says: “I have always been against giving foreign films inducements to come here it. Yes, it puts money in the pockets of crews here but it generally doesn’t use the talents of our top creatives, except for where there is a co-production treaty and we have them with many countries but not America.

“This model of attracting mainly big US productions just makes us the Mexicans of the film industry.”

The ABC and SBS have also missed out on funding from imposts on digital platforms and are excluded from the remuneration process. The government said this is because advertising revenue is not the principal source of funding for public broadcasters. A gift to media mates, in other words, but not the most trusted media organisations in Australia.

James Ley, a writer and editor, shares Gerrand’s view writing in Australian Book Review in August 2020: “What society will look like on the other side of the present crisis remains to be seen, but it is already clear enough that the federal government has no intention of taking the opportunity to reflect on its ideological assumptions, let alone adjust them.

“The Morrison government has decided to use the cover of the pandemic to further its project of decimating those public institutions and sections of society it regards with contempt. These include the ABC, the universities, and the arts sector – all of which are despised precisely because they play a prominent role in shaping the intellectual and cultural life of the nation, and all of which have been weakened by decades of restructuring, punitive funding cuts, and relentless culture war nonsense”.

The universities have a variety of problems as well as government hostility and these will be worse now their position as our third biggest export earner is put in doubt by the pandemic and hostility to our biggest market –probably permanently.

This is all despite the well-researched role universities play in intellectual and economic development. And if they are not convinced by the Australian reality they can look to the US where in the Midwest, hard hit by manufacturing decline, there is a correlation between having top national and international universities and driving the region’s recovery – something the PM’s COVID Commission is almost certainly not considering during its gassy deliberations.

Another good test of how committed this Government is to the arts is the annual Grattan Institute PM’s reading list which each year selects a number of books Grattan thinks the PM should read. Former CEO, John Daley, said: “We do send copies of the books to the PM. We usually get an acknowledgment in the form of a letter; very occasionally the PM has hand-written a comment on it; PMs have read some of the books on the list.

“Malcolm said he had read The enigmatic Mr Deakin …. Tony Abbott had clearly read The narrow road to the deep north given his intervention in the PM’s literary award. And I recollect reading an article in which Tony said he was going to read Why Australia prospered.”

But what Morrison reads is something else again. We know it’s the Bible although which version is unclear. The King James Version is a fine example of great literary art but is used by less than half of Pentecostals. One suspects therefore that the PM’s choice will be some happy clappy US version.

So ideological blindness; neo-liberal obsessions; sheer ignorance and prejudice; and, misguided political calculation may all be contributors to what is a cultural tragedy which takes us back to the Australian philistinism which Menzies, Whitlam, Fraser and Keating all overcame in different ways. But, on reflection, that policy heritage may just be the main reason why the LNP is so hostile.

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Noel Turnbull is a blogger who has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia.

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