Notes for the new minister: arts and culture on a knife edge

May 9, 2022
Ballerinas performing on a darkened stage
If culture is a right, what access do people have to it across the course of their lives? Image: Pixabay

Australia is at a tipping point. Our democracy is at stake, and cultural policy (or lack thereof), is an integral part of the crisis. Forty years of hollowing out the public sector, degrading the public service, and a winner-takes-all attitude to the electoral process fuelled it. The result is Australia’s embrace of authoritarian ‘managed democracy’, and the disappearance of the line between the needs of the public good and the demands of big donors––especially, but not limited to, the fossil fuel industries.

Even by the standards of marginality, art and culture are a marginal concern in this election. If Australia’s transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy was guided by the aspirational trope of being a “creative nation”, wherever we are headed now feels bereft of any concern for culture.

Those in the sector are cowed: by a decade of relentless government hostility; by fear of defunding linked to speaking out (Brandis, anyone?); by long-term precarity, poverty, and the ravages of the pandemic. They are regularly mocked as elitist by the actual elites of Newscorp, the IPA, and the LNP itself.

The Coalition government has used the pandemic to further its war against art and culture, including “a significant reimagining of the Commonwealth’s approach to the arts” in the words of Minister Paul Fletcher. Among his last acts was slashing the arts budget in the forward estimates, thus decimating parts of the sector, while stacking the Australia Council’s board with LNP-approved “suits”. If the Coalition are elected for a fourth term the last vestiges of the cultural policy apparatus established in the 1970s will go. Power and patronage will irrevocably shift all from a notionally independent Australia Council to a ministerially-controlled Office of the Arts, embedded in a portmanteau mega-department. RISE funding was the shiny ball to distract the sector while the specialised policy apparatus to support it was dismantled.

If Labor are elected the scenario could be different. They have yet to reveal all the details of their arts platform, but Tony Burke outlined a number of key elements at the Reset Arts and Culture conference in Adelaide in November last year. Though committed to a national cultural policy in principle, Labor continues to veer between a Whitlamite ‘art makes life worth living’ approach (keywords: access and participation) and a Keatingesque ‘culture is an economic engine’ (keywords: excellence and innovation). Whitlam’s other brainwave, sending culture to the toe-cutters at the Productivity Commission to be savaged as a waste of public money, retains support among Labor finance wonks. In this, as in other policy domains, Labor should acknowledge its dismal role in Australia’s neoliberal transition, warts and all, and move on. For that matter, so should the cultural sector.

More than ever, this election campaign sees a contest of ideas replaced by a corrosive game of wedges and gotchas. New policies are a liability and there are few announcements beyond those forced by political expediency. It is hard to engage in the normal process of writing ‘A Message to the New Minister’ because these are not normal times. Yet, undeniably, the Overton Window is more open now than at any time since the 1990s, as neoliberalism falters and heterodox social and economic ideas are aired among Australia’s technocrats and a wider group of new thinkers and doers.

This is the point at which Labor could remake art and culture as positive components of a future less full of fear and less to be feared than that being held out by the re-tread Cold War warriors of the Coalition, who are, as Lauren Carroll Harris pointed out recently, much Nation and little State.

In practical terms, though, what should Labor do?

First, Labor should take a rights and public value approach to art and culture. They should acknowledge that access to culture is a basic human right, as enshrined in the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, 27i: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”. This includes ensuring we all have the resources needed to access that right.

They should review current regulations and legislations in the global domain. The Australian state should exercise its rights under the 2005 UN Convention on the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, to treat cultural goods and services as having both cultural and economic value, and thus subject to local cultural policy priorities. The review would explore the re-regulation of publishing, audio-visual and ‘platform’ sectors in the light of the cultural needs of the Australian people and UNESCO’s recent call for culture to be a global public good.

A new Labor government should immediately conduct a thorough audit of existing cultural policies. If culture is a right, what access do people have to it across the course of their lives? Instead of spending millions on “impact assessments” conducted by Big Four accountancy firms, we need basic evaluation of the Australian population’s de facto capability to exercise its full right to culture. This is the foundation for long-term policy planning and for supporting art and culture as a public sector alongside other public sectors.

Labor should establish a Ministry of Culture. The models are there in the UK, in the Nordic countries, across the EU, in Canada and South Africa. Choose one and adapt it. Frame the new Ministry around cultural rights, equitable production, and citizen participation, rather than the language of creative industries, industrial growth, consumer choice and export markets. A Ministry of Culture would find its voice alongside those departments responsible for health, education, social services, as a public good.

Within a Ministry of Culture, statutory authorities such as the ABC and the Australia Council would be funded at a significantly more ambitious levels and given new protections from direct political interference. The arms-length funding of art and culture is a democratic principle which should be restored and defended. Labor’s policy to provide certainty to the national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, through five-year funding, should be extended to the Australia Council.

Cultural policy is not just about funding levels, of course––though we should note the Finnish Arts Council announcement that the aim of the next term of their government is to increase cultural funding to 1% of GDP (+E122.2. million over four years). Such significant injections of public assistance from politicians does not preclude reforms driven by the concerns of those in the cultural sector itself. In a less punitive environment, such policy cooperation might be embraced as the norm.

A rights approach to culture implies new forms of governance and leadership. A Labor government should re-examine the practice of governance in the sector, including board appointments made under its own remit. The outdated infantilising of artists and creative workers through an insistence on corporatized boards and rigid managerial leadership must stop. Open appointments of cultural workers and ordinary citizens to boards of directors and trustees should be made. And boards should reflect areas of expertise beyond just business, finance, law and the media.

Addressing the conditions of cultural labour in Australia––the right of artists and cultural workers to basic fairness that other workforces take for granted––should be a critical priority for a future Labor Government. Issues such as low-income sole trading, wage theft, precarity, casualisation, access to entitlements, superannuation and collective bargaining all need addressing as part of a broader industrial rights agenda. A review of the appalling state of workers’ rights in the sector would not take precarious ‘self-employment’ as a given. It would look at ways public funding of art and culture can positively contribute to improving workplace fairness through a range of strategies: procurement policies, direct funding of artists through fellowships or similar, and basic income/artist wages as offered throughout Europe.

These priorities would be the start of how a new government and the cultural sector itself could think differently about the challenges of rebuilding progressive arts and cultural policy in Australia, as our Reset Arts and Culture collective have been exploring.

Though it is hard to tell from the stultifying narrow language the upcoming election permits, we are in a period of transformational choices. To address climate change and the unequal, extractive and consumerist system which drives it, requires what the UN in Our Common Agenda, called a renewed social contract of collective solidarity, trust, care and participation.

For too long the cultural sector has been forced to accept the neoliberal fantasy of endless growth, entrepreneurial competitiveness, and market-first credos under the guise of having a creative economy and industries. It has not served Australia well. A new Labor government should draw a line under this failed epoch. It should look to a new, democratic and participatory policy approach, placing art and culture within a framework that seeks to rebuild the public sector. It should look to the public good, drawing on ideas of universal basic services, care, and social solidarity. It should remember that the purpose of government expenditure in art and culture is the right to art and culture for all of us.

Read more from our If I were a minister series.

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