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Australia's National Cultural Policy Has Arrived

Wednesday, March 13, 2013   (0 Comments)
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Australia's federal government released today a national cultural policy which introduces new money and substantial policy reform.   The below article was written by Ben Eltham and released by Crikey Media, and independent Australian media publication on March 13th, 2013.  Read the original article in it's entirety on the Crikey website here.

The policy commits $236 million in new funding for the arts and cultural sector over the budget’s forward estimates. Most of this is actually new money. Particularly welcome will be $75 million in new funding for the Australia Council, which will largely go to supporting more applications than currently get up (the so-called "unfunded excellence”). This is a true "top-up” of Australia Council grant pools and represents the first such increase since at least 2007.

As part of the policy, the government has also released its response to the recommendations of the Australia Council Review, carried out last year by consultants Angus James and Gabrielle Trainor. Most recommendations are adopted — including the most contentious proposal, to break down the artform board silos and bring in a broader pool of creative peers with which to judge arts funding applications.

Combined with the new money, the government’s broadly affirmative response to the review delivers a measure of Australia Council reform to an organisation that has not been meaningfully rethought since its inception in the 1970s. Supporters of Australia Council reform will be pleased, while those committed to the narrow interests of a single artform will likely be worried. On balance, as I argued when the review came out, it’s a progressive step that changes the bathwater while protecting the baby.

Disappointingly, the government’s dreaded efficiency dividend — responsible for job losses and funding cuts at the Australia Council and other major cultural institutions —  will remain.

Perhaps more controversially, the government has picked six winners from the more innovative end of the Major Performing Arts sector: Malthouse Theatre, Belvoir St, Black Swan, Bangarra, Circus Oz and the West Australian Ballet. The funding is apparently tied to investments by state governments in Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia. However, given that there are 28 companies in this sector, including several that produce work of similar scope and genre, this move is likely to ruffle a few feathers. La Boite in Brisbane, which is the most directly comparable organisation to Malthouse, Belvoir and Black Swan, must be miffed. Perhaps Campbell Newman’s government wouldn’t come to the party.

The elite training organisations, who many would argue are already generously supported, get a further funding boost of $20.8 million over the forward estimates. These institutions include NIDA, AFTRS, the National Circus Institute, the Flying Fruit Circus and the Australian Youth Orchestra. This is welcome for the elite schools, but doesn’t address the crisis in lower-level tertiary arts training, such as at university music schools and in TAFEs.

There is also money for screen and digital initiatives, including $10 million for Screen Australia to plough into multi-platform and digital programs, and a $20 million slush fund to wave under the noses of Hollywood producers wanting to locate big foreign films like The Wolverine in Australian facilities. This comes on top of the new $20 million Australian Interactive Games Funding announced by Crean in November.

Perhaps the initiative most likely to generate negative commentary is the $8.1 million "Creative Young Stars” program, which essentially acts like an electoral allowance for federal MPs to dole out to worthy artists under the age of 25. The idea is novel and certainly responds to a need — a large proportion of grants to arts bodies has long been in the shape of requests for small touring and production grants for independent music, art and performance projects — but the seemingly arbitrary nature of the program and the fact it won’t be meaningfully peer-reviewed is at odds with the tenor of much of the rest of the policy.

There are a number of smaller initiatives announced by Crean today that may, in the end, turn out to be amongst the most significant. For instance, one of the most influential aspects of Paul Keating’s Creative Nation policy back in 1993 was the expansion of the Triple J network throughout regional Australia; at the time, this was seen as something of a footnote.

Similarly, smaller new initiatives such as funding the Australia Council to collect better statistics ($1 million), the establishment of a live music coordinator or the development of national arts accords with the states and territories might seem dull. But given the critical role of state and indeed local funding and regulations to Australian arts and culture (for instance, noise laws and liquor licensing red tape for music venues), the drive to join up cultural policy settings between Canberra and the states could actually deliver long-term micro-economic reform. Only time will tell.

There are some aspects of the National Cultural Policy that don’t live up to the hype. The document places indigenous arts and culture at the very top of Australia’s goals for culture, but the funding commitment that corresponds to this is relatively modest. Arguably, if the rhetoric of the policy was to be matched by real action, then a big redirection of funds away from traditional culture and towards indigenous cultural expression would have been called for. But politically, this may have been a bridge too far. Even so, there is a extra $11.3 million for the government’s successful Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support Program.

I expect the reaction to the National Cultural Policy to be positive — certainly more positive than the response to Stephen Conroy’s media reforms — although we may see some sniping from the orchestras and other organisations overlooked for funding.

In the long view, this is a huge win for the sector, delivering new funding as well as a quantum of policy reform. Now that the funding has been committed, it would be surprising to see an incoming Coalition walk away from it, especially given the evident pride Coalition arts spokesman George Brandis takes in successfully delivering extra funding back in 2007. The biggest winners are likely to be in the small-to-medium organisations funded by the Australia Council, who receive so little funding that even modest extras will catalyse substantial new production and innovation.

For the individual artist, the impact of the policy is likely to be less noticeable. Federal grants have never been a particularly important income source for working creators, while regulations like noise laws which oppress gigging musos are state and local responsibilities. The most valuable legacy of the National Cultural Policy is likely to be in the recognition it extends to artists as legitimate and important contributors to Australia’s economy and society. It won’t help pay the rent, but the very fact that we’re seeing a debate about cultural policy in an election year is a subtle step forward in the national debate.


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