Australia's National Cultural Policy Has Arrived
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
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 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
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.