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A step closer to the National Cultural Policy?

Fiona Mackrell

With the release this week of the Independent Review of the Australia Council for the Arts a new National Cultural Policy is one step nearer to release. But is it now or never?
A step closer to the National Cultural Policy?
With the release this week of the Independent Review of the Australia Council for the Arts a new National Cultural Policy is one step nearer to release. Min. Simon Crean’s media office assures us the policy is in its ‘final’ stages of development and will be released ‘sooner rather than later’ – absolutely, which seems like promising news for the arts community. With the release of this latest review into the Australia Council by TNS Social Research, there are few excuses left. We’ve heard there is a new ‘arts accord’ agreed to by the Cultural Ministers Council. Harold Mitchell’s Review of Private Sector Support for the Arts has been delivered. The Convergence Review has been completed as has the Creative Industries, a Strategy for 21st Century Australia plan. There’s been input from the Minister’s 22-member reference group and there have been hundreds of submissions to the Draft National Cultural Policy, not to mention the first round of consultations that took place under former Arts Minister, Peter Garrett and the ideas and input of the 2020 Summit back in 2008. We really have been talking about this new National Cultural Policy for a long time. As is so often stated, this is the first time an Australian government has tried to tackle a comprehensive arts and culture policy since Paul Keating’s Creative Nation back in October 1994. Pessimists may well read that history lesson with foreboding, noting Keating unceremoniously lost government 18 months later, in March 1996. In the 11 years post-Creative Nation, under the Howard government, we had a series of reviews rather than a comprehensive policy. There was the Nugent Review of the Major Performing Arts Companies, the Contemporary Visual Arts and Crafts Inquiry (or Myer Report), the 2003 review of the National Museum of Australia's exhibitions, the first Resale Royalty discussion paper and the Orchestras Review in 2005. By the middle of the 00s there were those again calling for a national arts and culture policy to be revisited. Notably from Prof. David Throsby in his 2006 Platform Papers essay, ‘Does Australia Need a Cultural Policy? . Throsby argued that it was in the national interest to take stock of where we are and where we are going. He noted that while governments cannot be held responsible for ‘who we are and who we think we are’ (something also noted in Creative Nation) governments do affect what’s happening and what can happen. “…in a democratic polity they [governments] represent the collective will of all of us, they are the guardians of the public interest and they have the coercive power to take our money and use it for good purposes that are beyond what we as individuals can do on our own. This in the broadest sense is what is meant by policy - not a specific measure or set of measures, but a more general expression of how governments discharge the trust we place in them.“ He went on to suggest that a top-down approach might involve bringing a group of experts and interested people together to rouse public discussion, even a ‘summit’ and a bottom-up approach where draft policy statements could be put up for debate. In retrospect this formed something of a blueprint for what has happened since. Throbsy’s essay was welcomed by the then shadow-arts minister Peter Garrett. The future of the arts, film and design formed its own stream at the Australia 2020 Summit leading the government to ‘consider developing’ a national cultural policy. But other than some consultation, not a lot happened. Since Simon Crean took on the arts portfolio in September 2010 he has doggedly chewed, dragged and pulled to keep up hopes for a policy moving along. As he said to Matthew Westwood in The Australia back in January, “It's been in our [Labor] policy for two elections and was the centrepiece of the 2020 thing; we've done bugger all." Adding, “If you've got the opportunity to be the driving force behind developing it, that was an opportunity that I jumped at." Finally, in August last year, we were presented with a Draft Cultural Policy to comment on and comment Australia’s cultural sector did. The responses are varied and fascinating. There were hundreds of formal and online submissions, 378 of which are publically-available via the website. They expose a broad and passionate cultural sector, one that goes far beyond traditional ‘arts’ and that challenges what we expect and should include in a ‘cultural’ policy. Again and again people speak of wanting to create partnerships, collaborations across boundaries, state and global; and of the need to encourage. But the submissions also raise so many concerns, individual interests and propositions that it seems impossible any government policy could satisfy them all. The desirability of a new National Cultural Policy and of the goals that were put forward was seemingly universally supported. It was what was missing: the language, the limited scope, and the strategies that might achieve the goals that were put forward, that people felt required discussion. The Draft policy does make it plain that it wants a whole-of-government approach to arts and culture and that that means coupling it to other desired outcomes and goals, particularly the delivery of a national curriculum and the utility of the NBN. The original Creative Australia policy was also explicit in stating that it was also an economic policy. ‘Culture creates wealth… Culture employs.’… In retrospect there are many similarities, despite the years between the ideals of Creative Nation and the Draft National Cultural Policy. It’s the power of speech that’s most notably changed. Creative Nation speaks directly and intelligently to the reader, in turns poetic and pragmatic. It outlines specific aims and actions to fulfil them. It ‘pursues the twin goals of democracy and excellence’. The Draft National Cultural Policy by contrast outlines a vision of the future for the arts and creativity that will: “aim to engage with the broadest possible range of Australians with an interest or varying degrees of involvement in arts and creativity. It will reflect the diversity of modern Australia; protect and support Indigenous languages and culture; make the most of emerging technologies and new ideas; strengthen the capacity of the arts to contribute to society and the economy; support excellence and strengthen the role arts and creativity play in telling Australian stories”. Its language is like fine-grained silt. But it is not the final document, hopefully. It is a discussion document and one of our times. There have already been mutterings about what the National Cultural Policy won’t achieve, the issues that fall outside the scope of the arts minister, and the important questions the Draft didn’t address. It’s also been suggested that the delays to the policy announcement are proof that the arts are low on the Government’s priority list. I’m not sure this is the case, and some recognition should be given to how, despite the pull of various government crises, the quest for a new National Cultural Policy has slogged on. It’s stepped through each of its requirements stoically, methodically and consultatively. The process has been slow. It’s unlikely to have lots of big dollars attached to it. And I’m afraid the end result won’t be perfect. But it will, I believe, try – probably slowly, methodically and consultatively – to achieve all that it sets out to do, just as the process has tried in its bureaucratic way to discover ‘the collective will of all of us’. We just have to wait a little bit longer.

About the author

Fiona Mackrell is a Melbourne based freelancer. You can follow her at @McFifi or check out


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