‘Labor to deliver landmark cultural policy’ (eventually)

Should our next cultural policy acknowledge rising inequality, falling wages, and the erosion of the environment and democracy, Julian Meyrick and Justin O'Connor ask?

At last it’s come. After weeks of policy ideas being hunted as prey in the partisan kill-fest Scott Morrison turns every election encounter into, finally there is an announcement from Tony Burke, Shadow Minister for the Arts, on Labor’s plan for culture should it win government in a few days’ time.

The launch, at The Espy Hotel on Monday night, was full of choice words about art and culture (the phrase ‘the creative industries’ notable by its absence). It was met with cheers but little energy. Very different from the bolshy Arts Action Australia rallies of 1993, when the exuberance of the sector gave Paul Keating the heart to go on and win. This was an audience cowed by ten years of ideologically-driven right-wing government, capped off by a global pandemic.

The plan is to talk about talking, mainly. Still, that’s better than no talk at all, or cutting the arts budget on your way out the door for no good reason, and with no wider goal in sight. Perhaps it was just to piss off cultural workers even more. In which case, mission accomplished.

There are seven new points of address in Labor’s announcement. Four are of the let’s-consult-and-converse kind: facilitating cooperation between federal, state and local governments; examining a national insurance scheme for live events; promoting Australian content on streaming platforms; and re-affirming the arm’s length principle of arts subsidy.

Three are more immediate: going after ticket scalpers; putting First Nations culture at the centre of Labor’s policy approach; and restoring the word ‘arts’ to the department responsible for it.

All good, good things, if diffuse, un-costed and with no timeline attached. There is also a handy recap of previously-promised funding, of which $83.7 million for the ABC over five years is the stand-out item.

Not quite a Landmark Cultural Policy, then, but a pledge to deliver one in future, plus welcome references to Creative Nation and Creative Australia. Though these documents are dated now, they are better than the hole in the ground the LNP have dug for national cultural policy in the nine years they have been in charge of it.

It isn’t enough, and it would be surprising if Tony Burke thought it was. It is only a start. If Labor win government, what is the big challenge for cultural policy ‘going forwards’? For this is the real issue. Not to fill a term of office, as the Coalition has, with ministerial meddle-and-muddle that drags the cultural sector backwards. But to go beyond market clichés and (in)efficiency dividends, to treat its problems seriously and offer real solutions to them.

Where to begin?

A new social contract for arts and culture

The first thing an incoming Labor government should do is double the annual allocation of the Australia Council. No ifs or buts. No lengthy (and expensive) inquiries. Just pen-to-cheque-book-follow-in-the-footsteps-of-Gough-Whitlam when he did the same thing in 1973. This will give the agency some actual choices, and loosen the budget noose the Coalition has pulled tight around its organisational neck to the point of expiration.

Next, the wider problems. There is a difference between government controlling culture and governments supporting an adequate level of its public provision. A national cultural policy isn’t about enforcing uniform artistic preferences. It is about leading a fluid – in Australia, extremely fluid – conversation about cultural practices, social expectations and ethical values.

Given the dire straits into which COVID has plunged the sector, restoring the arms-length relationship, upping local content quotas, or plucking a Universal Basic Income from the ether, is all welcome. But these are all just technical fixes without a fundamental reappraisal of the relationship between Australian culture and Australian society.

It is no good saying ‘fund the arts’ if we don’t know what the arts are for. The truth is Australians no longer do. Or if some do, they can’t express it in ways that ensure others know it too.

In the 40 years it has been the cult-of-choice for Australia’s political rulers, economic rationalism has had a catastrophic impact on art and culture. No less so the failing trope of the ‘creative economy’, with cultural practitioners dissolved into an amorphous ‘creative class’ and lumped in with ‘knowledge workers’.

In the 1990s, the underlying narrative of economic reinvention was ‘creative thinking’. The ‘creative class’ were key to the future prosperity of the nation. Blue collar workers and tradies were not. The cultural sector drifted into political quiescence as economic rationalism carried all before it. The problem was not only the bean-countery spiel of Treasury wonks. It was the practitioners who came to believe it.

The leaders of the cultural sector have since realised their mistake and are desperate for a way out, though without proposing any real alternatives yet. The cultural workers they pay increasingly badly are horribly aware of their declining incomes, but hope, vainly, that the problem will be fixed if somebody can convince the government to increase its grants.

Only recently, with funding cuts biting to the bone, the LNP showing open contempt for artists, and the gulf between those on full-time salaries and those chasing the gigs scarily vertiginous, has the sector realised that a lack of solidarity and collective action around structural problems such as rising inequality, falling wages and the erosion of the environment and democracy, has not served the arts well, either.

The Australia Council has been systemically undermined. Browbeaten under George Brandis, ignored under Mitch Fifield, it was sidelined further by Paul Fletcher in distributing his pot-of-ministerially-controlled-gold, the RISE fund. When a federal government spends its time undermining its own federal arts agency, it is a clear indication something has gone awry with the foundations of cultural policy.

So yes to a restoration of the arm’s length relationship. Yes to ‘reviv[ing] cooperation between federal, state and local government to ensure we have a national approach to arts and culture’. Fund the arts yes – but why?  On what grounds?  In what ways will this redress the hyper-precarity of the current cultural labour market?

Read: Let’s make this election personal

Our next national cultural policy needs to be anchored in a new social contract for art and culture. At the moment no political party has the language to construct one. We are at an epochal moment, which will bottle up and go rancid if the Coalition gets another term, but might pop its cork if Labor get in. Another key question is: if the mood of the country does transform after the election, where will the arts sector stand?

Will it be a leader of social and cultural change as in the 1970s, or a crumber, spending its time begging for the public assistance that is its by right, anyway? Fifty years ago, arts practitioners were at the vanguard. Today, they talk like an ageing asset class looking for a handout. That’s bad casting for artists and cultural workers whose careers have just suffered a near-death experience.

Underneath, they are frightened, wounded and angry. With good reason, given all they have been through. New voices are coming into public ear-shot, talking about glass ceilings and casting couches, the aspirations of Indigenous communities and the hidden injuries of class. It is the job of cultural policy to pay heed to them. Political leaders, cultural advocates and researchers must acknowledge the broader structural issues with which cultural policy is entangled. In a recent article, Jenny Hocking quotes Whitlam: ‘the relation between politics and culture is clear and real’.

The relation feels lost at the moment­­­­ – which is perhaps the root of the policy problem. ‘Political vigour has invariably produced intellectual and creative vigour,’ Whitlam argued. Australia is in danger of missing out in all three areas.

The cultural sector needs a new social contract not only to reimagine itself, but the nation of which it is a living part. It’s past Time.


Julian Meyrick is Professor of Creative Arts at Griffith University. He is Literary Adviser for the Queensland Theatre and General Editor of Currency House’s Platform Paper series. He was Associate Director and Literary Advisor at Melbourne Theatre Company 2002-07 and Artistic Director of Kickhouse theatre 1989-98. He has directed over 40 award-winning theatre productions and published numerous books and articles on Australian arts and culture.

Justin O’Connor is Professor of Cultural Economy at the University of South Australia. He was a UNESCO expert for the 2005 Convention on Diversity of Cultural Expressions and has just published Red Creative: Culture and Modernity in China.

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