Re-centring the voice of the artist

The voice of the artist is once again welcome on the national agenda – and Australia’s newly elected politicians are ready to listen.

All early signs indicate we’ve now got an Australian Government ready to welcome the most creative and challenging voices in our community, rather than fearing and undermining them. 

Let’s hope we never again see elected representatives diminishing arts and culturepoliticising public funding or calling artists ‘idiots’

Given recent history, expectations are very high – and incoming Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and the Arts Tony Burke is entirely aware of just how high he’s raised the bar. 

In his first statement once sworn in, Burke described the Government’s approach to the arts as ‘fundamental to our society and national identity.’

He went on: ‘I am determined to deliver a better future for Australia’s creative sector … I don’t intend to waste a moment … Let’s get to work.’

Immediate consultation, and a policy by the end of the year 

Within days, the Office for the Arts had set up a page to frame the upcoming national consultation, linking to Creative Australia, the 2013 National Cultural Policy that will form the basis of that work.

The Greens have also hit the ground running, checking in with artists and industry colleagues and holding a national roundtable this week. 

As Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations as well as the Arts, Burke is well placed to redress issues of precarious and insecure work in the industry. At the same time, those weighty portfolios are likely to occupy him considerably. 

So it’s good news that Prime Minister Albanese has also made a Special Envoy for the Arts appointment in former journalist (and violin player!) Susan Templeman, the Member for Macquarie in the Blue Mountains.

In her first speech back in 2016, Templeman spoke passionately about the First Peoples, artists, writers, teachers and community services workers who call the Blue Mountains home, and praised ‘the arts as essential in a healthy society’.

Restoring integrity to the public service that supports the sector

The new government has already determined to put First Nations first: it’s the first commitment that both Penny Wong and Anthony Albanese made in their election night speeches the moment the outcome was known. 

To achieve this, substantial cultural change in the corporate sense will be required of the public service. While Albanese promised not to sack any public servants, some timely resignations have made that change a little easier. 

Of keen interest across the arts and cultural sector will be the resignation of Gary Johns from the Australian Charities and Non-Profits Commission, whose initial appointment was met with great alarm by ACOSS, the Australian Council for International Development, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Community Council for Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre. 

Johns had long been on the record as someone opposed to the public service and advocacy work of charities. Attacks under his leadership recently led a group of First Nations, religious and human rights charities to seek urgent United Nations intervention.

Holding the government to account during this term will be the Shadow Minister for Science and the Arts Paul Fletcher, the former Minister for the Arts. Notably, ‘the Arts’ was left off the Shadow Ministry announcement, just as it had previously vanished from the name of the department, only this time it was apparently by accident

A warm congratulations to former Australia Council board member Zoe McKenzie, newly elected as the Member for Flinders. McKenzie is a former arts and education policy adviser to Liberal governments at both State and Federal levels, and brings a great deal of international policy and trade experience to Parliament. This is great news for strengthening the Opposition at this time. 

Reinvigorating our voices

While comprehensive policy and imminent consultation are all headed in the right direction, artists and artsworkers are still reeling from the past decade’s policy shifts, funding cuts and pandemic impacts. Many are still in crisis. Finding our voices in such circumstances is not easy.

So let’s be honest about those impacts when we’re contributing to consultations or speaking to politicians. 

Our peak bodies are also exhausted, and will need to find new energies for national cooperation. The former national ArtsPeak network was originally formed as a consequence of Australia Council sector consultations, and it will be interesting to see what new cooperations emerge.  

As we prepare ourselves for the work of contributing to a policy we expect to have lasting impact, let’s recall Burke’s words at the 2019 Arts Day on the Hill where he told artists: ‘We don’t just respect and appreciate what you do, we need what you do.’ 

Centring the voice of the artists will be vital to the success of the new Australian Government. Let’s exercise our voices adventurously. 

Esther Anatolitis is one of Australia’s most influential advocates for arts and culture. She is Editor of Meanjin, Honorary Associate Professor at RMIT School of Art, and a member of the National Gallery of Australia Governing Council. Esther has led arts and media organisations across all artforms, including Express Media, the Emerging Writers' Festival, Craft Victoria, SYN Media, Melbourne Fringe, Regional Arts Victoria and NAVA. Her consultancy Test Pattern focuses on creative practice, policy and precincts, as well as advocacy and public value. A hallmark of Esther’s arts leadership career has been her tenacious civic engagement, ensuring that artists’ voices and arts issues feature prominently on political agendas. This work has ranged from strategic development and private advice to public events, regional marginal seat forums, candidates’ debates, specialist workshops and Australia’s first advocacy training program for the arts. A prolific writer, Esther’s work regularly appears in literary journals, newspapers, and arts and design media, and she is a regular Arts Hub columnist. Her book Place, Practice, Politics is published by Spurbuch. Follow Esther on Twitter: @_esther.