The National Cultural Policy: Creative Australia

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Editorial, Music Forum, Winter 2013

So in mid-March, it was finally released, with money attached. Old news now, plenty of opinions expressed, even on the day of publication. It’s 144 dense pages long, and it needs a faster brain than mine to give a judgement after a quick skim. An important Coalition figure was able to make a highly skilled judgement before it was actually available for a read: it would all be thrown out if the Coalition were elected.

That would be sheer bloody-mindedness. This is an impressive document and there were thoughtful contributions to it from over 400 people inside and even outside the cultural sphere. Rubbishing all that would be arrogant. Maybe there would be matters that do not fit Coalition priorities. Sure, make some amendments.

The most obvious virtue is that it covers so many of the bases: community, education, access, Indigenous, multicultural, metro and regional, arts excellence, creative industries, the digital realm, creative spaces, infrastructure, intrinsic and instrumental purposes, whole of government involvement, collaboration between levels of government, international projection and more. Former Arts Minister Simon Crean, to use his favourite image, found the dots and joined them.

There is a serviceable definition of ‘culture’ — contained enough to be workable, broad enough to give room for a wider play of the arts. 'Culture is more than the arts, but the arts play a unique and central role in its development and expression.'

Discussing the role of government: 'Culture is not created by government, but enabled by it. This works best when legal, policy and fiscal strategies create an environment that values cultural activities, fosters excellence and participation while supporting risk and exploration, recognises diversity in all its forms and encourages expression of a distinctive sensibility.'

This is an excellent and profound statement. It seems to accept that culture is a complex adaptive system. In the cultural economy, 'There is no single dominant organisation.' Instead there are artists and many types of organisations and businesses. 'Within this ecosystem, talent is always on the move, as ideas develop and find expression. All require support and access to funds to develop creativity and ensure their enterprise is sustainable.' This has implications for how government can play an effective role through, not so much ‘creating’ an environment as intervening to enable creation by others. Be ready to remind government of the role it has given itself: not to lead, but to enable.

Creative Australia sets out five goals: in brief summary, 1) celebrate Indigenous culture; 2) support diversity in the citizenry; 3) support excellence and the special role of artists; 4) strengthen the cultural sector’s capacity to contribute to the whole; 5) support innovation, new content, knowledge and the creative industries. These goals seem to cover the territory quite elegantly.

There are three pathways to action: 1) modernise funding; 2) encourage creative expression and the role of the artist [intrinsic value] — similar to Goal 3; 3) secure a social and economic dividend [instrumental value] — very similar to Goal 4. Fine, but not a very good matrix with the goals.

Music gets some special mentions through iteration of the government’s recent funding decisions: $3million over four years for 'the contemporary music industry including $1.75million for SOUNDS AUSTRALIA', APRA’s export promotion initiative, with the remainder going to APRA’s National Live Music Coordinator to support the live music scene for contemporary music. Best practice in removing regulatory barriers to music presentation in live music venues will be a project of the new National Arts and Culture Accord with the state governments.

There is also a new $2.5m fund, a Major Performing Arts Excellence Pool. It’s to support innovation 'addressing agreed national priorities'. Some bait thrown into the MPA marine ecology. Should these companies, including the orchestras and opera companies, be innovative already with their existing funding? Should they only be innovative when they get extra money for it? We could talk about that. One interesting thing is that they have to compete for these funds — a first in the funding of MPA companies.

The National Arts and Culture Accord will tidy up the arrangements between the national and state levels of government. Says the NCP: 'To maximise the impact of government support of the sector it is important that funding be provided in a way that minimises bureaucracy, covers all bases and removes duplication.' There will be a three-year work plan.

We certainly could use some minimisation of bureaucracy; arts funding comes with a great burden of planning and accountability. As to removing duplication between levels of government: it is not necessarily beneficial to artists. Assessments of the merit of artistic work are always partly subjective. Also, needs and priorities can be different at national, state and local levels. An artist can be supported at one level of government and rejected by the other for perfectly good reasons. So it’s better to keep two opportunities for rejection — or support. Coordination should be imperfect! (But perfect coordination may be more desirable when dealing with the major companies.)

There is discussion of funding mechanisms, luring private support and so on. We all need money but it’s just too boring to discuss again. Let’s move on.

Career pathways for artists. In 2010, 531,000 worked in the cultural sector. There were 83,167 students taking a creative arts course at a higher education institution. Another 54,000 in TAFE. That should see us through. (But then, should such education be only for vocational purposes?)

'Elite training is the bedrock of our international success in the arts.' The government is for it. Except that it is funding university music schools only to a level where either they incur deficits or give up on elite training. Exhibit: ANU School of Music. Alas, the NCP writers may not have known that. Under the heading ‘elite training’, the NCP mentions mainly those entities such as NIDA and the AYO that are directly funded by the Minister for the Arts. They are important, but the Minister does not fund WAAPA, for instance. What about WAAPA, under financial review? There will be a review of national and elite training and it should widen its vision beyond that now found in the NCP.

The three-year work plan under the National Accord includes school education in the arts. 'The Australian Government has committed to work with state and territory governments and non-government education authorities to implement the Australian Curriculum: The Arts to introduce universal arts education in schools across Australia. The Curriculum will ensure that every student, from Foundation to the end of primary school, will study the arts in a rigorous and sequential process. Also, from the first year of high school, students will have an opportunity to experience some arts subjects in greater depth and to specialise in one or more arts subjects.' It’s a worry that there is no mandatory instruction beyond primary school.

Universal arts education? At this time, what will actually be delivered in school classrooms is a matter for speculation. We do not know what the authorities understand of the problem: that in most jurisdictions most of the primary school teachers responsible for the arts do not know how to teach them. The scale of the necessary remedial program is enormous.

The one major contribution by the Commonwealth is the production of digital learning packages in the arts, to be used both for teacher education and in the classroom.

The digital world gets a lot of attention, as you might expect. 'It is clear that the digital, networked world offers endless new ways to experience cultural products … the complete and now successful move to the digital platform of the music industry with Australia now the 6th largest global digital music market in the world.' Well, successful for some but little recompense for the musicians.

'Assurance that digital and emerging platforms have a wealth of high-quality, accessible Australian content'. Mention is made of the recommendation of the Convergence Review to create an online production fund. We need to ensure that this can be used for music as well as video.

A section of the NCP discusses regional development and the use of the arts for a ‘social dividend’. This relates to Crean’s whole of government ideas: the arts can serve the agendas of non-arts portfolios, creating social benefit and also securing more funding. Arts recovery programs such as Renew Newcastle … arts and health … arts and cultural diversity … arts and disability … arts touring.

Cultural tourists spend much more than regular tourists, according to the NCP. Yet the tourist authorities never seem to promote Australian culture. But neither does the cultural industry, in any concerted way. If we got our act together, government might be more likely to assist.

There is a very firm commitment to Indigenous cultures. The report asserts that Australian culture is grounded in Indigenous arts. I am not sure that this is felt by a large proportion of non-Indigenous people. We can support the aspiration but need to work from the facts. There are some good initiatives, many of them around visual arts for obvious reasons.

There are proposals for strengthening the creative industries, intensifying our international efforts especially in Asia, both for diplomatic and trade objectives, and finally a section on measuring outcomes and progress as the policy is implemented.

Response to the Australia Council Review and the Proposed New Act

Parallel to the formation of the National Cultural Policy (NCP), there was a review of the operations of the Australia Council. It would be logical that the two come as a sequence, rather than run parallel. Then, the Review could set forth the Australia Council’s role in implementing the NCP. But the Review was actually published before the NCP and to the extent that the government has responded to the Review, it does so in the NCP. Nevertheless, there are plenty of disjunctions between the two.

And then, after both, comes the Bill for a new Australia Council Act, with more disjunctions.

On the face of it, the Act is a relatively simple affair. Its intention seems to be, in part, to be as unprescriptive as common sense would allow — to set out basic responsibilities and then get out of the way. A lot of it is government/legal stuff. The bits that grab the interest of the arts world are relatively brief: functions, governance, the role of the Minister.

The Act is, of course, important. But the Council at present has a much more detailed document containing such things as a Service Charter, a Charter of Operations, descriptions of strategies and priorities. It is more akin to the detail found in the report of the Australia Council Review. If the Act is not very prescriptive, there is much more latitude to decide what is in this document. So the game does not end with passage of an Act that says the right things. After that, it would be very important to consider the contents of the presumably rewritten internal document, and for that reason, the Review remains highly relevant.

Let’s look at a few of the issues raised in the Review and/or the Bill for the Act. The Review proposed continuation of Australia Council operation at arm’s length from government mdash; and we are pleased to say that this is picked up in the new Act. 'The Minister must not give a direction in relation to the making of a decision by the Council, in a particular case, relating to the provision of support (including by the provision of financial assistance or a guarantee).' Arm’s length saves us from political decisions about grants. Fundamental mdash; and excellent.

The new draft statement of purpose for the Australia Council (Ozco) remains problematical: 'To support and promote…distinctively Australian creative arts…' The new Act does not include a mission statement or a statement of purpose, so this statement presumably would be found only in the charter. If there is to be such a mission statement, then it should define, guide, limit the activities. This mission creates a dilemma. It confines the Ozco to supporting 'distinctively Australian' creative arts. This is despite the NCP offering support to heritage arts, multicultural arts and so on. And despite the fact that almost none of our arts practice, except some Indigenous practice, is distinctively Australian, least of all in music. There could be a goal of encouraging distinctively Australian practice but as it stands, Ozco will have a budget and little to spend it on unless it ignores its mission statement, see above.

Funding decisions have been made by artist peers since the inception of the Ozco. The NCP says that they are to be made on the basis of peer assessment — a subtle but important change which could mean that decisions are made by bureaucrats as proposed in the Australia Council Review. The Bill has nothing to say about peer assessment but the Australia Council has now given a hint of its intentions and they seem highly committed to peer advice and possibly decision-making. Nevertheless, we would like to see a requirement in the Act that the Ozco board and its committees are not comprised mainly of corporates with good intentions but include a majority of people with the arts in their bellies.

Under the new Act and as recommended by the Review, the art form boards in their present form will be disbanded. The Australia Council will be free to set up what the Review calls ‘Sector Advisory Panels’ at will according to perceived need. The Minister will not make these appointments. Goodish — it’s speedier and more flexible. There will be increased use of peers to assess funding applications (good) but it seems that they will be appointed for only one year. So it is important that the Panels have an ongoing role and existence somewhat similar to the present art form Boards in order to allow the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom. The Australia Council seems to have such an intention, allaying a major cause of anxiety.

Let’s look at the Australia Council Bill. I referred to a very important moment of humility in the NCP — the statement Culture is not created by government, but enabled by it (my emphasis). This, alas, passed by the drafters of the Act and the word ‘enable’ nowhere appears. It could be substituted for almost every appearance of the word ‘support’.

As noted, the Act does not include a mission statement, curiously, but does have a list of Functions for the Council which looks rather like the old list but with some serious omissions. Among them: no confirmation of the centrality of Indigenous arts, despite the great emphasis in the NCP and the Review; a weakened form of support for freedom of expression in the arts, which obliges the Ozco ‘to have regard’ for it but not to promote it; no real requirement for support to cultural diversity and no mention of support to community arts participation.

The Australia Council has had a somewhat on-again off-again relationship to community arts practice. Because it is the national funding body, there are periods where it is urged to support only the best of the best; for a period, it saw itself as having a special responsibility for ‘flagship companies’. It still supports them, but now they are only ‘major’. In the present go-round, there was a widely derided recommendation that support for excellence should be the responsibility of the Australia Council and support for access should come from the Office for the Arts mdash; as though programs that give access need not worry about quality. The antonym to ‘excellence’ is ‘mediocrity’ or ‘inferiority’, not ‘access’. It is still unclear what the intention was, but all indicators are that the Act needs to plant some responsibility in the Ozco for continuing support to community access and participation. That is where culture begins.

The Bill for the new Australia Council Act has been introduced to Parliament. A Senate Review has been set up to give it a quick once-over. The new Minister is hell-bent on getting it passed before Labor loses control and has said he does not really want to look at amendments. But the amendments are not so complicated and could be quickly dealt with. He says that there will be no new funding for the arts if the Act is not in force. Well, why not?

All that said, we must congratulate the former, and also hopefully, the new Minister and the writers of Creative Australia for a long stride forward in Australian cultural policy.

Postscript. The Senate Review has reported and has recommended most of those changes proposed above. The Minister has yet to respond.

Author

Richard Letts. Entered on knowledge base 13 May 2013.

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder of the Music Council of Australia and Past President of the International Music Council. The first part of this article appeared as an editorial in the Music Council’s quarterly magazine, Music Forum, Winter 2013. The views expressed here are his own.

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