Putting Australian culture under the microscope
This is the fourth in a series of essays adapted from the Centre for Policy Development book, More Than Luck: Ideas Australia needs now. Australian culture is rich, deep and diverse and our new federal cultural policy should recognise this, writes Ben Eltham.
Australia has been promised a new cultural policy by the Gillard Government, due sometime in 2011. What is a cultural policy and why do we need one?
Cultural policy is not often treated as an important public affairs issue. But culture touches on many of the things that Australians do, see, hear and engage with everyday. Watching television, reading a newspaper, playing a computer game, updating your Facebook status, sending a tweet, going to a bar to see comedy, even things like gardening and cooking: all of these activities are explicitly cultural.
Culture and the arts accounts for a bigger workforce in this country than mining and automobile manufacturing combined: 285,000 Australians work in a cultural occupation as their main job. The Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that there are more than 77,000 registered cultural businesses, contributing a total cultural output approaching $41 billion.
But all too often, when we discuss government policies towards “culture,” what we actually mean is “the arts” – and only a small subset of the arts at that. Indeed, when we think about cultural policy in Australia, we often think simply of grants to artists, or government cultural agencies such as the Australia Council, as though these are the principal aspects of government policy about culture.
Historically, Australia hasn’t had a formal cultural policy since Paul Keating’s Creative Nation. As a result, the status quo in cultural policy is hopelessly confused.
The current framework views cultural policy almost exclusively in terms of arts funding, rather than the much bigger area of cultural regulation.
Things such as copyright laws, media regulation and censorship, urban planning and public liability laws, which affect the viability and diversity of cultural expression, are beyond the reach of the current paradigm.
Though they have a far greater impact on cultural life than the funding of any individual company or initiative, they are beyond the scope and responsibility of our cultural agencies. Much of the policy action is actually in Stephen Conroy’s Department of Communications, which has the responsibility for media regulation as well as the National Broadband Network – which is a huge cultural project, by the way.
The states and local government are also key players, particularly with venues and festivals.
The inconsistencies are legion. Australian taxpayers spend hundreds of millions a year supporting Australian films, but not Australian computer games. The federal government maintains local content rules on some free-to-air TV channels, but not others (literally Channel 10, but not Channel Eleven). State governments promote contemporary music policies (“Victoria Rocks”) at the same time as imposing crippling regulations on the live venues that support that contemporary music.
Australia’s media regulations are drawn up largely in reference to powerful media barons, rather than the interests of ordinary citizens.
Another consequence of these inconsistencies is a sustained lack of funding and support for Australia’s Indigenous cultural expressions.
In some respects W.E.H. Stanner’s “great Australian silence” towards the richness and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures continues today. Indigenous cultures are almost unarguably more important than television licenses or opera companies, yet receive far less than their deserved attention, funding or notice.
Did you know that the Australia Council gives more than five times more money to Opera Australia than it does to its entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board?
At least these issues are beginning to be discussed. Finally, vital but unheralded aspects of our culture are finally being talked about: for instance, artists themselves.
The statistics tell us that most working artists get by on the smell of an oily rag, even while governments invest in gleaming new buildings to house well-funded cultural institutions. A recent, comprehensive survey of Australian arts funding commissioned by Arts Queensland found that “grants to individual artists to make work” totalled less than five per cent of all arts funding.
The result has been the neglect of many to the benefit of a privileged few – not because their artforms are more marvellous, but because their champions have lobbied harder and enjoyed a dominant position in the cultural debate.
This has meant that, for instance, the rapid encroachment of Australian copyright laws into the public domain has generally been defended with reference to the rights of artists and composers, without reference to the benefits to industry or the competing rights of copyright users like schools, libraries and other artists.
Similarly, calls to reform the Australia Council are generally met with defensive outrage over the perceived threat to what opera director Richard Mills calls “the currency of the extraordinary”.
But the Australia Council desperately needs reform: its structure and artistic focus has changed little since the 1970s, while culture has changed all around it, driven by new technologies such as the internet. Is it time for a new federal cultural agency , one that could engage with the full diversity of Australian culture?
Ultimately, the cultural policy debate must move past the issue of arts funding. One possible way forward is to reframe the debate around ideas of innovation, diversity and participation across the board, rather than a series of policies that single out specific artforms or cultural expressions.
In media policy, this might mean policies that expand the choices and options for citizens and consumers, rather than the industry protections of media proprietors.
In copyright, it might mean developing a new copyright framework that balances the rights of copyright holders (generally big media companies) with copyright users (generally consumers and public institutions like schools and libraries). In arts policy, it could signal a move away from heritage artforms and traditions, and towards support for living artists who are making new work.
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