Foreword by the Editor

When a political party goes to an election with a published arts policy, the first thing to appreciate is that it has actually taken the trouble to think about the situation of the arts and what, in government, it might do to improve it.

In Australia, this cannot be taken for granted.

This is an extraordinary situation. The arts are an area of human endeavour that over centuries has engaged some of our greatest minds, that are among the most important aspects of our society, that give insight into the most profound aspects of our selves and our culture and for some are the reason for living. And yet it is not unusual that the member of our national government charged with the responsibility to protect and nurture the arts is so feeble, or incurious or intimidated or arrogant that he or she does not put forward any statement of belief or intention that will be pursued upon election.

See Australian National Arts Policy in the Arts in Australia Knowledge Base

This has been the case with the current minister, Mitch Fifield, from whom nothing has been heard nor promised. His predecessor, George Brandis, made a very brief policy statement to an obscure meeting; it was mentioned when he was challenged with having no policy but otherwise was not promoted. It seemed not to be the result of any serious consideration. He took some damaging decisions of high impact but little rationality.

Simon Crean, the Minister in the Labor Government that lost power in 2013, conducted a long, exhaustive, consultative process that produced a very detailed policy. He clearly showed respect, commitment and perseverance. His predecessor, Peter Garrett, also began such a process, less successfully. Labor has more recently committed to implement aspects of the Crean plan. Now it has issued a policy statement prior to this year’s election, about which, more in a moment.

It is important that our political parties show evidence of understanding and commitment through the development of an arts policy. It is not too late for the Coalition to produce a policy for the next election. At this point, if one’s vote depended upon the party’s commitment to the arts, the choice is clear.

Once a policy statement is there, we can decide whether we like it. We can discuss its various components and search for their pros and cons. We may or may not like Labor’s policy. As for the Coalition, we can first of all dislike the fact that it could not be bothered to have one – and then ask ourselves what we would expect from such a party. Commitment? Comprehension? Support?

This is the policy statement issued by the national Labor Party

Para 333. Arts and culture are essential to the good life; while a creative nation is a prosperous nation. All people can participate in arts events and education and express their creativity in an array of different cultural forms. Labor will not only support artists, we will strengthen communities and develop a creative culture so Australians are ready for the challenges and opportunities of life. Australia’s cultural institutions play an important role and Labor will support these institutions to collect, preserve and make available Australia’s cultural heritage. Arts and culture also contribute to innovation and lift productivity.

334. Labor will build on and further develop Creative Australia, the national cultural policy adopted by Labor in 2013.

335. Arts and creativity play an important part in the daily lives of all Australians, and Labor will integrate arts and culture policy within broader social and economic goals. Australia needs stronger links between creative culture and action to lift productivity, spread innovation and strengthen community cohesion.

336. Labor will:

  • Ensure what the government supports — and how this support is provided — reflects the diversity of a 21st century Australia and protects and supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people culture;
  • Encourage the use of emerging technologies and new ideas in new artworks and the creative industries, and enable more people to enjoy and participate in arts and culture;
  • Support excellence and world-class endeavour and strengthen the role for the arts in telling Australian stories here and overseas recognising the important role that the arts can play in Australia’s diplomatic efforts around the world; and
  • Increase and strengthen the capacity of the arts to contribute to our society and economy.

337. Australia needs:

  • Greater participation of all Australians in Australia’s cultural life, especially in disadvantaged and marginalised communities;
  • An active role for public arts and culture programs in schools, in regional communities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and throughout our cities and suburbs;
  • The Australia Council funded and operating as an independent and expert grant making body which works closely with arts organisations and individual artists;
  • Great national collecting institutions able to tour their collections to be open to all Australians;
  • The film and television industry supported and funded, encouraging increased private investment, training further talent and assisting market development through Australian local content requirements on free to air and pay television as well as diverse new technologies;
  • Australian stories being created and told by Australian performers and crew in Australian film and television production; and
  • Strong local markets supporting the Australian music sector.

338. Labor will improve access to local markets and support for independent and emerging artists building overseas careers.

339. The legal framework of copyright is necessary to ensure the income generated by arts, culture and heritage is fairly distributed between the creators and the institutions and entrepreneurs who make it available. A successful copyright framework will support the education, arts, culture, and heritage of Australia by:

  • Developing and maintaining a national identity in the Australian creative industries;
  • Protecting the intellectual property rights of content creators;
  • Supporting new and emerging Australian creative talent;
  • Meeting consumer expectations of speed to market;
  • Securing the supply and diversity of Australian-produced intellectual property;
  • Promoting competitive, sustainable and innovative Australian creative industries; and
  • Promoting exports of Australian creative product to foreign Territories.

There will be time to discuss the pros and cons of arts policies before the Federal election. For the moment, you are invited to read this review by John Shand, not specially chosen but the one that turned up today.

It’s a review of the disc Confrontations by Joe O’Connor Trio with Scott Tinkler.

‘If this music contained any more tension it would snap. Each note seems to be stretched dangerously taut, and the instruments do not so much cohere as collide…O’Connor’s five originals have this tension inbuilt, with their juxtapositions of mood and density, of notation and improvisation, of the acute angles integral to some rhythmic ideas and of the sort of soloing the material encourages. But it’s not all nervous friction, by any means, with the glorious 13 minutes of Sarabande drawing out a collective lyricism…All players navigate the rhythmic complexities without sacrificing a sense of flow, O’Connor sometimes draping a silken surface atop the rhythm section’s agitation.’

This is an example of how we experience music, as described by one articulate listener. The language contrasts with, eg ‘Securing the supply and diversity of Australian-produced intellectual property,’ a dot point from the Labor policy.

The first paragraph of the Labor policy (333) makes a statement about the arts, artists, their beneficial contribution to community and the economy, their utility… The other ‘planks’ of the policy set out intentions related to market, economic development, regulation such as copyright, the creative industries, cultural diversity, creativity, exports.

These are all rightfully the concerns of a government arts policy. Its purpose should be to create a country, a context in which the arts are encouraged, participation is possible for everyone, and good artists are supported and challenged (for instance).

But this is the tail of the dog. We in the supplicant arts community, and the commercial arts industry, increasingly speak in these terms and gradually the actuality of the arts fades into the background and our talk is of prevailing and profiting, of getting more instead of getting better.

Could that Labor policy be modified so that it is clearly about the arts rather than about almost anything?


Australian Labor Party, in its National Policy Platform for 2019

Editorial comment by Richard Letts, Director of The Music Trust

First published in Loudmouth magazine, February 2019
Uploaded 25 March 2019

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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