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Crean gets to work on Labor’s cultural fabric

It’s been a long time coming, but Labor’s National Cultural Policy appears to be finally taking shape.

Federal arts minister Simon Crean inherited the development of a National Cultural Policy from his predecessor, Peter Garrett, after taking on the portfolio in Julia Gillard’s 2010 cabinet. The idea for a federal cultural policy was first mooted by cultural economist David Throsby in 2006 and the idea was taken up by Garrett in opposition. Once in government, Garrett started taking consultations on a new policy, which closed in early 2010.

Not a lot has happened since then; indeed, Garrett’s shiny visage can still be seen grimacing from the front page of the federal government’s consultation page. There have been no announcements regarding the policy and precious few details are available. Sources in the minister’s office tell Crikey the policy is definitely “not on the back-burner” and will be delivered later in the year.

In a speech to the first Regional Arts Broadband Forum in Canberra in March, Crean told delegates a “new national cultural policy is my number one priority as minister for the arts”.

Some broad outlines are beginning to take shape. They appear to be driven by Crean’s background in and commitment to education and training, and will look to leverage Crean’s other hat as minister for regional Australia, regional development and local government.

In his speech to the Regional Arts Broadband Forum, Crean pointed to the emerging research around the benefits of arts education, which, he said, “shows that an arts-rich education prepares children for better academic achievement and creative flexible thinking”. He points to the incorporation of creative arts education into the national curriculum and will apparently have more to say on the issue at a speech to the National Institute of Dramatic Arts this Sunday night.

The other big theme is, you guessed it, the NBN. It will “transform arts in regional Australia and in Australia as a whole”, he told the forum, pointing to the potential for broadband to expand training and employment opportunities in the arts and cultural industries in regional Australia.

The other big announcement in the cultural policy space was the recent appointment of advertising mogul Harold Mitchell to head a new inquiry into private support of the arts. Mitchell is a well-known arts philanthropist, and sits on the board of several prominent institutions including the National Gallery of Victoria, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

The government is predictably keen to increase private giving to arts organisations. But it will be interesting to see whether Mitchell looks at any of the thornier aspects of the issue. Arts philanthropy is inherently inequitable, for instance, with the vast majority of private donations going to the big, established cultural institutions such as the ones of which Mitchell is a director. One big challenge is how to encourage giving to the smaller arts organisations and ordinary working artists, which currently receive very little.

Another thorny issue concerns the tax treatment of arts philanthropy. One way of looking at arts philanthropy is as a handy tax shelter for high net-wealth individuals, who can lower their tax bills and still get their name on a new room in a state art gallery. One suspects this will not be the prism through which the issue is examined.

There’s plenty we don’t know yet — both about Mitchell’s review and the eventual shape of the National Cultural Policy. What are Mitchell’s terms of reference? How will the review play into the broader cultural policy debate? What about the many significant non-arts parts of the cultural policy framework, such as the future of the country’s radio spectrum, or Stephen Conroy’s $280 million licensing fee rebate to the television networks?

Crikey put these questions to Crean’s office, but at the time of publication they hadn’t got back to us.

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