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Delahunty: kudos to Crean for prising arts money from Treasury

Former Victorian ALP arts minister Mary Delahunty reflects on how hard it is to get money out of Treasury boffins for the arts, and provides a few pointers to would-be arts ministers.

If politics is the art of the nearly impossible, Simon Crean has done well. In a harsh fiscal environment the wily political veteran (and federal Arts Minister) has winkled money for his 10-year national arts blueprint out of bigger portfolios, an always reluctant Treasury and often recalcitrant states.

For the $235 million Creative Australia plan, plus $70 million in the last budget to the collecting institutions like the National Library to digitise collections, Crean has worked across government. “As you can see we’ve worked with colleagues for a social and economic dividend,” he said yesterday.

Education, Innovation, Social inclusion, Indigenous affairs, Regional affairs and Tourism 20/20 have answered the siren song of embedding culture in national life and national government priorities. There is even a joint press release with the Attorney General on the preservation of e-books and web content by extending the Copyright Act 1968 to capture Australia’s digitally published material.

As I found in Victoria you have to convince colleagues that the arts are not just an add-on for the few but at the heart of who we are as a modern prosperous democracy. But it can be a hard ask. I appointed an accountant with a background in music to head Arts Victoria. Minister and bureaucrat, you have to convince the Treasury boffins, who brief the Treasurer, on the economic value of cultural creation. You have to use the language of the balance sheet and the vernacular of the board room to move the conversation from cultural entitlement to a debate about dividend on investment.

So Creative Australia is a nod of respect back to the primacy of indigenous culture, to Paul Keating’s Creative Nation 18 years ago, and a confident tilt forward to the thriving creative industries spawned by the digital revolution where employment is growing faster than the general economy. Now we’re talking jobs!

It’s clear Creative Australia has been gestating awhile as it knits together threads seemingly unconnected. While Gonski discussion has been dominating education, the arts has quietly been absorbed as a key subject in the national curriculum. The institutional knots of the Australia Council (reviewed by Gabrielle Trainor, Angus James and Harold Mitchell) and Australian Business Arts Foundation, the founders and the philanthropists, have been untangled.

The 40-year-old Australia Council gets an extra $73 million to distribute to artists and arts organisations but significantly, when legislation is passed in the Parliament this year, it gets a nimble new structure. AbaF is replaced by Creative Partners Australia with an extra $8.6 million to cultivate private giving to the arts.

Creative Australia seems built on a sturdy structure; federal government priorities of jobs, innovation and education, an Arts Accord with the states, incentives for philanthropy and a revitalised Australia Council.

There are also some delicious little electoral sweeteners for every federal MP. Choosing Creative Young Stars in their electorate to share in the national $8.1 million prize. “It’s the same as Sports Champions which every MP is giving grants for now,” said the Minister. He was also pretty chuffed about the $3.4 million for young people to train for arts jobs and gain accreditation. “I introduced Sports Ready as education minister in the Keating government. I always wanted to do Arts Ready, there was just a bit of time in the middle.”

I wonder if the timing of this national cultural policy is not bad either, what with major sporting codes under a cloud of doping allegations. Perhaps Australians are looking beyond the field to the stage, screen and page for other heroes in the 21st century.

*Mary Delahunty is the author of Public Life:Private Grief, a former arts and education minister in Victorian Labor government and the founding national director of Writing Australia

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