Peter Costello’s jibe about Peter Garett’s arts policy in Tuesday’s question time shows how desperately the Coalition is searching for chinks in Labor’s armour.

Commenting on Labor’s new arts policy (entitled New Directions for the Arts) announced on Friday, Costello unloaded on Australia’s “poor old artists,” ridiculing the new proposal that Labor says will “review the current state of artists’ incomes and introduce initiatives that enable artists currently on welfare greater opportunity to produce work”.

“You might say to yourself,” Costello continued with lip-smacking glee, “if you’re on welfare, you would have a lot of time to produce work if you were an artist …”

The attack on Garrett’s policy opens a new front in a culture war that the government should realise it’s losing. It’s also a wilful misrepresentation of Labor’s policy. Nowhere in the ALP policy document does it say that Labor will create an Irish-style art-for-the-dole program. Instead, the document suggests that Labor will work to harmonise Centrelink, Australia Council and ATO red-tape so that artists aren’t cut off welfare when, for instance, they win a prize or receive a grant. It’s a sensible proposal that will remove some of the more absurd punishments for success for Australian artists facing lumpy cash flow and low incomes.

But Costello sensed an opportunity to blow hard on the “artists are w-nkers” dog-whistle, even managing a crack about Garrett’s status as a former rock star.

The usual suspects in the culture wars have lined up behind Costello. Andrew Bolt has labelled Garrett’s policy “ludicrous” and suggests it shows why if you “scratch Kevin Rudd’s team … you’ll find new-class Labor red under that thin coat of Rudd grey.”

The problem for the government is that the arts are not nearly as unpopular as Costello and Bolt seem to think. As recent ABS data shows, Australians are actually quite a cultural bunch. According to the ABS, 85% of us attended places like art galleries, libraries and cinemas last year – which makes culture in Australia every bit or more popular than sport.

So while attacking artists on welfare plays well to the culture warriors like Bolt, support for the arts may well be one of those issues – like WorkChoices and same-s-x marriages – where this conservative government finds itself out of touch with the sentiments of an increasingly socially liberal electorate.

After all, amongst the young voters where support for the Coalition is hemorrhaging, rock stars (even ex-rock stars) are taken a lot more seriously than politicians.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey