If the arts sector needed reminding of its lowly status in the free market arcadia the response to my suggestion that the arts need more secure funding should confirm it. It is entertaining for a non-economist to observe the irritation produced by the invocation of that dirty word “protectionism”. It is certainly not surprising to see economic rationalists rush headlong into print at any suggestion of government regulation or even, God forbid, agenda setting. But the reality is that if we want to build a creative country where the arts are available, accessible and of the highest quality, then the government’s protection and material encouragement will be required.

Australian companies producing Australian stories must necessarily compete in a competitive global market. Government assistance is required to ensure that Australian cultural product is manufactured and competitive in that international market place. Given the power and might of the international entertainment industry, surely a citizen of a civilised society might reasonably expect the government of the day to devise policies to protect, nurture and safeguard the national culture?

A modest example from my own patch: despite attempts to create an open market for books on the pretext that books would be cheaper, to date Australian publishers have managed to block the flood of failed product multinational publishers would like to dump in this territory. In holding back the floodgates, Australian publishers have grown an indigenous publishing industry and have now created a prodigious public appetite for Australian stories. With the government’s support in “protecting” our market over 50% of all books sold in Australia are now originated here. With government support we have also built an extremely profitable export business in educational publishing. The “protected” local publishing industry is a genuine success story.

For over twenty years the Booker prize-winning novelist, Peter Carey, refused the lucrative imprecations of global publishing companies. He preferred instead to bring his mighty cultural capital to the University of Queensland Press. Carey understood the principle at stake and eschewed the short-term considerable personal financial gain for the long-term civic aspirations for an authentic, home grown Australian culture.

Eminent economists such as Professor David Throsby have done excellent research as to the economic benefits and contribution to the GDP made by the creative industries. But governments have many objectives of which economic progress is surely but one. If I am given the “talking stick” at the 2020 Summit I will be arguing that the Rudd Government should commit to cultural objectives as part of creating a civilised country.

Australia is internationally recognised as a creative and innovative nation when the Bangarra Dance Company performs in Asia, the Sydney Theatre Company dazzles the cynical theatre crowd in New York, and Australian publishing is the market focus for the Frankfurt Book Fair. Next week I will be part of the Australian presence at the London Book Fair, with the assistance of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I will watch publishers from all over the world pick up a copy of Geoffrey Bardon’s landmark book, Papunya, on the Western Desert art movement. The book was written by a teacher educated when art was still part of the extended secondary school curriculum. The book was published with the support of the great Melbourne philanthropist Russell Grimwade under the Miegunyah Press imprint. The book was originally designed, edited, typeset and printed in Australia. With government support we have now sold rights to the US, UK and European territories. More importantly we have enabled a broad international audience to engage with a remarkable era in indigenous cultural production. Papunya is a choice example of the relationship between authentic local cultural activity and what is required to bring a remarkable story to the global market place.

Without a civic consensus and the political will to safeguard Australian culture, we are doomed to be the unfortunate consumers of second rate and second hand culture.

Peter Fray

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