Barely a week before the election, the ALP has finally released an arts policy. It won’t frighten the horses.

There’s a grand total of $10 million over five years in new money, plus some reshuffling of funding responsibilities between Peter Garrett’s Department of the Arts and the nominally arms-length funding and policy agency, the Australia Council. Garrett has also pledged to implement the National Cultural Policy that he began taking submissions on this term, complete a contemporary music strategy, and review the progress of film funding under the new body, Screen Australia.

The new money is a gesture in the right direction, but only a gesture. The funding will apparently be directed towards fellowships for working artists and grants for the creation of new work. In the context of the Australia Council’s absurdly lop-sided budget, where around 93% of the funding goes to organisations, this is certainly welcome. The ALP estimates it will fund around 150 new works. This is not many, but it is better than nothing — which is what we’re being offered by the Coalition, whose silence on arts policy remains deafening.

In a campaign which has seen little in the way of lavish promises, $10 million over five years is nothing to sniff at. It certainly shouldn’t lead to any complaints about funding for hospital beds being diverted to smelly artists. On the other hand, it’s a small amount of money, even in the scheme of the Australia Council’s existing budget. Comparing it to Opera Australia’s ongoing funding of $18 million a year should give you all the context you need.

If anything, the policy announcement highlights the emerging difference of opinion on the importance of independent artists and new work between the Australia Council and Garrett as minister. The Australia Council could, if it wanted, free up more funding to support artists and new work from its existing budget, but that would mean taking on the big performing arts organisations which effectively dominate its policy framework. Garrett has shown no sign that he wants to do this, and neither has the Australia Council as a policy agency.

As I’ve argued elsewhere recently, the Australia Council is an agency desperately in need of reform. Indeed, tipping some of the existing Arts Department funding streams (like the Contemporary Music Touring Program) into the Australia Council may even prove counter-productive to their long-term effectiveness. The Council’s peer review system has atrophied in recent years, partly due to highly politicised funding board appointments by the Howard government, and partly due to the ongoing efficiency dividend, which has squeezed the Council’s budget for administrative support (there were even strikes last year by hard-pressed staff struggling to cope with their workload).

At a minimum, separating the Australia Council’s funding and policy responsibilities should be a first priority for Garrett next term. A broader set of cultural policies might emerge from the National Cultural Policy, should the ALP retain office. Or they might not.

As it stands, the Greens have the most comprehensive and arts-friendly cultural policy platform on the national agenda. Their pledge to review copyright law, for instance, is perhaps the most important of all the cultural policy promises on offer, if only because copyright law continues to spread its tentacles into ever more aspects of civic life.

As for the shape of arts and cultural policy under a Tony Abbott government … who knows?

Peter Fray

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