News

Sep 17, 2010

Real cultural policy change comes down to Conroy

Policy that talks only of 'the arts' misses huge swathes of Australian cultural activity. That's why the real action won't be under the new Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean but in Conroy's portfolio of Communications.

Ben Eltham — <em>Crikey</em> arts commentator

Ben Eltham

Crikey arts commentator

We have a new arts minister: Simon Crean. Few seem to be mourning the passing of the old one, Peter Garrett. He might have been the first Australian arts minister in history to have been a working musician, but that doesn't seem to have won him many friends in the sector. The silence from the arts community on his departure has been deafening – indeed, some arts figures have been openly critical, like Evelyn Richardson of performing arts industry lobby group Live Performance Australia. News Limited' s Ashleigh Wilson (no mean musician himself, in his life away from journalism) examines Garrett's strange unpopularity in an article for The Punch. He rightly points to Garrett's strangely muted performance during the Bill Henson affair as the source of considerable discontent in the sector. Garrett also mishandled the micro-controversy over funding for the Australian National Academy of Music, and seemed to go silent during other important debates, like the Cooper Review's recommendation to exclude art as a valid self-managed superannuation investment. Garrett did have some wins, including some significant legislation in the Resale Royalty Act for Visual Artists, a new law which, for the first time, gives visual artists a royalty each time one of their works is resold. The bill is the culmination of a 20-year campaign by visual arts groups such as the National Association of Visual Arts, and on balance is a big reform for the sector. But commercial galleries, art dealers and auctioneers hate the new bill, which imposes a 5% tax on each of their transactions and is reportedly complex and difficult to comply with. Indigenous arts centres in central Australia – surely the very thing Garrett would have most wanted to support -- have complained loudly about the issue. Part of the problem is that the bill is effectively a new copyright restriction. It therefore creates the same thickets of red tape and risks of litigation so prevalent in other parts of the content industries, such as music licensing. Garrett's real errors may have been political. He appears to have angered some powerful voices in the major performing arts sector with his efforts to develop a new national cultural policy for Australia. The status quo in Commonwealth arts funding is heavily skewed towards the big cultural institutions and major performing arts sector, and therefore enjoys powerful and vocal defenders. Some of them clearly smelt the incipient threat of a move away from the high-'A' or 'heritage' artforms … perhaps even, quelle horreur, more support for those dreaded new media arts. As a result, there has been some conspicuous anti-Garrett backgrounding to friendly scribes in The Australian's arts section. Which is rather a shame, really, because federal arts policy desperately needs reform. Garrett's national cultural policy was a good start in this respect – but it was only a start. As Marcus Westbury and myself have been arguing, policy that talks only of 'the arts' misses huge swathes of Australian cultural activity, from the internet to public broadcasting to game design – and, yes, the exciting new forms of digital creativity. In this broader sense, the bulk of the cultural policy action federally will continue to take place inside Stephen Conroy's Communications portfolio. The NBN, for instance, will have a huge impact on Australia's cultural sector, particularly in screen. Currently, Conroy's department regulates local content restrictions for broadcasters, which is one reason why many in the screen industry would prefer that Screen Australia was moved out of Arts and back into Communications. Crean's appointment brings up an interesting point about governance for smaller portfolios. Where should small but significant portfolios like Arts sit, and who should run them? Is it better to have a Cabinet minister who will be able to go in to bat for the portfolio come budget time, but won't have the time to meddle? Or would the arts be better served by a junior but ambitious Parliamentary Secretary, with the time to actually engage with the sector and the relevant policy debates? What about bringing communications, arts and sport together in a Ministry for Australian Culture? Arts now sits somewhere inside Regional Development. As Mark Bahnisch has pointed out, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But given the critical importance of Crean's portfolio to keeping Julia Gillard's minority government in office, we're likely to have a Minister for the Arts who will be lucky to give more than a few hours to the portfolio each week. This may be good news for those that benefit from the status quo, but it is arguably a disservice to a sector that represents nearly 3% of the economy. So what do we know about Simon Crean's love for the arts (or otherwise)? Not much. So far the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government has had little to say about his other portfolio, apart from some offhand comments to The Australian's Iain Sheddon about his efforts to employ rock musicians as Paul Keating's Employment Minister. “"I did a lot of things with all of the creative arts and the rock music industry to look for nurturing opportunities for young people to get involved," he told Sheddon, "not just in performance but in the industry surrounding it." I contacted Simon Crean's office for this article asking about Peter Garrett's election commitments. Garret promised, among other things, $10 million over five years for 150 new artistic works, presentations and fellowships.“The Gillard Government will honour all election commitments,” a spokesman for the Minister emailed me. The Gillard Government will honour all election commitments? You heard it here first, in the arts column. Ben Eltham is a freelance writer, researcher at the University of Western Sydney’s Centre for Cultural Research and fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He writes on the arts and culture each Friday for Crikey.

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