Yesterday, the government released the National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper. It’s been a long and slow journey this far, after previous incumbent Peter Garrett announced the government’s intention to formulate a new policy back in 2009 and called for consultations. Arts Minister Simon Crean has indicated this discussion paper will now form the basis for a second round of submissions and consultations, with the new policy to be rolled out after next year’s federal budget.

“I’m really keen that this not be seen as a marginal policy, but connected to the mainstream,” Crean told Crikey in a phone interview. He identified several important areas driving the policy development process, notably Australia’s indigenous peoples which he claims “underpin our values”.

“It’s also important to underpin the productivity growth, the innovation, the creative drive that gets us ahead in economic growth,” said Crean. He wants to link the policy to Labor’s national curriculum — “arts in the curriculum is an important avenue” — and also identified “the various convergences of technology and the way in which we disseminate the art and content and develop it to encourage the development of creativity”.

While all of this is laudable, the discussion policy itself is rather thin on details. It lays out the current state of play in broad brushstrokes, lists the government’s current spending outlays in the arts portfolio (around about $740 million, after screen incentives are included, but not considering big-ticket items that most of us would consider cultural, like the ABC), and then identifies four “goals” of a future policy. They are:

  • A diversity goal — “to ensure that what the government supports — and how this support is provided — reflects the diversity of 21st century Australia, and protects and supports indigenous culture”
  • An innovation and participation goal — “to encourage the use of emerging technologies and new ideas that support the development of new artworks and the creative industries, and that enable more people to access and participate in arts and culture”
  • An excellence goal, with a focus on international audience development — “to support excellence and world-class endeavour, and strengthen the role that arts play in telling Australian stories both here and overseas”
  • A socio-economic goal — “to increase and strengthen the capacity of the arts to contribute to our society and economy”.

If you struggle to make sense of all of this, you’re not alone. There was considerable confusion in the arts community yesterday about what many of these motherhood statements will mean in practice, and how the various goals — some of which appear to be in direct opposition to each other — would play out in funding terms. As a senior state government arts policy advisor told me this morning, “the goals are a bit of a dog’s breakfast”.

Some of the goals really appear to be several quite different ideas mashed into one, such as the final goal which combines arts education agendas with cultural diplomacy and even arts philanthropy. As for the excellence goal, how will that be defined? After all, everyone in the arts thinks they’re excellent.

When asked how the new policy would attempt to integrate and balance these seemingly conflicting goals, Crean responded: “I’m pleased that we’ve got different goals that we want to encourage, so I hope we can find the balance.”

“I don’t want to be putting out a commitment to develop a cultural policy that will only be seen as being about entertainment,” he continued. “It is about the way we express ourselves, it is about a pride in our culture and the way in which the arts can contribute; it’s also the way in which we see the importance of the creative industries to innovation and economic sustainability.”

The discussion paper also appears to ignore large areas of cultural policy on the regulatory side of the ledger, such as copyright regulation, which the minister confirmed to Crikey would not be part of the policy discussion going forward. “That’s part of A-G [the Attorney-General’s Department],” he said.

When pressed on whether any new money for the policy would be found, given the budget’s rapidly shrinking fiscal position, Crean acknowledged the tough environment the government currently finds itself in, given its commitment to return to surplus. No new money, he admitted “is the starting point that Finance will have”.

Crean also defended Labor’s efficiency dividend, which has been particularly painful for smaller cultural institutions like the National Library, the National Gallery and the Australia Council.

“I’ve made it clear that I do understand the argument that the efficiency dividend is going to cut into the grants, we do have to find more efficient ways of administering the national institutions and we are doing it and getting good co-operation in that field,” he said.

Submissions are now open in response to the discussion paper, with a finalised National Cultural Policy now expected to be delivered sometime after May.