Cultural policy is in limbo. Artists and industry types aren’t exactly rioting in the streets — they’re not even penning outraged opinion pieces yet — but there is a certain level of unease within the sector.

Arts Minister Simon Crean has delayed the announcement of the National Cultural Policy. The policy was slated for release the weekend before Tuesday night’s budget, but has been put on the back-burner. The Australia Council review is also awaiting release — Crikey understands that it has been completed — because it was going to be incorporated into the National Cultural Policy too.

ArtsPeak — the sector’s latest effort to present a unified voice on the issue, convened by two of the industry’s savviest operators in AusDance’s Julie Dyson and NAVA’s Tamara Winikoff — put out a press release last week stating that “we are disappointed to hear of the delay”. They went on to “reaffirm our support for the development of a well-crafted and well-resourced National Cultural Policy” and urged the government to “minimise the delay”.

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So where does that leave us? In a way, the delay of the cultural policy demonstrates the low stakes at play within the arts sector. For the average working artist, arts grants are something of a distant dream and the challenge of paying the bills is very much a week-to-week proposition of chasing that next gig, residency, exhibition or production. Arts and cultural policy spans a wide area of public policy and some of the most important bits are state and local issues, such as liquor licensing laws or local government red tape affecting music venues.

Where the feds are involved, policy often happens in ad hoc, unco-ordinated spurts. This is probably the kindest description for April’s $12 million funding announcement regarding The Wolverine, an out-of-channels production grant to a big Hollywood studio that Crean and Prime Minister Julia Gillard have been at pains to stress is a “one-off”.

The other big problem with cultural policy, and probably the National Cultural Policy itself, is that so much of the big-picture stuff happens outside the Arts portfolio. On budget night, for instance, hundreds of millions of dollars were showered on television broadcasters — big organisations whose services nearly everyone would describe as “cultural”. SBS received $158 million, including $63 million for a new national indigenous television channel, while the public and commercial free-to-air broadcasters received hundreds of millions in taxpayer’s dollars to transition from analogue broadcast spectrum that is being “restacked”.

As Bernard Keane and Margaret Simons have been pointing out at Crikey, the Boreham Convergence Review has big implications for the future of Australian media and communications policy, including in policy areas that plainly impinge on the ambit of cultural policy, like local content quotas, news media regulation and community broadcasting.

Of course, while it’s true there is a pressing need for more consistency and direction in federal cultural policy, it’s also true that the show must go on. It’s unlikely any productions have been cancelled or festivals put on hold while we wait for the announcement of the new policy.

Indeed, cultural policy is still happening — as we pointed out last week in the interesting example of the “excellence pool”.

Zoom out a little further and you could argue the single biggest item of new “cultural funding” during the current Labor government — now totalling more than $300 million — has been the rolling licence fee rebates dispensed by Stephen Conroy’s Communications Department to the free-to-air broadcasters. Exactly why multibillion dollar listed corporations need discounts on their oligopolistic use of public broadcasting spectrum has never really been explained by Conroy. But the cost to the taxpayer amounts to a public subsidy that arts organisations in the small-to-medium sector — currently campaigning for a 10% increase in their block funding — can only dream about.

Given that, it’s worth asking if a new policy actually needs to come with dollars attached anyway. Everyone in the arts sector generally welcomes more funding, obviously. But as the Convergence Review has shown, you can release broad-ranging policy papers about the future of a complex area without necessarily attaching a big novelty cheque. Paradoxically, the areas where there is greatest need for new funding in the arts — individual artists, small-to-medium organisations, and neglected policy areas such as community broadcasting and innovative contemporary cultural expressions — are precisely the areas where a little bit of extra funding goes a long way. It would be possible to find $10-20 million in extra funding for these areas relatively easily, simply by reshuffling existing priorities.

In any case, cultural policy can and should be about more than just taxpayer dollars. Government regulations make a huge impact on the arts and culture, as the February 2010 SLAM protests against Victorian liquor licensing crackdowns demonstrate. There’s been precious little effort go into micro-economic reform in the cultural industries, perhaps because they are still not seen as serious industries. To take one example: public liability tort reform could be just as important to the everyday livelihood of working artists and musicians as extra funding.

At the other end of the spectrum, working out what to do about Australian content served by internet behemoths such as Google (something the Convergence Review barely touches on) could have far-reaching benefits for Australian creators and audiences.

So maybe, just maybe, the delay in the delivery of the National Cultural Policy is a blessing: an opportunity to rethink the narrow terms of the current discussion and bring the findings of the Convergence Review into play. There’s plenty of landscape for vision available, if Simon Crean and Julia Gillard are willing to gaze a little further towards the horizon.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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