Given the well-publicised turmoil kicked off by former arts minister Simon Crean, you may have thought the federal government had put cultural policy on the backburner.
Not so. The government is pressing ahead with its new cultural policy, including legislative reforms to the Australia Council. New Arts Minister Tony Burke has wasted little time getting to grips with his portfolio, flying round the country for meet-and-greets.
New legislation has also been introduced to Parliament, including a bill to substantially reform the Australia Council for the Arts. The Australia Council Bill 2013 delivers on the reforms set out in Crean’s cultural policy, called Creative Australia. Most importantly, and controversially, the legislation would abolish the legal basis for the Australia Council’s artform boards — managing literature, dance, music, theatre, etc — that were written into the Council’s Whitlam-era governing legislation.
Instead, the bill makes no mention of specific artforms. It sets out the Australia Councils functions as follows:
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(a) to support Australian arts practice that is recognised for excellence
(b) to foster excellence in Australian arts practice by supporting a diverse range of activities
(c) to recognise and reward significant contributions made by artists and other persons to the arts in Australia
(d) to promote the appreciation, knowledge and understanding of the arts
(e) to support and promote the development of markets and audiences for the arts
(f) to provide information and advice to the Commonwealth Government on matters connected with the arts or the performance of the Council’s functions
(g) to conduct and commission research into, and publish information about, the arts
(h) to evaluate, and publish information about, the impact of the support the Council provides
(i) to undertake any other function conferred on it by this Act or any other law of the Commonwealth
(j) to do anything incidental or conducive to the performance of any of the above functions.
It may not seem like much, but the bill is a major reform to the structure of the Australia Council. It delivers on Crean’s promise to break down the artform silos that made it so difficult for the Council to recognise new and mutating cultural practice. The idea is a less legislatively prescriptive act that will give the Council more freedom to support a broader and more diverse palette of culture. As a senior policy-maker in Burke’s office told Crikey this week: “Who knows what art will look like in 50 years’ time?”
Of course, for those who believe the governing Act should recognise specific artforms, the bill is a concern. Supporters of particular practices, like literature, remain worried that under the looser legislative structure, it would be possible for the Australia Council to abandon support to writing, or to dance, or something else. When Crikey spoke to Literature Board chair Sophie Cunningham last year, she raised the issue of retaining support for smaller artforms as a concern.
The National Association for the Visual Arts has also issued a briefing paper on the legislation. According to NAVA spokeswoman Tamara Winikoff, “the new bill removes the function specified in the old Act that the Australia Council promote the general application of the arts in the community”. She argues with no specific mention of “the community” in the bill, there is a risk community arts could fall off the agenda.
NAVA also wants to see mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, which the government has put right at the top of the policy agenda as Goal One of Creative Australia. Winikoff writes that “with no acknowledgement of this in the 2013 Act the Australia Council is perhaps enabled but certainly not obliged to honour this policy goal”. She’s hoping to meet with the Office for the Arts later this month to discuss the details and recommend minor amendments.
The Australia Council Bill has yet to go the Senate, where it could be blocked or amended by the Greens. But the Greens are expected to support it; Christine Milne is on the record as supporting Australia Council reform. She said in a press conference on March 13:
“I’m pleased that there’s a recommendation to restructure the Australia Council, that’s something that the Greens have thought was necessary because there have been anomalies in there that haven’t allowed some arts organisations to be funded.”
The Coalition opposes. In his interview with Crikey before the release of Creative Australia, opposition arts spokesman George Brandis said “one of the reasons in terms of the organisation of the Australia Council of having the boards is having the interests of different artforms protected, so that they wouldn’t be in for the same undifferentiated funding pool”. An incoming Abbott government could amend or repeal the bill in a new Parliament.