Tony Burke arts
Labor's Tony Burke

For a politician in opposition, Tony Burke is a busy guy.

The Labor frontbencher has a swag of portfolio responsibilities in Bill Shorten’s shadow cabinet, including hotly contested political battlegrounds like citizenship, multicultural affairs and water. He’s Labor’s leader in the House of Representatives, responsible for day-to-day tactics on the floor of increasingly interesting parliament. Tony Burke is also the Labor Party’s spokesperson for the arts.

The arts and culture are traditionally Labor strongholds. Artists and cultural workers are generally progressive types, many of whom still remember the glory years of Whitlam and Keating fondly.

In what seems like a lifetime ago, Burke was Labor’s last arts minister, inheriting the role from Simon Crean in 2013 in the turmoil of Labor’s civil war. Mark Dreyfus took over the shadow arts responsibilities after the Coalition victory of 2013, where he proved a diligent and effective opponent to George Brandis and Mitch Fifield. In the post-election reshuffle of 2016, Burke got the role back, but not without ruffling a few feathers — insiders say Dreyfus wanted to keep it.

Since 2016, Burke hasn’t had a lot to say publicly in this portfolio role. Labor is yet to put forward a proper policy for the forthcoming federal election (of course, the Coalition didn’t bother to release one in 2013 or 2016). Crikey spoke to a Labor source at the vernissage of Melbourne Art Fair, who was critical of Burke’s tenure as arts spokesperson. “When is he going to pull his finger out?” the insider asked.

Arts insiders argue that Burke has been active behind the scenes, spending a lot of time in meetings and roundtables and appearing at industry events like this week’s Big Sound music industry conference in Brisbane.

There are plenty of issues for Burke to grapple with. The screen industry is demanding reform to local content rules in order to protect Australian producers. The government is currently reviewing the status of the major performing arts organisations, a perennial flashpoint in the sector. Visual artists and writers are asking why the performing arts continue to receive the majority of federal arts funding. And behind the scenes, there is genuine disquiet in the Indigenous arts sector about the appointment of former Rio Tinto executive Sam Walsh as chair of the Australia Council.

Crikey sat down with Burke on a recent trip to Melbourne, before the recent carnage in the Liberal Party, and asked what sort of arts minister he would be.

“We’re still not quite settled for commitments that we’ll take to the election,” Burke began, “but the consultation’s been pretty intense for a long time. What I’m trying to find a way of delivering is to make sure we’ve got a clear vision beyond ‘we will restore the cuts’.”

Some of the consultation has clearly been with the screen sector. While not committing to anything, Burke is signalling that Labor will move to impose content restrictions on internet platforms.

[Should Netflix be forced to screen more Australian content?]

“When we introduced content quotas for free-to-air television, it wasn’t because we had a passionate belief in bandwidth, it was because we had a belief in Australians watching their own content and so the fact that we’re over a different method of streaming [to broadcast] shouldn’t change the end point, the objective should be the same.”

When asked how Labor might achieve that, Burke replied that all options are open. “There’s a series of options that are available to governments,” he said. “Whatever we do, you want to make sure you have a policy that is lasting, you want to make sure if you can is not your own country going completely alone, you want to be as consistent as you can, and thirdly you want to be clear what the objective is.”

“My sense of all of the decisions for rights holders is: it needs to go all the way back to first principles. The reason we introduced quotas … was because we wanted our stories to be told. If we don’t get the policy right, that’s under threat.”

When it comes to arts funding, Burke reiterated Labor’s 2016 election policy to restore the funding cut from the Australia Council. He also recommits to the arms-length model for arts funding.

“We went to the [last] election to restore the cuts. I’m always reluctant to do too much outside the arms-length funding model. Criticisms of the Australia Council will always be there … I really don’t want to ever get to a point where you run the risk where artforms that a minister particularly likes are the ones that are funded.”

What about the funding mix, which currently favours major performing arts organisations at the expense of the rest of the sector?

“And that’s one of the issues I’m trying to work through,” Burke replied, “how do you deal most effectively with artforms that aren’t always automatically through the door?”

“The Australia Council for example has had a very limited engagement with popular contemporary music, they could point to examples, but in terms of impact on the total industry, it’s not as big. When we established the Office of Live Music, we went outside of the Australia Council and went directly to APRA. Had we done it any other way it would probably have been cut immediately after the election, and it has made a significant difference.”

Perhaps most encouragingly, Burke appears to have a bigger vision for the arts in a Labor government. When asked whether it was the role of an arts minister to defend the importance of the arts and culture in an increasingly polarised democracy, Burke was enthusiastic.

“Absolutely!” he exclaimed.

“I remember being really frustrated that when I was minister, I remember being handed briefing notes when I was speaking at an event opening or exhibition of whatever, and they were: ‘how many people that were expecting to come, how many dollars it would bring to the town, how many other benefits there would be’.”

“And I remember saying to one of the people responsible for giving me the briefing notes, ‘Is there any mention of the art?’ And [the reply] was ‘Oh yeah, ministers normally like to make the economic case’. If the arts minister can’t make the artistic case, it will never be made by anyone … And here’s the thing with arts policy, if you accept the frame that this is only justified because of its economic merit, then the moment another industry turns up that has more economic merit, you’d switch.”

Such sentiments will be music to the ears of artists and cultural producers. Burke is an enthusiast for culture: he concluded the interview by imploring that “what the arts is able to do goes right to the core of what you’re meant to be trying to do in public life”.

But will the argument stick? So far, the ALP has yet to unveil any concrete policies. The challenge for the sector will be to make Labor put its money where its mouth is.