After years of neglect, is Labor’s promise of cultural policy enough to save the Australian arts?

It’s always a good sign when one party announces their cultural policy five days before the election and the other party doesn’t have a cultural policy at all.


It’s always a good sign when one party announces their cultural policy five days before the election and the other party doesn’t have a cultural policy at all.

So, you can imagine the pessimism weighing on my mind as I made the trip down to St Kilda this Monday to catch Shadow Minister for the Arts Tony Burke presenting Labor’s agenda for the Australian arts if they win on Saturday. The launch was held in the Gershwin Room of the Espy, one of Melbourne’s most iconic pubs and live music venues and among the many venues that has borne the brunt of these two years of COVID-19.

It goes without saying that the arts have suffered the past few years. Even before the pandemic, we saw a decade of funding cuts and disrespect culminate in the Coalition’s decision to get rid of the federal arts department. You would hope that, after artists helped to unite the country behind those suffering from the 2019 bushfires, the government would realise the importance of the arts, but the treatment we saw during the pandemic reveals the utter falsehood of such a hope.

The government’s greatest achievement in supporting artists in the pandemic was its Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) program. It carried a hefty price tag of $200 million—with that much money, you would expect the government would take the appropriate steps to target it effectively. You would be incorrect. RISE largely went to well-established companies and producers who, don’t get me wrong, definitely needed the money. However, it’s a big “fuck ya” to the 90% of artists who don’t receive public funding and who are thus most vulnerable to financial turmoil.

Then, there was JobKeeper, which Burke summed up pretty well on Monday when he said, “if you wanted to design a policy to exclude as many arts workers as possible, then JobKeeper is what you would come up with”. In a sector so dominated by casuals and freelancers, a welfare payment aimed at those in more stable forms of employment was never going to work well for artists.

Now, RISE will be ending soon with a final $20 million payment, announced in a federal budget that also sounded the death knell for funding to Screen Australia, regional arts and Australian music. In my field of literature, tales abound of Australia’s greatest writers being close to poverty with little hope in sight.

This is the backdrop against which Labor are announcing their cultural policy. This is what they must reckon with.

By leaving this arts policy launch until so late, Labor have immediately started out on a bad foot. I get it—cultural policy doesn’t win you elections, most of us were already going to preference Labor anyway, Australians are all just a bunch of parochial philistines and the arts are for wankers, et cetera. But damn, give us something here. This kind of neglect only fuels such perceptions when it should be the responsibility of any left-leaning government to promote the arts as important not just to the economy but to the human experience.

Anyway, time to get into the policy. By which I mean, time to get into the plan to have policy at a later date. Because yep, this was not a “policy launch” so much as it was a “promise-to-develop-policy-if-we-win launch”. There were no spending strategies or detailed proposals, just a series of principles and general commitments.

With that said, there is some good stuff here.

Labor’s plan is to take the Creative Australia policy of the 2013 Gillard government and revamp it for the needs of today to “get back on track quickly”. The most foundational update they’re proposing is an emphasis on Indigenous culture as the “first pillar” of the entire policy agenda. Burke opened his speech by describing the Bunurong Corroboree Tree which sits in the heart of St Kilda and how, behind it, “there is a history and a belonging to place” that must be captured in how Australia conducts its cultural policy. This is great: a sorely necessary commitment which acknowledges the worth and importance of Aboriginal culture. I only wish it could have been supplemented with concrete policy proposals beyond a reference to a National Aboriginal Arts Gallery in Alice Springs that Labor had already spruiked earlier in the campaign.

Exciting to hear was that Labor would revitalise national cultural policy, bringing back a federal arts department with the aim of facilitating renewed cooperation between federal, state and local governments.

Labor would also return peer review to the Australia Council. Over the past decade, the system of ministerial review has eroded the Australia Council’s intended purpose as an arms-length body run by artists and for artists by allowing politicians to influence funding. This has promoted an environment of toxic politicisation and censorship and it is a step in the right direction to do away with ministerial review.

Other policy commitments were unfortunately a lot more vague. Labor have said they would “examine” the potential for a national insurance scheme for live events. We need a little bit more than examining to revive live music, I’m afraid—shows across Australia are still being shut down regularly by COVID-19 and it’s putting producers off wanting to stage events. There was an interesting mention of Labor wanting to take on ticket scalpers as well, although no details of course.

Similarly, there was a promise to “work with all stakeholders to determine ways Australian content can be boosted” to respond to the problem of new media environments such as streaming undermining the popularity of Australian content. I have no clue what “work[ing] with” entails, who these “stakeholders” are and what sort of “Australian content” would be “boosted”, but hey—it’s better than the Liberals just letting it happen, I suppose.

Throughout the night, there was a sense of Burke and his fellow speakers attempting to evoke Gough Whitlam. Standing out to me was Burke’s claim that “artists are cultural pillars in themselves and are destinations in their own right”, echoing Whitlam’s description of art as “an end in itself”. Capping the night off was a rendition of ‘It’s Time’ by Jebediah frontman Bob Evans, followed by Macnamara MP Josh Burns once more asserting “it’s time”.

Labor have good reason to want to present themselves as following in Whitlam’s legacy for the arts. Gough is beloved by Australian artists because he understood that a flourishing culture is the ultimate objective of any society and reflected this understanding in his unwavering dedication to giving artists the resources they needed to govern themselves and produce quality work.

Yet, what we got on Monday wasn’t quite Whitlamite. Whitlam not only ran on detailed proposals of massive support for the arts, but considered these the basis of his entire policy program. There is plenty to praise about Labor’s promises here, however they have a long way to go if they are serious about recapturing Gough’s vision for the arts—a worthy vision, and one that could revitalise an ailing Australian culture for the years to come.


This piece was submitted to Farrago as an opinion piece.

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