The National Cultural Policy: ‘Creative Australia’

EDITORIAL by Richard Letts. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 3 (May 2013)

So in mid-March, it was finally released, with money attached. Old news now, plenty of opinions expressed, even on the day of publication. It’s 144 dense pages long, and it needs a faster brain than your editor’s to give a judgement after a quick skim. An important Coalition figure was able to make a highly skilled judgement before it was actually available for a read: it would all be thrown out if the Coalition were elected.

That would be sheer bloody-mindedness. This is an impressive document and there were thoughtful contributions to it from over 400 people inside and even outside the cultural sphere. Rubbishing all that would be arrogant and destructive. Maybe there would be a few matters that do not fit Coalition priorities. Sure, make some amendments.

The most obvious virtue is that it covers so many of the bases: community, education, access, indigenous, multicultural, metro and regional, arts excellence, creative industries, the digital realm, creative spaces, infrastructure, intrinsic and instrumental purposes, whole of government involvement, collaboration between levels of government, international projection and more. Minister Crean, to use his favourite image, has found the dots and joined them.

There is a serviceable definition of ‘culture’ – contained enough to be workable, broad enough to give room for a wider play of the arts. ‘Culture is more than the arts, but the arts play a unique and central role in its development and expression.’

Discussing the role of government: ‘Culture is not created by government, but enabled by it. This works best when legal, policy and fiscal strategies create an environment that values cultural activities, fosters excellence and participation while supporting risk and exploration, recognises diversity in all its forms and encourages expression of a distinctive sensibility.’

This is an excellent and profound statement. It seems to accept that culture is a complex adaptive system. In the cultural economy, ‘There is no single dominant organisation.’ Instead there are artists and many types of organisations and businesses. ‘Within this ecosystem, talent is always on the move, as ideas develop and find expression. All require support and access to funds to develop creativity and ensure their enterprise is sustainable.’ This has implications for how government can play an effective role through, not so much ‘creating’ an environment as intervening to enable creation by others. Be ready to remind government of the role it has given itself: not to lead, but to enable.

Creative Australia sets out five goals: in brief summary, 1) celebrate Indigenous culture; 2) support diversity in the citizenry; 3) support excellence and the special role of artists; 4) strengthen the cultural sector’s capacity to contribute to the whole; 5) support innovation, new content, knowledge and the creative industries. These goals seem to cover the territory quite elegantly.

There are three pathways to action: 1) modernise funding; 2) encourage creative expression and the role of the artist [intrinsic value] – similar to Goal 3; 3) secure a social and economic dividend [instrumental value] – very similar to Goal 4. Fine, but not a very good matrix with the goals.

Music gets some special mentions through iteration of the government’s recent funding decisions: $3million over four years for ‘the contemporary music industry including $1.75million for SOUNDS AUSTRALIA’, APRA’S export promotion initiative, with the remainder going to APRA’s National Live Music Coordinator to support the live music scene for contemporary music. Best practice in removing regulatory barriers to music presentation in live music venues will be a project of the new National Arts and Culture Accord with the state governments.

There is also a new fund, a Major Performing Arts Excellence Pool. It’s to support innovation ‘addressing agreed national priorities’. Some bait thrown into the MPA marine ecology. Should these companies, including the orchestras and opera companies, be innovative already with their existing funding? Should they only be innovative when they get extra money for it? We could talk about that. One interesting thing is that they have to compete for these funds – a first in the funding of MPA companies.

The National Arts and Culture Accord will tidy up the arrangements between the national and state levels of government. Says the NCP: ‘To maximise the impact of government support of the sector it is important that funding be provided in a way that minimises bureaucracy, covers all bases and removes duplication.’ There will be a three-year work plan.

We certainly could use some minimisation of bureaucracy; arts funding comes with a great burden of planning and accountability. As to removing duplication between levels of government: it is not necessarily beneficial to artists. Assessments of the merit of artistic work are always partly subjective. Also, needs and priorities can be different at national, state and local levels. An artist can be supported at one level of government and rejected by the other for perfectly good reasons. So it’s better to keep two opportunities for rejection – or support. Coordination should be imperfect! (But perfect coordination is probably good when dealing with the major companies.)

There is discussion of funding mechanisms, luring private support and so on. We all need money but it’s just too boring to discuss again. Let’s move on.

Career pathways for artists. In 2010 there were 83,167 students taking a creative arts course at a higher education institution. That should see us through. Another 54,000 in TAFE. 531,000 work in the cultural sector.

‘Elite training is the bedrock of our international success in the arts.’ The government is for it. Except that it is funding university music schools only to a level where either they incur deficits or give up on elite training. Exhibit: ANU School of Music. Alas, the NCP writers may not have known that. Under the heading ‘elite training’, the NCP mentions mainly those entities such as NIDA and the AYO that are directly funded by the Minister for the Arts. They are important, but the Minister does not fund WAAPA, for instance. What about WAAPA, under financial review? There will be a review of national and elite training and it should widen its vision beyond that now found in the NCP.

The three-year work plan under the National Accord includes school education in the arts. ‘The Australian Government has committed to work with state and territory governments and non-government education authorities to implement the Australian Curriculum: The Arts to introduce universal arts education in schools across Australia. The Curriculum will ensure that every student, from Foundation to the end of primary school, will study the arts in a rigorous and sequential process. Also, from the first year of high school, students will have an opportunity to experience some arts subjects in greater depth and to specialise in one or more arts subjects.’ It’s a worry that there is no mandatory instruction beyond primary school.

Universal arts education? At this time, what will actually be delivered in school classrooms is a matter for speculation. We do not know what the authorities understand of the problem: that in most jurisdictions most of the teachers responsible for the arts do not know how to teach them. The scale of the necessary remedial program is enormous.

The one major contribution by the Commonwealth is the production of digital learning packages in the arts, to be used both for teacher education and in the classroom.

The digital world gets a lot of attention, as you might expect. ‘It is clear that the digital, networked world offers endless new ways to experience cultural products … the complete and now successful move to the digital platform of the music industry with Australia now the 6th largest global digital music market in the world.’ Well, successful for some but little recompense for the musicians.

‘Assurance that digital and emerging platforms have a wealth of high-quality, accessible Australian content.’ Mention is made of the recommendation of the Convergence Review to create an online production fund. We need to ensure that this can be used for music as well as video.

A section of the NCP discusses regional development and the use of the arts for a ‘social dividend’. This relates to Crean’s whole of government ideas: the arts can serve the agendas of non-arts portfolios, creating social benefit and also securing more funding. Arts recovery programs such as Renew Newcastle … arts and health … arts and cultural diversity … arts and disability … arts touring.

Cultural tourists spend much more than regular tourists, according to the NCP. Yet the tourist authorities never seem to promote Australian culture. But neither does the cultural industry, in any concerted way. If we got our act together, government might be more likely to assist.

There is a very firm commitment to Indigenous cultures. The report asserts that Australian culture is grounded in Indigenous arts. I am not sure that this is felt by a large proportion of non-Indigenous people. We can support the aspiration but need to work from the facts. There are some good initiatives, many of them around visual arts for obvious reasons.

There are proposals for strengthening the creative industries, intensifying our international efforts especially in Asia, both for diplomatic and trade objectives, and finally a section on measuring outcomes and progress as the policy is implemented.


Response to the Australia Council Review

On the day this editorial was written, the new Australia Council Act was introduced to Parliament. It does not include a mission statement, curiously, but does have a list of Functions for the Council which looks rather like the old list. It changes the corporate structure but otherwise, covers few of the recommendations from the Review. Rather, it just gets out of the way. The Governing Board is given the authority to set up committees and delegate powers, so it can decide to create artform boards and panels or not. There is not even a requirement for peer assessment. Presumably, all those arrangements will be found in some internal document of the Australia Council.

It is in the Creative Australia document that the government responds to that detail in the Australia Council Review. One would hope that it read the invited comment from the public, but that is not very apparent.

The draft statement of purpose for the ozco has not been changed: ‘To support and promote…distinctively Australian creative arts…’ The Ozco presumably does not need a mission statement. The Act tells it what it is here for. But if there is to be a mission statement, then it should define, guide, limit the activities. This mission creates a dilemma. It confines the Ozco to supporting distinctively Australian creative arts. This is despite the NCP offering support to heritage arts, multicultural arts and so on. And despite the fact that almost none of our arts practice, except some Indigenous practice, is distinctively Australian, least of all in music. There could be a goal of encouraging distinctively Australian practice but as it stands, Ozco will have a budget and little to spend it on unless it ignores its mission statement, see above.

The government affirms Australia Council operation at arm’s length from government ‘with competitive funding decisions made on the basis of peer assessment’. The Minister may not instruct the Council to fund, or not fund, any particular entity. It’s in the Act. Arm’s length saves us from political decisions about grants. Excellent.

Funding decisions have been made by peers but now are to be made ‘on the basis of peer assessment’ – a subtle but important change which could mean that decisions are made by bureaucrats as proposed in the Review, a highly retrograde and contentious step, revisited here only by implication.

As mentioned above, there is additional funding to the Ozco of $21.5m a year for four years. $15m goes to the grants program. Let us hope that all of that goes to the small to medium sector and individual artists. The major performing arts companies will be subject to peer review, like everyone else.

The widely derided recommendation remains that support for excellence should be the responsibility of the Australia Council and support for access should come from the Office for the Arts – as though programs that give access need not worry about quality. The antonym to ‘excellence’ is ‘mediocrity’ or ‘inferiority’, not ‘access’. It is still unclear what this would mean in practice. It’s mad. Feels as though the review is trying to find a job for OFTA.

The art form boards will be disbanded. The Australia Council will be free to set up ‘Sector Advisory Panels’ at will according to perceived need. The Minister will not make these appointments. Goodish – it’s speedier and more flexible. There will be increased use of peers (good) but all will be appointed for only one year. So who will be accumulating experience, knowledge, skills other than the staff? And who will be capable of proposing art form policies and from what experience? Overall this proposal has been very contentious. And on this and some other matters of dispute, the NCP is silent, leaving uncertainty about the government’s intentions.

All that said, we must congratulate the Minister and the writers of Creative Australia for a long stride forward in Australian cultural policy.


Richard Letts founded the MCA in 1994 and continues as a program director. He is immediate Past President of the International Music Council, was Director of the Music Board of the Australia Council and the Australian Music Centre and institutions in the USA. He holds a PhD and has been awarded an AM.

Views expressed in this editorial are not necessarily those of the Music Council.