Times are tough, but the government is mindful that a national cultural policy is a commitment it is yet to honour, Arts Minister Simon Crean tells Brook Turner. After all, it’s ‘part of the Labor narrative’.
Despite tough budget conditions, Arts Minister Simon Crean has reaffirmed his determination to deliver on the government’s long-promised national cultural policy.
The Gillard government regards the policy as a 2007 election commitment on which it has not delivered, Mr Crean told The Australian Financial Review recently.
That is why the PM asked him to take arts in addition to the critical regional portfolio after the 2010 election, he said. And why Julia Gillard remained mindful of the policy even in the midst of a tough expenditure review committee process, revealed this week to include the first mini-budget in two decades.
The Prime Minister had not taken “much convincing” of the cultural policy’s importance, Mr Crean said.
“She knew this was an election commitment that we hadn’t delivered on and we needed to. I said I’d more than happily do it but we’ve had to be serious about the proper development of the policy … the government has never said ‘well, we just said we’d have a cultural policy and didn’t mean it’. If we say it, we intend to do it.”
The discussion paper released in August received 450 formal submissions and more than 2000 individual online submissions. The policy will now go to a reference group “to help us distil it, so that I’ve got a point of reference that’s outside the department and outside the specifics of simply trying to interpret each submission”, he said.
“We have to develop the policy framework, we have to consider what the options are that are worth pursuing, we’ve got to get a narrative around it, and we’ve got to go into the budget process, which won’t start until next year.”
That discussion paper highlighted economic and social dividends delivered by the arts in terms of other government imperatives in education, employment, regional development and innovation. That emphasis was widely seen as suggesting that any package would be funded in whole or part by tapping other portfolios and initiatives, including the national broadband network.
Or, in the case of the Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and the Arts himself, other parts of a portfolio that also includes the $1 billon regional developments fund promised to the independents for their support.
budgetary environment had made it harder to argue the case for extra
funds, for Mr Crean “the more you keep saying there are ways to do this
by joining the dots, the more you can look at ways in which other bits,
other programs can be linked . . . you have to build a constituency that
advocates for it.”
That constituency included his predecessor as arts minister, School Education Minister Peter Garrett, and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, he said.
“Stephen Conroy gets it in terms of [the national broadband network] and Kim Carr in terms of capability building and design for industry . . . they understand the significance of it.”
How much then might the policy end up looking like an education, training and technology policy? “I think that’s got to be an important part of it, but it’s not the sum of it,” Mr Crean said.
He also cited approvingly both Opera Australia’s move to tap new audiences through its Opera on Sydney Harbour initiative and Renew Australia founder Marcus Westbury’s work in revitalising Newcastle – a concept that subsequently spread from Adelaide to Parramatta and Geelong – by moving artists and cultural projects into vacant buildings.
As for why a major cultural policy is necessary: “It’s Labor reclaiming the brand. We are the party for the regions . . . and Labor has the heritage in terms of the arts . . . it’s part of the Labor narrative that we’ve . . . let slip,” Mr Crean said, referring to the establishment of the Australia Council for the Arts under Gough Whitlam’s government, in which Mr Crean’s father served in cabinet, as he himself had when Paul Keating released his 1994 Creative Nation statement, the last national cultural policy.
“But I learnt this [as trade minister]: a brand will only work if it reminds you of a truth,” Mr Crean said. “This is a truth that we can remind people of, but only if we put substance to it.”
And despite the tough fiscal regime, those who have contributed to the process are sanguine, not least because the policy is the only pool of potential additional government funds at a time of state government parsimony, they say.
“Simon Crean is a senior minister, he has the respect of cabinet, he took on the portfolio at the behest of the Prime Minister and he had an inter-governmental working party working on the policy, which kind of explains why it reads as if it’s been written by a committee,” said Susan Donnelly, executive director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group, the peak body for the country’s 28 opera, theatre and dance companies.
“On the basis of all that, even if hard times – and Australia really isn’t in as much trouble as other countries – he would expect to have the backing of cabinet,” she said. “What is interesting is that it has been quite a unifying process already. I have been having lots of conversations with people that you wouldn’t normally have conversations with.”
As for the government’s arts funding agency, the Australia Council and the Australia Business Arts Foundation, the latter was also part of the Harold Mitchell review into arts philanthropy, while some of the submissions received had been critical of the AC, he said.
“I don’t have any firm views, bud I do believe we have to have the institutions and the bodies that are not just supportive of but creative in driving where we want to go.”
Australian Financial Review
Thursday 17 November 2011