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Ben Eltham

Platform Paper 48

Ben Eltham

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1. Black Friday, May 2016

On Friday 13 May 2016, the Australia Council for the Arts released the results of that agency's 'Four Year Organisations' grants. The result was a bloodbath: 65 organisations were defunded, and more than a hundred that applied were also unsuccessful. The arts sector dubbed it 'Black Friday'.1

Some of the most famous arts companies in the country missed out. The Australian Design Centre has a 50-year history supporting Australian design and craft.2 The literary magazine Meanjin was the place where A.A. Phillips first coined the phrase 'the cultural cringe' in his seminal essay.3 The cuts punished organisations that support younger artists, in literature, dance and theatre, such as Melbourne's Next Wave festival, the nation's premier event for young and emerging artists, and Express Media, the publisher of Voiceworks magazine. Other casualties included Adelaide's Vitalstatistix and Slingsby, Melbourne's Centre for Contemporary Photography, and north Queensland's Jute Theatre.

The defunding of a slew of Australia's best-known smaller arts companies was due to a decision made by the Abbott Government's arts minister, George Brandis, who had taken $105 million in funding from the Australia Council a year before. Funding cuts bit deep. The decision came in addition to $87 million slashed from the Arts portfolio in 2014. Further cuts of $52.5 million were handed down in December 2015. All told, according to the Australian Labor Party's Mark Dreyfus, approximately $300 million has been cut from federal cultural funding by the Coalition.

Before the 2013 election, arts funding had been a more-or-less bipartisan policy area, supported by both major parties. The Coalition did not release an arts policy in the 2013 campaign, nor did it commit to specific cuts. Indeed, George Brandis gave an enthusiastic speech at the Casula Powerhouse pledging the Coalition's support for the grand vision of the arts.4 That bipartisanship disappeared in the newly ideological environment of the new Abbott Government. The Coalition didn't just slash the Australia Council's funding. It launched a new attack on arm's length arts funding itself-a principle that has enjoyed four decades of bipartisan support. Why did George Brandis and the Coalition do this? What accounts for this assault on the cultural sphere?

This essay is an attempt to tell that story, and to question what it means for culture in Australia. I shall start by explaining a little about my method and craft, and then examine the sorry story of arts funding in the most recent parliament. Then I will make some remarks about what this story tells us about power in Australian society. There has been push and pull: action and resistance. Australian culture is being attacked by political actors, beholden to an ideology of privatising the cultural space. But if there are troubling realities, there are also opportunities: a possibility of arguing for the greater cultural good. I will end with a call to arms to defend and expand the cultural sphere of Australia.

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About the Author

Ben Eltham is currently a Lecturer at Deakin University and National Affairs Correspondent for New Matilda.