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David Throsby

Platform Paper 55

Revisiting Australia’s cultural policy

David Throsby

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In 2006 I wrote one of the early Platform Papers (No. 7) under the title Does Australia Need a Cultural Policy? I was prompted to ask this question because it was then twelve years since the appearance of Australia’s first (and only) cultural policy, the document Creative Nation: Commonwealth Cultural Policy (October 1994) produced by the Keating Government. In the interim, following the Labor Party’s defeat at the 1996 election, we experienced ten years of John Howard’s prime ministership. Howard led a conservative administration that effectively buried Creative Nation when it came into office and subsequently showed no interest in formulating a cultural policy of its own.
A further reason for writing that paper was that Australia had undergone a period of profound economic and cultural change during a decade of Coalition rule. On the economic front, the Howard Government pursued policies of deregulation, privatisation and an inexorable transfer of power over resources from public to private hands; the values of individualism and materialism that were fundamental to the liberal economic project held centre stage. Howard was also a conservative in cultural terms, looking to Australia’s past as inspiration for his vision of nationhood. Heconstantly referred to defining moments like Gallipoli and Kokoda as opportunities for the Australian battler to emerge as hero and the pivotal characteristics of mateship to be forged. These sorts of considerations informed his view of Australian identity, and as a result he regarded any debate about other notions of ‘Australian-ness’ or Australian culture as irrelevant.1
So I wrote the paper reflecting on these changes and concluded by answering my rhetorical question in the affirmative. Since then the ebb and flow of political fortunes have continued to affect the country, so that today it seems more than ever appropriate to ask the question once more. Do the arguments that were relevant in 2006 still apply today? What impacts have the changes in the economic, social and cultural landscape that have occurred in the intervening period had on policy towards the cultural sector?
In this paper I address these issues initially by re-visiting the notion of a cultural policy, looking at the ways in which this concept has evolved in contemporary times. In particular, from my vantage point as an economist, I can reflect on the implications of what has been termed the ‘economisation’ of cultural policy that has been observed in the world at large over the last couple of decades. I then go on to consider the events and policy changes in Australia since 2006 that have affected the arts and culture under successive federal administrations. In a third section, I look in more detail at some major issues still unresolved, including the role of Indigenous arts, and the situation of the individualartist. Finally I draw some conclusions and make some recommendations on where we might go from here. In this paper I cast the net widely over areas of concern to cultural policy, but I have to confess in advance that I have not been able to deal adequately with two areas: the public broadcasters, and the film industry. While both of these areas are integral to Australian cultural policy, a proper treatment of them would require a whole paper, indeed several, for a full policy analysis.2
Before getting started, I reiterate below some of the conflicting facts about this country that I noted in summing up my 2006 paper and that led me to believe that a new cultural policy was needed at that time:3
• the Federal Government pledges its support for the arts, but is reluctant to provide the levels of funding that could catalyse a new renaissance in their production and consumption;
• the Prime Minister asserts that there is no need to discuss Australian identity, yet beats the patriotic drum;
• we see ourselves as a tolerant fair-minded people, yet treat refugees in detention in ways completely contrary to these basic cultural values;
• we recognise that Indigenous Australians are amongst the most disadvantaged in our society, yet we continue to show cultural insensitivity in trying to remedy the situation;

• we see ourselves as an independent country with distinctive cultural attributes, yet we have shelved any discussion of how we can better reflect that independence in our constitutional arrangements; and
• we profess the virtues of intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding between nations, yet we abstain from supporting an international cultural convention aimed at achieving these very objectives.
The last-mentioned of these refers to Australia’s disgraceful abstention from joining 148 other countries in approving UNESCO’s Cultural Diversity Convention in October 2005—an egregious action that was reversed in due course by the incoming Rudd Government.
A look at the issues noted above brings a sobering realisation: apart from some detail, they are still broadly relevant today. Certainly we can say that under the Turnbull Liberal/National Coalition Government we have an administration that has cut funding to the arts, that oversees this country’s unconscionable treatment of refugees in detention, that has rejected the reasonable
request put by Indigenous Australians for a say in how they are governed, and that shows no interest in reviving discussion about a republic. Perhaps it is a case of plus ça change. In the following pages I discuss whether this is so.

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About the Author

DAVID THROSBY, AO, is a Distinguished Professor of Economics at Macquarie University, Sydney, internationally