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David Throsby

Platform Paper 7

David Throsby

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 Culture, writes David Throsby, refers to beliefs and values that bind us together. And if we know what our culture is, why would we need a cultural policy? Prime Minister Howard has declared that ‘as a nation we’re over all that identity stuff… we know who we are.’ But do we? In this wide-ranging essay the author argues that radical cultural change has been brought about by deregulation, immigration, globalisation and the ‘war on terror’. In this we are not alone. This year UNESCO invited 154 countries to assert their respect for fundamental human values by adopting a Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. An important part of its emphasis is on making creative work a ‘cultural exception’ to trade agreements. 148 countries voted in favour. Australia abstained. Why have we denied ourselves protection in this way? The vision of Australia from the top is one many citizens no longer share. A cultural policy would be a powerful tool with which to show what we really value about being Australian. A national debate, to define and assert our common values could well alleviate the fears at present dividing us.


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About the Author

David Throsby is Australia's leading cultural economist. He is Professor of Economics at Macquarie University, has been a consultant to the World Bank, the OECD, FAO and UNESCO, and has chaired three Prime Minister's Working Groups on sustainable development. 

It is often supposed that public funding of the arts in Australia is an entirely modern phenomenon. In fact, the very first recorded example of government patronage of artists in this country dates back to 1818–19, when the poet Michael Massey Robinson was granted two cows from the government herd ‘for his services as Poet Laureate’.



Such has been the response to David Throsby's Platform Papers 7, 'Does Australia Need a Cultural Policy?' that we are able to publish here only extracts from seven letters. We hope to take up the issue again in our next edition.

David Adair, Sue Fisher and Susan Kukucka on sustaining culture

David Throsby's 'Does Australia Need a Cultural Policy?' is a timely contribution, highlighting the inadequacy of current approaches to valuing culture. He argues that there is a danger in being overly reliant on describing the value of culture in economic terms and as such we fail to capture the true range of values. For Throsby there are clear links between this trend and the current political climate.

In recent years the absence of an appreciation of multiple values has resulted in emphasis on social and economic imperatives. There have been many studies of the health benefits of arts participation and the role of the arts in facilitating educational attainment. Other studies have focused on economic impacts: the flow-on effects of the arts, the sector's size, and its contribution to cultural tourism. Yet while business and government have developed a language of 'performance indicators', these are able to communicate direct quantitative outcomes more easily than to describe the contexts of cultural practices and to measure their intrinsic values.

Griffith University is undertaking an Australian Research Council-funded study of Australia's flagship performing arts centres. Sustaining Culture: the Role of Performing Arts Centres sees Griffith University collaborating with Sydney Opera House, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Adelaide Festival Centre, and the Arts Centre, Melbourne to produce innovative research and rigorous data that describes a centre's social, cultural, environmental, educational and economic values and impacts. It also sets out to develop ways of measuring these values, and propose a more effective language to convey these values to the public. The ability to grasp the array of current and potential benefits of the arts is central to the discussion and design of effective arts and cultural policies. Further research will help bring clarity and transparency to the debate.

Caron Atlas raises an important point here, one with which centralists, free-marketers and grass-roots advocates can all agree: 'Not calling something a policy does not mean there isn't any. Cultural policies-public and private, implicit and explicit-are made all the time… The challenge is to articulate a clear, pluralistic vision for cultural policymaking that recognises the integral connection between culture, art, and the rest of our lives.'1

Mark Seton asks, 'Will we still be right, mate?

In The Weekend Australian's Rear View entitled 'Policy-free zone, please',2 Imre Salusinszky takes David Throsby's paper to task over the lack of 'solid evidence' for the claims made about cultural impoverishment. He observes: 'These are hardly precise arguments from somebody who calls himself an economist.' But, in support of Professor Throsby, I would argue that this is precisely what he is concerned with addressing. Throsby argues that cultural values are not, ultimately, about measurements but about the sustainability and flourishing of human relationships. His intention is not to offer new measures but to question our present 'cultural' preoccupation with measurement.

Salusinszky also expresses concern about the paper being the first step to determining 'right thinking'. He believes that Throsby's 'soft cultural policy' will merely prolong a 'corruption by groupthink' that Salusinszky believes is responsible for the undermining of the role of the arts in Australia. This seems stereotypically Australian-a kind of 'she'll be right, mate' mentality that believes that if you let things run their natural course, all will be well. But what Throsby reminds us is that people affect other people through their choices and determinations. There is no policy-free zone as Salusinszky would have it. Throsby calls us all to be accountable for the current, often unspoken policies that are being constantly enacted. Furthermore, he invites us to take steps to be transparent and engaged in developing more ethical, equitable and sustainable cultural and social processes. I see in this paper an invitation to mutual accountability.

Throsby relates policy to an ethical thematic that is awkward because it involves accountability for the present and future and some shame over 'unfinished' affairs of the past. These past events lie unreconciled and, it seems, beyond forgiveness, grace and generosity-all things that cannot and should not be measured or figured in by economists. A key attitude that is often evoked to assuage these anxieties is tolerance. Tolerance, as Fiona Jenkins suggests, is finally, a conversation-stopper. I will 'tolerate' you, in public, but, privately, I will continue to resent you, and possibly, undermine you wherever I can. Rather than resorting to tolerance, I believe we will need to draw upon resources from those cultural groups that allow for more sustainable ways of addressing our common vulnerability. A cultural policy entails a duty of care.

Benjamin Marks on economic fallacies

There may well be elements of 'tall-poppy syndrome' in Australian culture, but there is also something of a 'she'll be right' mentality. A 'she'll be right' policy would be oxymoronic. Yet David Throsby ignores this. He does not propose government disappear to allow Australian culture to flourish, he does not even consider it. For Throsby government could help Australian culture by giving money to the arts through subsidies and protectionist policies. In the following I show why such measures would be counterproductive and unjust.

Throsby begins by trying to define exactly what culture is and ends up being content to equate it with the arts (p. 5). But the arts are also difficult to define, as Paul Costantoura found in his Australia Council study.3 Having a fuzzy definition is not so bad for most purposes. When talking about legislation, however, it is unacceptable. For if it is claimed that the arts are important for the public good, and we do not know what is art and what is not, then what does the public good amount to? Throsby later defines the 'core creative arts' as 'the production of sound, image and text' (p. 39), which is far too broad a definition for my liking, especially as a basis for legislation.

Throsby claims to be writing in his capacity as an economist (p. 32), but the essay is full of value judgements and economic fallacies. In fact, there are no economic principles displayed in the article at all. He considers government funding of the arts necessary because of the public-goods problem (p. 35). But what if government does something wrong, is that a public-good problem too?

Throsby rehashes the old mercantilist and protectionist fallacies. That tariffs and subsidies 'protect' people from 'villains seeking to impose a homogenised culture on everything and everyone' (p. 28). But at least with businesses this 'homogenisation' can be avoided simply by not buying the product in question. And there is nothing to stop businesses offering a superior product and outdoing the competition. Any attempt by government to give subsidies to benefit one group of entrenched interests or charge tariffs or even ban competitors will mean that the consumer loses out. There will be less incentive to improve their product. It will tend to result in a lower quality service at a higher cost.

On a different matter, John Howard in his many long years in power has done nothing to curb government intervention and distortion of the economy. No matter what you think of Howard he can hardly be called a fan of the market. Yet Throsby claims, 'Howard is an uncompromising advocate of hard-line free-market reform' (p. 18). Throsby is right to say that for the arts to thrive there needs to be a change in government policy. Unfortunately he gets the direction wrong. Not only does Australia not need a cultural policy, we don't want one either.

Andrew Barnum on mining creativity

The launch of Platform Papers No.7 (8 February 2006) was incisive and memorable for some key indicators that described very clearly the current climate within the Australian culture and creative economy discourse. The introduction by Cate Blanchett, in some eyes 'the world's greatest actor', gave serious media weight to the event and the plight she has chosen to champion. Her telling of her child's love of the word 'nation', the description of our 'dense and rapid times', of how the repetition of 'how blue the sky is' would cause her to 'tear off my own head' underlined the malaise of an urban population 'living unexamined lives'. She spoke of an environment that needed to become 'proactive versus reactive' and look beyond an arts community currently bound by 'tangible returns'.

Professor Throsby has made a compelling, vital and well-documented appeal for a cultural summit on Australian cultural policy. Its aim would be the 'development of a national cultural policy to protect and affirm [Australian] cultural sovereignty and to promote national unity and an [Australian] identity' (p.3, to adapt a statement from the Canadian Government). A process of creating a national Australian cultural consciousness would seem feasible if it could be successfully promoted to national attention.

Where Throsby is most correct, is in underlining 'a government's' responsibility to foster and generate 'the conditions where creativity, as a key resource', could 'flourish as the core of the creative arts'. A responsibility to promote the conditions for a newly-defined creativity that broadens the existing creative arts model.

In his launch speech Throsby alluded to 'the mineable potential of our creative resource'. This resonates as a language to pursue if we're to focus and attract the interest of our current political rationalists. For Mr Howard and his colleagues, creativity seems stuck in a hand-out-to-seditious-subversive-artists mindset. He has underlined his party's 'ideological distaste for public sector involvement in any area they see as being better left to private enterprise', remaining 'uncomfortable with the critical and perhaps confrontational stance on sensitive issues that artists and cultural organisations can take'. (p10)

The truth is, the contemporary artist has long revised the notion of a Government-patronised practice and embraced an individually self-sufficient way of sustaining his/her practice. But creative workers do expect provision of a framework and vision that recognises and supports their cultural work. This would be the outcome a cultural summit could provide.

A new cultural discourse would require the popular notion of creativity as an 'artists-only playground' to be broadened and redefined as 'the universal process' it has become. Creativity in the so-called new economy needs to be understood as Charles Leadbeater sees it: 'Companies (and individuals) in knowledge-intensive industries compete on the basis of their intangible assets.'4 Creativity and cultural identity are just such valuable assets. Australia is rich with them. Defining creativity as a type of 'mining intangible assets process' should make sense for economic rationalists looking to get a foothold in these 'dense and rapid times'.

Raymond Menmuir on seeing ourselves as we are

Professor David Throsby gives a lucid account of government funding of the arts, brief and incomplete though he protests it is. His assessment of the present climate is cogent. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that he thinks it timely and necessary to '… re-examine the directions of our cultural development… how better to discharge our commitments to the arts and explore more openly the cultural foundations of our economic, social and foreign policy?' Plus ça change?

Fifteen years ago when I returned from over 30 years' work abroad, I was asked repeatedly two questions: 'Isn't that blue sky wonderful?' (I had much empathy with Cate Blanchett's mention of blue sky during her opening remarks at the essay's launch) and: 'Isn't it the most beautiful harbour in the world?' Both were phrased rhetorically and yet required an answer. I thought that if either was asked once more I would answer, 'I prefer rain clouds', or, 'It is a toxic cesspool, dangerous to man and fish.'

One further piece of nostalgia: 'It must have been a great culture shock for you-coming back, that is.' I always wondered what they meant by 'culture'. I decided to stand still, as it were, and listen-to the 'white noise', (Cate again). In the very high decibel range was something marked 'funding'; in the high range was 'Australia Council' and variations; and remarkably, the rest of it was recognisable from the 1940s and 50s when I started my career. Plus ça change.

If a re-examination is to be embarked upon, as Throsby pleads, it is vital that we change the way we look at ourselves, that we see what our culture is-now, not what we, for our comfort, think it is or should be, nor conflate culture and 'cultured'. A Lebanese youth said on ABC television last night (9 February) 'I am an Australian. This is my culture. That's the way it is.' He is part of our culture and not only he.

But how is this re-examination to proceed? David Throsby suggests a 'bottom-up' approach, '… whereby grass-roots individuals, communities and others might coalesce around particular issues…'. To recognise that the process of culture is a rising up, not a filtering down one is a salutary step. His suggestion that this may well lead to discussion papers, manifestos, and draft policy statements smacks of the bureaucratic. As a coalface worker, I am inherently suspicious of manifestos and draft policy statements. But if Professor Throsby continues to lend his considerable experience to formalising a cultural policy, coalface workers may well have less reason for concern than they have in the present climate of increasing political interference.

Gillian mcCracken on the need for a cultural policy

This debate must be re-started, and the words have to be found to argue why a national cultural policy is fundamental to Australian society. Throsby raises a number of important issues and many of us share his unease. Some of these might be resolved with a change of government. However the current Opposition gives me little confidence-it has shown scant commitment to a vision and values different from those of the Government. Prime Minister Keating's Creative Nation was a fundamentally good idea with flaws. Although it was signed off in Cabinet, Creative Nation had few committed advocates once Keating was gone. The Opposition has not raised it as an issue, never mind a policy, since that time.

What is culture and what would a cultural policy provide? A cultural policy must have Federal Government acceptance but it should not be a blueprint for changing Australian society. The fundamentals must be embedded within Australian society as it is, rather than what a few want it to be. Each individual needs to feel that their own histories and lives have contributed to the essence of the policy and that it is meant to have cultural benefit for all Australians. Our media is the obvious vehicle to carry some of this debate and in particular TV and radio. More resources for our internationally recognised writers, directors, and technicians to produce challenging drama for Australian TV would be a start.

Sebastian Smee in his article on biennales5 exposes the dilemma of creating an environment of support for contemporary art. How do you establish a cultural policy that allows for chaos, dissent and government discomfort and at the same time supports infrastructure to underpin arts activities? Many local Councils have followed government directives developing 'cultural plans' that include art programs and public art. Is this adequate? Such plans should be grounded on a sound philosophical base flowing from a well-researched national cultural policy that includes the arts and also attitudes and aspirations that enrich people's lives.

Fundamental to my research for a Masters degree was the premise that the art made in a society contribute to an understanding of what makes each society specific. With the assistance of two Ngarrindjeri women I learned about the intricate cultural uniqueness of these people through their practice of basketry. This practice developed as a direct response to their geographic location, flora and source of food. It provided a process for every practical aspect of their lives from birth to death, for sharing stories and for passing down history, and it provided a metaphorical narrative for the gradual evolution of their culture. Could this practice be extrapolated to current society? I am adamant that it can.

Many art practices sustain and reinforce the reality that many different cultural voices weave together to be contemporary Australia. I am grateful to David Throsby for re-kindling the debate. I hope it doesn't follow down the same paths as previous debates which have locked it into partisan politics.

Catherine Baldwin on the benefits of art

Some people may struggle with the notion of culture representing anything beyond the easily recognised arts and heritage experiences. However, quite clearly our culture is not only our experience of the performing, visual and museum arts which Throsby places at the 'core', but is defined by our values, beliefs, interactions and how we think of ourselves.

The role of government is critical in providing leadership and support. Without government intervention, there would still be artists and art works, and people would congregate to share their personal and collective experiences. However, as Throsby points out, there is a great deal to be gained, including economic gains, from the sponsoring of a vibrant, relevant, interactive and creative environment. Whether it's nurturing the creativity of school children or CSIRO scientists, Australia has a deal to gain from the innovation for which we have become renowned.

We already have a de facto cultural policy if you review the cumulative effect of the many decisions made by government on behalf of the community in areas such as: our international and racial relationships, our enthusiasm for sport, our attitude to the natural environment, our view of indigenous people, our telecommunications and media industry. What David Throsby and others are calling for is a focused discussion about the way we want to see ourselves and be seen by others-this might have been facilitated through support for the UNESCO cultural declaration.

Financial assistance to the arts could be more generous, whether from governments or corporates, and would have the benefit of allowing greater risk-taking by artists and by the communities they serve. We rely on our arts community to reflect our lives, to enable us to re-examine ourselves, to understand ethnic diversity, to appreciate beauty and express our individual and collective creativity. Putting an economic framework around the value of culture to a community can get people talking and thinking, but it will take vision from our leaders, and an understanding of the issues by the public, to really make a difference.

Caron Atlas, Cultural Policy: What is it? Who makes it? Why does it matter? (New York Foundation for the Arts) Readers' Forum
Imre Salusinszky, 'Policy-free zone, please', Weekend Australian, 11-12 February 2006.
Paul Costantoura, Australians and the Arts (Sydney: Federation Press, 2001)
Charles Leadbeater, Living on thin air: the new economy. (London: Penguin 1999)
Imre Salusinszky, 'Policy-free zone, please', Weekend Australian, 11-12 February 2006.