Australia needs a super culture ministry – here’s why

Culture is not only a good in itself but an ideal means for modern nations to deal with a series of complex issues. Image from shutterstock.com

Australia needs a cabinet-level portfolio dedicated to managing culture, one of the country’s leading cultural commentators, Julianne Schultz, said at a breakfast address in Sydney today. The Ministry of Culture would encompass both the creative industries and the arts, as well as sport, heritage, collecting institutions, broadcasting, tourism and science.

Julianne Schultz is a leading figure in the debate about culture in Australia, as she is the founding editor of the Griffith Review, a member of the Centre of Cultural Research at Griffith University and, most importantly, Chairwoman of Creative Australia reference group, which launched the federal government’s national cultural policy earlier this year.

But what would a super culture ministry look like?

Culture is a big word – and a messy one. It includes everything from Shakespearean drama and Impressionist landscapes on the one hand, to on-line gaming and crowd-sourced fanzines on the other. It is economically significant (A$48.6 billion of GDP and rising) but structurally disaggregated, embedded in different sectors in different ways.

It has both a broad interpretation (culture as in creative industry) and a narrow one (culture as in art) that should exist in peaceful accord, but often do not. A ubiquitous feature of social life, it is nevertheless a highly personal thing.

For governments, dealing with culture is a nightmare. Its demands for money are endless while its political visibility is low – except if things go wrong, when it scores off the Richter scale. Schultz is surely right when she says:

In this election time, when promises are assessed in terms of whether the numbers add up and the response in the polls…I don’t expect we will hear much about the arts or culture, and if we do it is likely to be couched in terms of not causing offence.

And yet the reality is that the 21st century – the Asian Century, the globalised century – is an age of widespread cultural mobilisation. How to deal with this burgeoning social fact?

Culture helps us make sense of a changing Australia. Wenxiong Zhang

“It is tricky terrain,” Schultz said in an address to the Music Council of Australia last year. Her chief observation is that culture is not only a good in itself, but an ideal means for modern nations to deal with a series of complex issues.

There is a cultural dimension in the changing nature of Australian society thanks to the massive migration program of the past decade; a cultural dimension that is more than window dressing in relation to the Asian Century; a cultural dimension to innovation in the economy and education; and a crucial cultural dimension in terms of relations with the First Peoples. Tapping into this is important.

There is a long list of countries which have ministries for culture, including Cambodia, Honduras, South Africa, Singapore, Northern Ireland, Norway, Greece, New Zealand and Canada. Australia’s handling of the sector, in contrast, is scattered across a range of departments who don’t talk each other, don’t cooperate with each other, and may not even be aware of each other’s cultural activities.

Getting the different layers of Australian government to do in a more coordinated fashion what they are currently doing in disarray is a worthy goal. Does it need a ministry though? The shadow of official culture looms, of faceless, grey suited functionaries sporting clipboards at the theatre and mandating dress codes for open-air concerts.

Even if a dedicated portfolio beefs up culture’s profile at a cabinet level, doesn’t it risk regulating what should never be government controlled - our own creativity?

In response to this objection, Schultz deploys the word “enabling” as in: “governments do not make culture, or even the cultural economy… they enable it through strategic and targeted interventions”. It is a key verb, first used by H. C. Nugget Coombs, one-time director of the Reserve Bank and founder of the Australia Council, our main arts agency.

Coombs’ approach, rooted in the post-war reconstruction government’s vision for a national cultural agency, was both comprehensive and arm’s length. As a young polity Australia posed specific cultural challenges that, he argued, government was obliged to address.

Like his mentor, British economist John Maynard Keynes, Coombs was both an economist and an arts lover and he combined these together to establish the cultural provision infrastructure we have today. It is an important legacy, and regardless of the awkward details (everything about managing culture is awkward), one important to build on.

The handling of Australia’s cultural policies is scattered across a range of departments who don’t talk each other. Flickr/tali.caspi

Provided a Ministry of Culture is properly integrated into existing cultural agencies and does not seek to subsume their hard-won knowledge of the field, it’s a good thing.

“First we define, then we see,” says Schultz, who is concerned with how “we try to squeeze big subjects into little boxes, and then tape the boxes up tight and wonder why linkages don’t occur…”

So we talk about the arts, then split that into disciplinary or geographic areas and encourage territorial scrapping; we talk about creative industries and disconnect them from the arts that are their wellspring; we talk about identity and then engage in bitter ideological arguments about what to include rather than accepting the reality of layers that leak into each other.

This is a big-picture view of culture and its consequences may be hard to both administer and measure. But it’s a strong, dynamic vision of the sector’s potential contribution not just to a materially replete Australia but to a spiritually rich one too.

This is easy to lose sight of in the present election climate with so much negative campaigning. Yet if a cultural policy isn’t addressing fundamental issues about our quality of life, what use is it?

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