OzCo has a new strategic plan – where’s Abbott’s cultural policy?

The Liberal government didn’t need a fully-functioning cultural policy at the last election. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

As with other emissions of choice opacity – horoscopes, Bible stories, RBA economic forecasts – cultural policy announcements invite construal of their mystical meaning. Nothing is quite as it seems. On the other hand, no false claims are made either.

Rather, cultural policies lead an extra-veridical existence where aspiration and Realpolitik meet in Zen-like balance. You have to savour the nuances, appreciate the fine distinctions. That’s culture for you. Tricky. Why should the policies supporting them be simple?

Last week’s double launch of the Australia Council’s Strategic Plan 2014-2019 and its new suite of grant programs contained plenty of buried significance.

On the face of it the announcement was straightforward, if, as some complained, light on detail:

  1. The Council, with its streamlined, post-2013-Act-structure, is putting into place simplified funding categories and application procedures.

  2. The federal government, to which the Council is now by legislative edict more responsive, has thought up some priorities it quite likes. Why not roll them out together?

No reason, really, but they are separate things.

The Council’s program changes are the result of the May 2012 Trainor Review of its internal structure; which was one of the tributary reports feeding into Creative Australia, announced in March 2013. That led on from the December 2011 National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper which itself harked back to the September 2006 Framework for National Cooperation in the Arts and Culture by the Cultural Ministers Council.

Unwisely, I disinterred these documents from my filing cabinet the other night. A tsunami of goals, purposes, aims and targets that would flatten even the keenest policy wonk.

This arc of reform was largely Labor-led. It started under the Rudd government (the first one) and toiled up survey hill and down consultancy vale, before coming to an important, though commonsense conclusion: that the Council’s role was vital but needed some new adjectives attached to it, and a different understanding of two key operating principles – the agency’s “arms length” independence from the Minister, and its “peer assessment” of all individual grant submissions.

The Abbott government, by contrast, didn’t field a formal cultural policy at the last election, either because it didn’t think it was important or because it believes culture may not need one. It is half right. Certainly, the four goals of the strategic plan evince a pleasing minimalism compared to the priority potlatch the National Cultural Policy embodied.

But this doesn’t change the fact that the Trainor reforms are tactical, freighting a Labor outlook (expansive, inclusive, cashed-up) while the strategic plan reflects a Liberal one (delimited, selective, budget-conscious).

The double launch was an exercise in genetic splicing. Creative Australia can’t be mentioned, banished to the same box as Creative Nation when John Howard became Prime Minister in 1996. Nor can its goals be publicly avowed. Handy, then, that cultural diplomacy was one of the least convincing aspects of the National Cultural Policy. The government has rhetorical room to move in respect of engagement with Asia, Europe and the US.

Will the splicing work? Hopefully.

The Council has to grow into its new structure while the government must test the practicality of its chosen priorities (and their cost). However, there are three areas that freight longer-term problems.

The first is the endless, boring question of whether small arts companies (“key orgs”) or larger ones (the major performing arts, or MPAs) are getting/should get, more/the most funding. This redistribution issue has dogged the Council since the early 1980s, and it formed a sotto voce accompaniment to the Trainor Review that recommended opening up the MPA Framework to competitive funding based on peer review.

That’s very different from the present outlook that effectively ringfences the MPA allocation. But the problem won’t disappear with a wave of the Ministerial wand. At its heart is the fact the cultural sector has grown immeasurably in size and diversity in the 46 years since the Council made its administrative debut. The dominance of the MPAs is questionable now in a way it wasn’t when arts funding was decided over a martini or three in the Menzies lodge.

Can the problem be solved? Probably not. But it can be mitigated, and a better sense of the sector’s delicate ecology achieved (how the activities of small and large companies overlap and interpenetrate).

The second problem area involves the continuing erosion of the arm’s length relationship between Council and government. In a series of legislative amendments – in 1976 and 1980 under Fraser, in 1991 under Hawke, and in 2013 under Gillard/Rudd – the Council has been steadily sucked into the orbit of direct Executive control.

The Minister now appoints the Council’s Board, approves its choice of CEO and has the capacity to “give direction … in relation to the performance of functions, and the exercise of powers”. The Minister does not have a say in the awarding of individual grants, however, and now that the old ornery art form boards have been replaced by a fluid peer committee system, it is important he observe the letter of the law.

Any further loss of Council independence would raise serious questions about its statutory authority, and could herald the end of the notion of an autonomous cultural agency. In this area, Ministerial restraint is imperative.

In respect of the third area opposite qualities are required. The strategic plan is neither the suspect object some take it for, nor the greatest thing since the reversible screw-driver. It can be characterised as “a start”, the beginning of a vision that needs fleshing out.

The best aspects of the announcement are a clear sense of the role of artists and the centrality of Indigenous culture. Much as the government may roll its eyes at Creative Australia there are important lines of continuity here that cut across the partisan divide. An arts-specific focus to the strategic plan is welcome. But how will this play out at local and national levels? How will it be tracked and reported on? Even if there are to be no new prescriptions, a statement of views and values should be developed.

The Liberal government didn’t need a fully-functioning cultural policy at the last election. It needs one now.

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