Speaking of future generations … let’s not forget culture

Culture hardly rates a mention in the current Intergenerational Report, or those that preceded it. Mark Roy

In recent weeks, the future has been firmly on the national agenda. The release of the fourth Intergenerational Report (IGR) has encouraged us to carefully consider “how actions taken today will affect the choices of tomorrow”. Tonight’s Q&A on ABC will focus on intergenerational issues.

Yet in the latest IGR, as in the previous three, culture hardly rates a mention, in economic or any other terms. Recent media and public discussions about what Australia might look like in 2055 have also largely ignored the topic of culture.

This is hardly surprising. There’s a lot to worry about already: healthcare, housing, jobs, the ageing population (and could we remember climate change, Hockey?). Many things are vying for the fair use of economic resources.

But when we talk about the future of Australia, let’s not let culture drop off our radar. Here’s why.

Our common heritage

“Present generations should take care to preserve the cultural diversity of humankind”, urged UNESCO in its 1997 [Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations toward Future Generations]((http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13178&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html). We should “protect and safeguard” cultures, and “transmit this common heritage to future generations”.

This isn’t just to be decent. UNESCO believes culture is linked with the very “[fate of future generations in the face of the vital challenges of the next millennium]((http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13178&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html)”. Cultural expressions facilitate the transfer of knowledge from past to future generations. When they disappear, options become narrower – for everyone, not only those directly implicated.

And to talk our government’s language, there are significant economic benefits to supporting sustainable cultural futures. As well as enriching Australian cultural life, strong cultural traditions will boost cultural industries and heritage tourism.

Aboriginal dancers at Woodford Folk Festival. Neils Photography / Flickr

A 2008 recommendation by the Australian Human Rights Commission that Australia ratify UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (which fell on deaf ears) put it like this:

Maintaining Australia’s cultural heritage, in all its many forms, has both a human capital and an economic capital dividend. Respecting, nurturing and supporting intangible cultural heritage has clear social benefits (happy, better functioning, more vibrant communities) as well as health benefits (freedom of cultural expression and to practice aspects of traditional life builds social and emotional well-being, which directly improves population-level health outcomes – an important economic saving to the health system).

The state of affairs

If, as UNESCO claims, keeping cultures strong is a matter of intergenerational responsibility, Australia is failing. In just the few generations since colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and cultural expressions have been decimated. Without strong government support, that trajectory looks set to continue.

An estimated 108 Australian Indigenous languages are at imminent risk of extinction. Northern Australia, with its vastly rich language diversity, is one of the worst hotspots in the world for language loss.

And along with languages, other kinds of cultural expressions are disappearing too. More than 98% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music and dance traditions have already been lost. In 2011, a statement endorsed by the International Council for Traditional Music urged urgent action against the “crisis” in Australian Indigenous performance traditions, “for the benefit of all Australians, and for cultural diversity worldwide”.

Turning a blind eye?

That was four years ago now … and time marches on. Australia has still conspicuously failed to ratify UNESCO’s 2003 Convention. Ratification would signal the government’s commitment to cultural heritage and cultural sustainability.

The countries that have ratified UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage Convention: Australia conspicuously absent. Wikimedia Commons

Instead, our prime minister refers to Indigenous people living on their ancestral homelands as making a “lifestyle choice”, and makes plans to force them to leave.

As Shayne Neumann, Labor’s spokesperson on Indigenous affairs, asked last week: “Does he not understand the connection between land, language and culture?”

In painfully real ways, government attitudes affect Indigenous people’s ability to maintain their cultural practices. An article last year on The Conversation referred to “the arduous struggle to maintain ceremonial traditions in the face of unsympathetic government attitudes”.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Some Indigenous communities are making considerable inroads to securing viable futures for their languages and cultures. Such successes, though, are largely in spite of federal policies, not because of them.

Ampilatwatja Walk Off: Angelina Luck hunting for goanna on her traditional country 350kms north east of Alice Springs. Rusty Stewart / Flickr

Shirking responsibility

Current government policies should not compromise the choices and circumstances of future generations. So goes the principle of intergenerational equity. Our Intergenerational Reports are founded on it, and our policies should be based on it too.

With other important issues clamouring for attention, it’s all too easy for culture to drop off the political radar. But we need strong policies to support cultural heritage, and we need them urgently. As UNESCO says, we must actively safeguard our cultures so we can “hand on a better world to future generations”.

The alternative – political indifference – transgresses the principle of intergenerational equity. It compromises the wellbeing of future generations.

Come on Tony, cultural advocate and self-professed PM for Indigenous Affairs, can’t we do better?


The author received the 2014 national Future Justice Medal for leadership and initiative in the advancement of future justice, which is concerned with what those living today leave behind for future generations.

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