Culture's Value

Why Australia needs a Chief Artist

Why can’t an artist offer advice to politicians in the same way a scientist can? David Gray/Reuters

In one of those abyssal silences that punctuate official Thinkfests when artists have to come up with new policy ideas that don’t involve asking governments for more money, I once facetiously suggested appointing a Chief Artist.

If the destructive story of Australian cultural policy over the last three years tells us anything (so brilliantly described by Ben Eltham in his recent Platform Paper, When the Goal Posts Move) it is that present arrangements are not sufficient to guarantee our national interests are best served.

New ideas are needed aside from the endless, obsessive, empty talk about “innovation”.

The inspiration for the idea of a Chief Artist, or Chief Cultural Practitioner, or [insert acceptable title here] is taken in part from the role of Australia’s Chief Scientist, established by the Hawke government in 1989. The job is to:

… [provide] high-level independent advice to the Prime Minister and other Ministers on matters relating to science, technology and innovation… to identify challenges and opportunities for Australia that can be addressed, in part, through science… To be a champion of science, research and the role of evidence in the community and in government.

Finally, the Chief Scientist is a communicator of science to the general public, with the aim to promote understanding of, contribution to and enjoyment of science and evidence-based thinking.

The essence of the role is therefore twofold. On the one hand, it is to offer high level experience and expertise. On the other, it is to be a representative of a particular area, and communicate its challenges and public value.

It is important to note the Chief Scientist is the representative of a function: of science, not scientists. As with the role of the Chief Justice, the motivation behind such an appointment is recognition that a “first among equals” opinion is a useful supplement to the workings of democratic government.

Why? “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve,” quipped George Bernard Shaw. The remorselessly partisan nature of Westminster-style adversarial politics means that disinterested advice is at a premium. Important problems and their potential solutions get divvied up along party lines – or, in the case of culture, apathy and ignorance get evenly shared.

The idea of a Chief Artist might appeal to people who are artists. But it is worth serious consideration even by those who aren’t, for two reasons. Firstly, because the cultural sector is now a mind-bending tangle of economic and social processes. It is marked by complex sub-sectoral differentiation, and this is accentuated by digitization, which affects different industries in different ways.

Australian governments often show a poor understanding of the modern cultural world, and are in constant danger of making poor decisions about it – witness the jaw-droppingly stupid suggestion of rolling-back the term of author’s copyright.

Second, the erosion of the arm’s length relationship between the Australia Council and the federal government has created a space for advocacy which can only be filled by someone outside that agency. Back in the 1980s, when the fiery Donald Horne was Council Chair, its advocacy role was more pronounced.

But those days have gone and it is hard to see them coming back. Likewise, the CEOs of the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia are constrained from speaking freely by a view of their role that sees them working for, not just with, the government of the day, and unable to defy or transcend partisan opinion.

How would such a role work in practice? A version of it can be found in Singapore’s system of Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), of which there are currently nine, representing a range of different areas. Garry Rodan writes that

NMPs are appointed… for terms of up to two and a half years on the advice of a Special Select Committee appointed by Parliament. In contrast with elected MPs, they cannot vote on money bills, bills to alter the Constitution, or motions of no confidence in the government. However, they speak on these issues and vote and speak on any other bills and motions.

It is not necessary to endorse Singapore’s one-party rule to see that appointed forms of representation have a vital part to play in ensuring governments get the advice they need, not just the sort they find acceptable.

Kok Heng Leun is Singapore’s current NMP for culture. He is artistic director of Singapore’s Drama Box, and was a name put forward by the Singaporean arts community itself. He was initially knocked back by the Special Select Committee, but then put forward again and subsequently accepted.

He is an active, able and articulate individual, capable of bringing real knowledge about culture to bear on a policy process that is over-supplied, as ours is, with buzzwords, hobby-horses and half-knowledge.

His maiden speech can be read here. This is a quote from it:

For centuries, the arts have provided a safe space for us to ask questions, understand one another better, and dream of a better communal future that embraces diversity. Sometimes, we do not have an answer immediately, but asking the right question is a step closer. It just takes time. And instead of saying there is no time, let us make time for it. And instead of saying [there is] no space, let us make space for it.

These are the kind of thoughts about culture that many of us have. A Chief Artist would be in position to voice them in way that has some real impact.