With culture on the free trade agenda, we must protect our own

Meet Davos – your big new friend with questionable intentions. mike fischer

You meet someone. Someone different. Someone attractive, open, free. Let’s call him Davos.

You start seeing a lot of each other, hanging out as a couple. As always when you’re in a relationship, a degree of rationalisation takes place. Do you need two fridges? You go with Davos’s fridge. What about the air-con and TV? Also Davos’.

He knows places to buy clothes and footwear too. Better. Cheaper. Leave it to Davos. So you do.

Then Davos wonders if you should run more than one car. Gazing deep into your eyes Davos whispers, oleaginously, “building cars in this country is just not sustainable”. Reluctantly – you’ve had that car for a long time – you trade it in.

Looking round the apartment you realise, with a start, how much stuff is Davos’s. But also how much you paid for. You look at Davos in a different way now, when he comes home at night. Is he seeing others? Probably. Exclusivity was never Davos’s thing. Is he behaving equitably? Or is he promising different things to different people?

And behind it all, behind the new look apartment with its gizmos and fancy brands, is a nagging sense that you are losing something important, something that used to define you, when it was just you and the cat and your grandparents’ furniture.

Staring in the bathroom mirror while Davos picks through your books and CDs, humming a little tune – he is always upbeat – you wonder if you haven’t made a terrible mistake …

How cultures migrate

Not a very sophisticated way of understanding the modern global economy, granted.

But this Mills and Boon scenario at least suggests why the steady migration of industries from high cost countries to low cost ones creates such discomfort. Never more so than when culture is involved.

France sternly protects its film industry (l’exception culturelle); Germany subsidises its print publishing; dictatorship and democracies alike pour money into state-owned television and radio stations.

Culture sits awkwardly on the free trade agenda and brings forth myriad contradictions: variable licensing of computer software; conflicting attitudes to creative copyright; and, of course, different degrees of market openness.

We will put up with Made in China stamped on toasters and textiles. When it comes to culture, our feelings are apt to become more protective. One country’s cultural choice is another’s cultural invasion. John McCallum in his Belonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century notes the “vexed question of Australianness”, and “[our history of] periods of strident nationalism interspersed with times of out-looking internationalism.”

Foreign actors on our stages?

On the face of it, the “Guidelines for Use of Overseas Performers” endorsed by Equity, the actors’ union, and eight major subsidised theatre companies last December are an internationalist swing of pendulum.

They allow for the selective employment of foreign actors on Australian stages. It is a non-reciprocal arrangement. There is no corresponding loosening of other nations’ hiring restrictions.

But it isn’t an open door policy – it only covers “actors of renown” and unit ensembles – and it isn’t unprecedented, given that such concessions already exist for commercial theatre (aka the big musicals).

Nor is it a binding contract, only a Statement of Practice that diminishes the disadvantages faced by subsidised theatres in a crowded entertainment sector. Flick through this year’s Adelaide Festival program, bristling with high-profile overseas turns.

Back to Blighty

In fact, the statement is more akin to an industrial consolidation between Anglo-Saxon countries. It is unlikely that Bollywood names will soon appear in state theatre programs (though you never know).

Rather, it is a re-starting of that historical conveyor belt of talent that used to run non-stop from the UK and the US to our capital cities. This was the driver of J.C. Williamson’s theatrical empire (“the Firm”). It was founded in 1874, and until it fell apart a hundred years later, it imported overseas artists at an unprecedentedly profitable rate.

Tool of cultural imperialism or just giving people what they wanted? It depends on which years you look at. There were times when the Firm’s indifference to Australian culture was positively pathological. At others, its priorities were better balanced.

The big picture of Australian culture

With a 4% limit on foreign casting, and Australian actors increasingly touring abroad themselves, the Statement is hardly a return to disempowered colonial times. There is little reason to be concerned in the short-term.

But there is a bigger picture which affects the long-term health of Australian culture and stems from the ongoing changes sweeping through the world’s economy.

Enter Davos Man, him with the jaunty gait and the open-for-business smile.

Cultural industries of all sizes and complexions find themselves caught up in an über-discourse of transnational capitalism that is now obviously fighting for intellectual credibility. Trade and investment agreements are the weapons of choice here and they affect culture directly and indirectly.

And can anyone unequivocally say whether they are working fairly or not? The public mood is not upbeat.

Signaturefd – a wealth management fund, hardly a fount of left-wing sermonising – warned recently:

with nationalism on the rise, globalisation stalled and inequality increasing, Davos Man needs to quickly produce ideas so that he can regain the confidence of the people … The masses are starting to gather outside the castle wall.

It is unlikely the masses will focus on issues of theatrical casting however hot under the collar they get. But it’s a tell, as poker players say. Australian theatre companies face a tricky balancing act between international opportunity and the needs of their own culture.

Of course, culture doesn’t come in cans. It already has a global dimension to it, crossing geographical boundaries with the readiness of an electronic transmission or a cheap reprint. It’s not a matter of whether culture is national or international – it’s clearly both – but of the impact of fast-paced technological development and cross-border investment on older (slower) ways of doing business.

However global its reach, culture is locally created, and the fact of this requires careful handling if the needs of smaller countries aren’t to be squashed flat by the needs of bigger ones masquerading as global market forces.