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Indigenous cultural policy: Creative Australia or creative accounting?

If funding for Aboriginal artists and organisations is cut, performers like The Black Arm Band will not receive adequate support. IFACCA

Like many others, I was pleasantly surprised by the government’s announcement last month of A$54 million in funding for Indigenous languages as part of the national cultural policy – Creative Australia.

But the spin was laid on thick. The media release claimed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures were “at the heart of Creative Australia”.

The former arts minister, Simon Crean, said the policy recognised:

the central role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have in our national life…and through Creative Australia we will work to preserve the hundreds [sic] of languages used in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and provide support for traditional and contemporary forms of cultural expression.

Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin said Creative Australia will drive the development of community-based language resources and activities, an extension of the Indigenous Language Support program, as well as promote Indigenous Art Centres in remote and regional Australia.

This was starting to sound too good to be true, especially the boost in languages spending.

The new investment was in response to the recommendations of the September 2012 report of the House of Representatives inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities, titled Our Land Our Languages. This was a truly responsive government.

Then I tried to make sense of the figures and I found a lack of clarity and transparency over amounts.

In July 2012 the Australian government announced A$48 million for Indigenous arts, culture and languages. This announcement too was thick with rhetoric; this was a sound investment and included some phrases that had been given a trial run in September 2011 at a Parliament House event organised by Big hArt that I had participated in.

Former arts minister Simon Crean stated:

Increasingly, evidence shows that participation in culture, languages and the arts has a positive effect on physical and mental well-being in our Indigenous communities.

The funding announced today will continue to join the dots between arts and culture and social and economic wellbeing. The organisations and projects receiving grants are making an immeasurable contribution not just to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but to the cultural life of our communities and our nation.

The A$48 million announced consisted of support for 293 Indigenous arts, culture and language projects valued at A$27 million; and A$21 million for 590 arts and culture jobs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

I could follow that.

But when Creative Australia was announced I went to the departmental website and found reference to three broad programs: the Indigenous Visual Art Industry Support program or IVAIS (previously the National Arts and Crafts Industry Support program or NACIS) which committed about A$11 million for 2012–13 with some support annual, some multi-year; the Indigenous Languages Support committing A$9.9 million for 2012–13 again with some multi-year; and the Culture Support program with A$7.4 million in 2012–13, almost all in single year funding.

These three add up to A$28.3 million, not the A$27 million announced in July 2012, but better more than less. And these figures do not include funding of A$7.6 million delivered by the Australia Council for activities with predominantly Indigenous focus nor any by state and territory governments.

I then tried to link these expenditures with a string of commitments outlined in Creative Australia with little success.

For now, there was reference to A$14 million in new funding over four years to develop community-driven language resources and activities as an extension of the Indigenous Languages Support program. But I thought this figure was A$54 million?

And then there was renewal of funding of over A$11 million over four years as a component of the A$49 million over four years for the successful Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support Program.

And there was A$30 million for the new Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Education at Charles Darwin University and some proportion of the A$158.1 million package over five years for the Special Broadcasting Service.

Initially a welcome A$12.8 million was announced for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies for the digitisation of their collections over an unspecified period. Subsequently I was advised that this commitment has mysteriously been reduced to A$6.4 million over two years starting in the current financial year. According to a clarifying departmental source the initial figure was a “text error”.

I tried to get some clarification from then-minister Crean’s media adviser, senior policy adviser and the department about the differences between the July 3, 2012, announcements and the proposals of March 13 this year but could get no response, especially after Crean’s kamikaze politics of March 21.

I probably made a strategic mistake by first asking why “the continuation of the Resale Royalty for Visual Artists Scheme with A$700,000 investment announced in 2012 to ensure Australian visual artists continue to benefit from the commercial sale of their works on the secondary art market” was deemed Indigenous-specific when the scheme applies to all Australian visual artists.

This was the unsatisfactory response from a senior official in the department:

As of 28 February 2013, there have been over 6,000 qualifying resales that have generated over A$1.45 million in royalties for more than 560 artists, with approximately 60 per cent of royalty payments having gone to Indigenous artists.

‘Let’s not waste a minute’. New Arts Minister Tony Burke promises to implement national cultural policy. LandcareAus_pics/Flickr

Yes, so why Indigenous-specific? Perhaps asking such a question is unacceptable? I continued to await a response from the arts administration.

Two weeks on there was a new and enthusiastic arts minister, Tony Burke. “This is great – a portfolio I’m passionate about and a cultural policy we can all believe in. So let’s not lose any of the momentum from Simon Crean’s launch of Creative Australia,” Burke announced by email with subject heading “Let’s not waste a minute” sent out on the very day he was allocated the vacant arts ministry.

Three days later a helpful departmental response: Indigenous funding is A$222.7 million over four years from 2013–14. With new funding limited to A$13.83 million for languages and A$11.26 million over four years for visual arts.

All other arts, culture, languages and jobs initiatives had already been announced prior to March 13 this year. The biggest item, A$88 million, is for jobs, most replacing positions previously funded by the Community Development Employment Program. Smoke and mirrors here!

Of course, all funding for cultural industries is welcome. But it’s clear that Creative Australia also includes some pretty creative accounting. It seems the rhetoric for the government was more important than the reality.

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