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Paul Keating’s Creative Nation: a policy document that changed us

Twenty years on, Paul Keating’s Creative Nation remains a vital reference point in the history of Australian cultural policy. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Today marks 20 years since the publication of Creative Nation. An ambitious and expansive project by Paul Keating’s Labor Government, it was the first Commonwealth cultural policy document in Australia’s history. Its initial impact was significant, with Keating committing A$252 million of additional spending over four years to the arts and cultural industries in Australia.

But Creative Nation’s legacy in Australian life since 1994 has been nothing short of profound.

Creative Nation changed the way Australians saw themselves, and their place in the world. It defined “culture”, broadening out the concept beyond the confines of the high art elite. Most notably, the policy document reframed the cultural industries in economic terms. It changed the very language used to talk about Australia, its culture, its artistic expressions.

Creating an Australian identity

Creative Nation emerged at a time of broader re-imaginings of what it meant to be Australian.

Six years prior to its publication, the 1988 Bicentenary prompted discussions in public and political life about the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the narrative of Australia’s history. The dismantling of the White Australia Policy in the mid-1970s and the emergence of multiculturalism had similarly shifted perceptions of Australian identity.

Creative Nation reflected those shifts. The opening preamble to the document described Australian culture as “now an exotic hybrid”, and Creative Nation made repeated reference to the importance of Indigenous and migrant cultures in creating a national cultural identity.

This emphasis was mirrored in the policy’s funding initiatives: more than A$14 million was dedicated to the establishment of the Australian National Institute For Indigenous Performing Arts, while additional funding was allocated to the creation of a database for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean-language texts in Australia.

The Keating policy document sought to fund cultural projects that represented “the nation’s diversity”. Though subsequent federal governments would continue this mission to varying degrees, the legacy of Creative Nation was one of a changing narrative of Australian identity, one which sought to include non-white Australians in the national project.

Defining ‘culture’ and ‘art’

Creative Nation defined “culture” as “that which gives us a sense of ourselves”. This broad sweep encompassed not only the traditional high arts institutions (Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet, and state and national symphony orchestras, to name a few), but also television and film, regional community festivals, radio, school programs, libraries, and information technology.

In a single policy document, Creative Nation placed new modes of cultural engagement alongside older forms of cultural expression, rendering them equally legitimate and equally constituting “arts” in Australia.

Its engagement with popular and emergent forms of culture was not perfect.

Its commitment to rock and pop music, to name just one area, was notable in its absence, while funding of traditional arts institutions was still comparatively high. But the document set the stage for later Federal government ideas of what constitutes “art” in Australia.

The 2013 Creative Nation follow-up by Julia Gillard’s Labor Government further expanded the definition of artistic culture, referencing reality television shows and iTunes, and increasing government funding for community radio.

Post-Keating governments who did revert back to primarily funding operas, symphonies and ballets were read not as supporting long-standing arts institutions, but rather as reinscribing an elitist and exclusionary model of national culture.

From Creative Nation onwards, art was for everyone, and cultural engagement was a national concern.

Culture and economics

Most remarkably, Creative Nation was an economic policy.

It justified its existence on financial terms – the A$13 billion dollars generated by the arts sector and the 336,000 jobs created by the cultural industries were the primary rationalisations for the document’s funding initiatives. Increases in arts spending were directed to projects and institutions from whom a return on the investment could be expected. Culture, noted Creative Nation, was “essential to our economic success”.

The cultural industries were reframed in Creative Nation as a commercial project. No longer merely “arts for art’s sake”, Keating shifted the political debate on funding the cultural industries to focus on ideas of cost-benefit analysis and financial outcomes. Post-Keating, the cultural industries were seen as a source of potential financial gain, rather than as an inevitable drain on the country’s coffers.

Creative Nation created a discourse which stipulated that culture could – and should – be exported to the global market, and the role of Government was to protect and promote the work of Australian artists in this economic marketplace.

The arts, like all other facets of Australian public life, could now be quantified in monetary terms.

As Australia’s first Commonwealth cultural policy document, Creative Nation forever changed the way that Australians saw themselves. Culture was now an economic concern, the arts were for all Australians, and the nation could no longer so rigidly define its national identity through its British colonial past.

Its legacy continues.

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