Towards a new cultural accord

This is an extract from David Throsby’s new essay, ‘Does Australia Need a Cultural Policy?’, Platform Papers 7, Currency House, RRP$13.95, While the introduction refers to four core cultural policy areas, due to space limitations the Centre for Policy Development has published only the section on cultural and economic policy.

Book Cover

Do we need a national-level cultural policy? Economists have a reputation for being equivocal; they are forever saying ‘on the one hand this, on the other hand that’, or ‘it depends’, or ‘other things being equal’ etc. etc. I am an economist, so it should come as no surprise if my answer to the question is ‘Yes and no’. Or rather ‘No and yes’. I would answer ‘No’ to the sort of magisterial cultural statement handed down by the Prime Minister, the Cabinet or a parliamentary committee; and ‘No’ to the proposition that a cultural policy should consist of a single document or a single piece of legislation; but ‘Yes’ to a much more exciting and wide-ranging proposition—the opening up of a broad-ranging discussion about the role of the arts and culture in our society, and the forging of a new cultural accord between government and people. Cultural policy is not a single definable thing, but a pervasive mixture that not only determines the immediate and obvious ways in which we practise our culture—through the arts, for example—but also affects a broader range of economic and social policies that have undeniable cultural content. By spelling out how the different aspects of cultural policy fit into an overall policy agenda, we can raise the profile of culture in national affairs and provide a clearer direction for policy-making that is consistent with the sort of Australian society that we want to inhabit.

What would be the ambit of such a broad-ranging cultural policy discussion? Four different policy areas can be distinguished that, taken together, make up an overall framework for cultural policy. These are: the ‘core’ areas of arts and heritage policy; cultural and economic policy; cultural and social policy; and cultural and foreign policy. In each of these areas there is a wide range of specific policy applications where cultural considerations may be relevant.

Cultural and economic policy

Two of the most important areas of government interest where cultural and economic policies intersect are those that relate to the cultural industries and the media. While it may not be easy to give clear definition to the term ‘cultural industries’, conventionally they include film and television production, publishing, video and computer games, and so on. As was noted earlier, the Commonwealth Government has largely left industry policy in these areas to the States, although there is still an important Federal involvement in film financing.

The growth of the cultural industries is closely linked to the structural transformations that have been occurring in most developed economies over the last few decades. These changes have involved a transition from a manufacturing to a service economy, and from there, as a result of technological advances in communications and information processing, into what some observers call the information or the knowledge economy. Strategic competitive advantage in this new commercial environment is supposed to lie with those firms that can maintain a creative edge. In these circumstances the cultural industries exist not simply to produce cultural goods and services, but also to act as a generator and supplier of creativity, that elusive but vital resource that brings economic success in the contemporary world. 36 Governments, so the rhetoric goes, can enhance national competitiveness by industry policies aimed at fostering the creative industries through targeted assistance measures of various sorts, including investment allowances, tax concessions, subsidies and much more.

A fair amount of hype surrounds these claims—there is, after all, nothing particularly new about the so-called ‘new economy’, and most of our wealth is still created by traditional agricultural, manufacturing and service industries. Nonetheless, the significance of the cultural industries themselves, and their products, is undeniable, and it is important to understand where they fit in a broader cultural policy framework. If cultural policy is about ensuring that cultural value creation is recognised alongside the generation of economic value, a combined cultural and economic policy should focus on the content-creation aspects of these industries. This has relevance for Australia insofar as we are much more likely in the future to succeed as content providers for the new communications technologies than as producers of the technologies themselves. In turn, it is essential to realise that creative content arises from the primary forms of creative expression, namely the production of sound, image and text, in other words from the core creative arts. If this is so, it follows that one of the most enduring foundations upon which the cultural industries can be built will be a flourishing arts sector. By this means we can connect the industry-development aspects of economic and cultural policy back to the fundamental matter of support for the creative arts.

In this regard we should mention the film industry, which occupies an ambivalent position between being a core component of the creative arts on the one hand, and a multi-million dollar commercial industry on the other. This ambivalence is reflected in government policy-making towards the industry: should support be provided only for projects with a strong chance of commercial success, or should specific criteria of artistic and cultural merit be applied? Of course, everybody looks for projects that have both, but everybody knows that few projects do. Meanwhile there are on-going questions about how policy could be improved. More money is the self-evident first step. However, if the Federal Government did indeed want to give the industry a boost, an issue would arise as to which of the Commonwealth agencies would make best use of additional funds: the Australian Film Commission, the Film Finance Corporation, and/or the smaller production organisations Film Australia or SBS Independent? The policy mix is also important: for example, could private sector participation be cranked up a little via some marginal improvements to tax concessions for film investors? Might the short-lived Commercial Television Production Fund be revived? What is the right balance between direct (subsidy/grants) and indirect (tax-based) support for the industry? Given the interconnections between the industry and other parts of the cultural sector (e.g. as an employer of actors), how can co-ordination of cultural policy in different fields be improved?

The other area that I can use to illustrate where cultural policy and economic policy intersect is that of government regulation of the media. Almost exclusively these days government decisions concerning media regulation are guided by commercial rather than cultural criteria. Yet there are clear cultural ramifications arising from changes to cross-media ownership rules, the introduction of new technologies, the sale of spectrum, and so on. Even more directly, local content regulations have a major impact both on the production of Australian material and on the types of cultural messages to which the population has access. If cultural policy is to be comprehensive at the national level, it is essential that media policy as it affects the commercial sector be re-articulated to account explicitly for the cultural impact of economically-driven decisions.

The way ahead

We need a process by which to re-examine the directions of our cultural development: how can our core commitments to supporting the arts be better discharged and how can we explore more openly the cultural foundations of our economic, social and foreign policy? There are a number of ways in which we could proceed. They could be described as top-down or bottom-up.

The most obvious top-down process is to get together a group of people covering a range of interests, expertise and representation across the social and cultural spectrum and ask them to sit around a table for as long as it takes and come up with a document that can be put out for public discussion. This was essentially the approach used for Creative Nation . The advantage of this process is seen in the focus it provides for a discussion on cultural policy, but the obvious disadvantage of it is that, however well-meaning the committee members, it is a process that smacks of a cultural elite telling us what to do. In any case, the likelihood of anything like Creative Nation being sanctioned by the present Federal Government is remote, to say the least. Nonetheless, some effort to gather together a cultural statement of some sort as a basis for discussion could be contemplated, whether put together by politicians, bureaucrats, groups of experts, groups of non-experts, or anyone else.

However, a more sensible as well as more realistic way to proceed would be to look towards a bottom-up approach, whereby grass-roots individuals, communities and other groups might coalesce around particular issues to bring forth discussion papers, manifestos, draft policy statements or whatever, to open up debate on particular elements in the cultural policy mosaic. At some point a cultural ‘summit’ could even be proposed, at which these interests were brought together for informed discussion of the issues in a way that would heighten public awareness and contribute to the policy- development process.

Whatever approach to pursuing these ideas is adopted—and the various possibilities are by no means mutually exclusive—the desired result would be to foster public debate about the state of the arts and culture in Australia at a critical stage in our national development. Such a debate might well help to alleviate some of the uncertainties and anxieties mentioned in these pages, and could not but re-invigorate our artistic and cultural growth.

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