ALP arts policy hits the right note but won’t rock the suburbs

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The Australian Labour Party released its arts policy discussion paper last week… and nothing happened.

Compared to interest rates, petrol prices and a foiled airline terrorism plot, Peter Garrett’s long, fairly dull and extremely worthy thesis on Australia’s cultural life proved of little mainstream media interest. The arts, music and entertainment media didn’t seem to notice either.

Garrett is working hard on the issue, penning an article on August 2nd in Arts Hub putting forward the value of investing in Australia’s cultural sector, with a focus on new media, digital content creation and arts education.

The Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Reconciliation and the Arts made some sensible points, including this one: "The amount of public support and subsidy for the Arts remains low and professional artists, many of whom are regulars at Centrelink, experience relentless carping about arts funding by some commentators who see red every time a piece of experimental or provocative art is produced with government patronage."

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But so far the article by the former Midnight Oil rock star has elicited only two comments, including this one from Angus Cerini: "You used to write songs of power and passion, now you just think we’re on the dole." Life supporting the arts in Australia was never meant to be easy.

Intellectually, the 22-page ALP arts discussion paper has the value of considerable breadth and research. Its focus on new media is a welcome breath of fresh air to those still smarting from the Australia Council’s ostrich-headed decision to abolish its own New Media Arts Board. There are some bold new proposals that when added together would represent significant reform: a review of copyright law for visual arts, for example, and a commitment to clearing away the dead hand of Australia Council bureaucracy that has flourished under the David Gonski-Jeniffer Bott regime.

But the new discussion paper also lacks focus, adopting a scatter-gun approach that seeks to comment on a bewildering array of issues in the sector: new media, digital content production, arts education, artists’ incomes, indigenous culture, tax incentives for the arts, freedom of artistic expression, the Australia Council and more.

Breadth is of course important in a discussion paper. But many of the specific policy initiatives proposed in the ALP paper are often either nebulous motherhood statements ("Labor is committed to ensuring that dance and small to medium sized theatre organisations are given every opportunity to flourish") or detailed but relatively minor ("Labor will ensure the Parliament House collections policy includes diverse works of artists – emerging and established.")

Some of the proposals will be almost impossible to implement, for instance an idea to oblige Major Performing Arts companies to produce works by young and emerging artists. Garrett may find he has a revolt on his hands if he tries to press through a proposal which could potentially cripple companies that perform legacy artworks at the box office.

In the main, however, there is much in the new policy that artists and supporters of the arts will find cheering. In particular there seems to be a genuine commitment to the value of Australian art and culture in and of itself, as well as for its economic benefits. This is clearly the most forward-looking arts policy at either state or federal level to emerge from either side of politics since Paul Keating’s Creative Nation policy.

It’s just that no-one has noticed.

Politically, it’s hard to escape the hard electoral realities of arts policy – which is that it’s unlikely to change votes in the outer suburbs. The arts remain a small niche of the Australian political discussion, and though artists have found themselves unwilling hostages in the Howard-era culture wars, most Australians probably still agree with Peter Garrett when he writes that "the Arts are often seen as an optional extra by politicians – afraid it seems to champion something perceived as on the fringe or elite."

To sum up: most Australian artists will no doubt be crossing their fingers that the ALP regains power. But hasn’t this been the case since 1996 anyway?

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