Recently, the Office for the Arts launched a discussion paper for the development of a new National Cultural Policy:

Consultation began on a National Cultural Policy in 2009, and has involved the arts and culture sector, creative industries, the public at large and government. This has informed the development of this discussion paper, which outlines goals and strategies for the new National Cultural Policy.

What do you think about the goals and strategies in the discussion paper?

This is the preamble I wrote to the Australian Theatre Forum Open Space National Cultural Policy Group submission.

It’s often said that language – the urge to communicate – is the defining aspect of our humanity. The evolution of language in our species around a million years ago paved the way for the complex societies and cultures in which we now live. As deep as the desire to communicate is the urge to make, which can be seen in every culture and in every child. Human beings are, by definition, communicators and makers. It is an inalienable right of our biological heritage, and the basis of every culture on earth.

The arts are a lynchpin of our culture, but they are not the whole of it: they are one aspect of the continually changing and endlessly diverse network of ideas, actions and values which make up our personal and national identities and our culture. Culture is not only a defining aspect of our humanity: it is the lifeblood of any notion of citizenship. As countless thinkers have noted, access to culture is the basis of any healthy democracy.

Art is the specialised act of making, developed over thousands of years in every culture on earth. The arts reflect our innate inventiveness, our imagination. They express the conflicts and harmonies, the dreams and desires and fears, of our social and individual lives. The arts belong to everyone: the ability to respond, to be moved, to be empowered, to be excited, to speak and to make is not the privilege of the few, but the birthright of the many.

Theatre, as a collective activity which incorporates individual visions, can be seen as a microcosm of culture. Every act of theatre is in some sense utopian: a group of people come together to imagine a different reality, and work together to communicate that reality to others. Others come to witness this act of making: not to be passive consumers, but to participate in an experience. The experience ripples out through the responses of the audience and, through them, into the wider culture. Sometimes it literally changes lives.

Most Australians understand theatre through main stage and commercial productions, but contemporary Australian theatre, especially among the independent companies that constitute its best practice, reaches much more deeply into the community and has developed an enviable international reputation. Contemporary Australian theatre intersects actively with local and global culture at all levels of society, adapting international influences to fit regional experiences, finding new ways to galvanise collective imagination. The theatre community has skills and visions that can be applied far beyond its present reach, and represents the best impulses of Australian innovation in thought, practice and technology.

A National Cultural Policy must recognise the complexity, depth and diversity of Australian culture. It must emphasise the right of every Australian to have access to his or her culture, to exercise his or her birthright to make and to speak. It must identify the barriers of class, education, race, place or economic status that impede the exercise of these rights, and seek to dismantle them. It must understand that culture is a living thing, dynamic and continually changing, and seek to be inclusive of all the languages, values and experiences that together constitute Australian culture.

Most of all, a National Cultural Policy must recognise that nurturing our culture is fundamental to nurturing our citizenship, not only of Australia, but of the wider world in which we live. In the 21st century, we are not only citizens of this country, but of the globe. The policy must cultivate practical methods of enriching our collective national imagination, so that each of us will become individually more empowered, more educated and more questioning members of a vital democracy. It must aim to encourage all Australians, individually and as a nation, to attain their true potential: as human beings, as cultural participants, and as citizens of a diverse, dynamic and challenging world.

Alison Croggon

This preamble prefaces the ATFOS submission to the Australian Government’s National Cultural Policy discussion paper.

Commissioned and endorsed by:
Jude Anderson, Artistic Director, Punctum
Stephen Armstrong, Chair of the Theatre Board, Australia Council
Alison Croggon, independent arts journalist
Susan Donnelly, Executive Director, Australian Major Performing Arts Group
Brenna Hobson, General Manager, Belvoir
Chris Kohn, Artistic Director, Arena Theatre Company
Alice Nash, Executive Producer, Back to Back Theatre
Alison Richards, Independent theatre artist and academic
Sonya Suares, General Manager, Red Stitch Actors Theatre

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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  1. Alison.

    No respndents as yet. 🙁
    And your paper/blog/manifesto is so so so wonderful. And yet, your regular drama teacher in a state school must have a few wines on a firday night looking for some bigger answer to try to answer your utopian vision….

    Now we can call it utopian, because my year 10 class who perhaps will never even go to see a shakespeare let alone some contemporary ‘green wank’from the city, know what utopia and dystopia is becuase of the syllabus we teachers (who may get shafted into literacy over their other teaching qualifications i.e. drama) must teach.

    Not much ability from the bottom rung (i.e. classroom teachers) to push a wonderful National Cultural Policy when basic concepts (of compound
    and complex sentences, imperatives, apostophes, why theatre exists, Elizabethan England, structure of persuasive texts, and dare I say capital letters for the beginning of sentences and proper nouns etc) must be understood by 30 mixed young people (of ability/class/race/brain-side-dominance/parental-polital-persuasion/school values/socio-economic-drivel/circumstance/boundaries of freedom-of-speech/fear of the daily telegraph/whether breakfast has been had/whether bongs have been had/whether abuse of some sort has been had/whether the kid has power issues/whether mum or dad is horrible/ whther caring for any of their family etc) in a small crappy classroom which did not get the revamp of the school hall wank of the new government.

    But they got laptops, which is great to play games and sneak a password from an unknowing teacher and get on facebook for the whole 55min lesson (“quick! minimise!teacher coming!”). And the lovely drama when a teacher sets up a wiki and 5/30 kids’ computer is broken.

    We can have a cultural policy, but we need a good education one first. The National Cultural Policy and the new National Curriculum must go hand in hand to foster both
    fruitful creative industry and understanding along with excellent literacy, numeracy and kinasthetic skills.

    That means we share with the poor science subjects whose numbers are dwindling in years 11 and 12, mathematics, whom no-one wants to teach, let alone learn, and bring about a desire for our children to learn in a nourishing and holistic environment. Not just a new school hall or a laptop. In a PUBLIC setting where merit and effort are rewarded regardless of family background.

    Once our basic schooling values are realised and we support
    our education system to flourish for Australian expression and learning, we can really bring about a ‘National Cultural Policy’ which hits (and is part of) home to all.

  2. Hi Sally

    I’m glad you liked it. And yes, it is utopian: deliberately so. A lot of artists, not just those listed here, complained about the language of the NCP being alienating and bureaucratic, and this group wanted an introduction in plain, easily understood English that cited some ambitions and ideals, and that asserted that culture, while of course it has an economy, is important for other reasons first.

    The nuts and bolts of how that might come about have to be worked out in the policies themselves: you might find some of the responses to the discussion paper interesting. I don’t know a single artist who isn’t aware of the crucial importance of education: we all want a better education system, which gives students access to different cultural literacies. This is kind of a no brainer: there are countless studies showing how access to the arts enhances learning in all sorts of secondary ways. (This applies to the wider culture too). We have all the resources here, including a lot of willing artists, but it seems, not much of the political will. Getting culture on the national agenda seems like an almost impossible task, and as an issue it’s invisible in every election. How to beat down the idea that culture is not a privileged luxury, but a necessity in a smart contemporary society, is a long and hard battle in the present environment. And it begins, at every level – not just with children – with education.

  3. A great preamble: difficult to add to or refute. One of the beauties of theatre / performance for me is that it doesn’t hang around to pollute. It’s there for you, and then it’s gone- never to return. I saw some absolutely brilliant theatrical productions during last summer’s Festival of Perth: theatre is just the best night out. There were some great Australian productions; overall though I thought the International productions superior. Which is why I support the case you make for a National Cultural Policy.

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