Preparing a cultural policy scorecard

After nearly a decade without a national policy, and a Federal election in sight, the cultural sector is suddenly awash with plans to make a plan.

To date, this includes the Parliamentary Inquiry report into Sculpting a National Cultural Plan, Imagining 2030 from independent thinktank A New Approach (ANA), The Australia Institute’s Creativity in Crisis by Alison Pennington and Ben Eltham, and a look at performing arts advocacy in Australia from John Daley.

These complex and occasionally contradictory reports—and the critiques of them that have followed—speak to the tantalising possibility of a new national cultural policy, but are not yet policies themselves.

The closest so far is the Greens’ Creating Australia initiatives, released as part of their Invest to Recover economic recovery plan in 2020. But Labor says it ‘isn’t starting from scratch,’ with Shadow Minister for the Arts Tony Burke telling the recent Reset Conference the party intends to use the short-lived 2013 Creative Australia as the starting point for a four- to six-month review process. And it’s likely the Parliamentary Enquiry will inform some Liberal election commitments—though it’s important to note the report falls short of recommending a national cultural policy. Rather, it suggests a plan to ‘assess the medium and long term needs’ that State and Local Governments will need to address (which, arguably, they’re all already doing).

While we’re waiting on more detail, the growing stack of research and opinion pieces is useful in helping us prepare for what’s to come and advocate for what our sector really needs that to be.


The need for a national cultural policy

Two things all reports agree on are: that some sort of national cultural policy is vital; and, as Reset organisers Justin O’Connor and Tully Barnett write, that ‘now is the time to pull together and use this moment to look at what changes need to happen in arts and cultural policy and practice.’

‘All states and territories have a current strategy or plan or roadmap [and] the Australian Local Government Association have signed up all their members to a national policy position on arts and culture,’ ANA’s Kate Fielding noted in a Recovery Roadmap Webinar. ‘This is a pretty incredible moment where we could have all three levels of government having a coherent policy approach to this area.’

A national cultural policy is a practical way for the Commonwealth to support the sector to recover from the pandemic, lead and leverage investment across all three levels of government, meet National Cabinet and Commonwealth Budget priorities and, as cultural sector advocate Esther Anatolitis writes, ‘set out strategies that promote a flourishing industry for a nation confident in its own culture.’


A cultural policy scorecard

‘There are many advocacy initiatives working across the country,’ Norm Horton from Feral Arts noted at Reset. ‘Connecting them better will serve us well. If we stay disconnected, change won’t happen.’

This scorecard attempts to make that connection by centralising and streamlining some of the key themes from the sector’s discussions so far. It aims to communicate the best bits of all models, celebrate the multiplicity of this complex and politicised space, and ready ourselves with the questions we’ll need to analyse the policies that arise: Who wrote it? How was it written? And what does it contain?


Who wrote it?

Advocacy and policy are rarely neutral (though they’re often presented as such). We need to ask ourselves:

  • What is the background, expertise and reputation of the policy’s authors?
  • What is their motivation / agenda?
  • What potential biases did they bring to the process—conscious or unconscious (including mine, in preparing this scorecard).
  • Is the policy bipartisan or likely to achieve bipartisan support? ‘Arts and culture policy is only sustainable if it is bipartisan,’ Daley suggests. Particularly given, as Anatolitis reminds us, ‘no national arts and culture approach has ever survived a change in government in Australia.’


How was it written?

Active leadership requires active listening. Several reports insist on policies informed by deep sector consultation (including with ‘the biggest investors into this area: the Australian public’). In reality, however, we’re running out of time do so—and certainly anything to match the Creative Australia consultation process, which began in 2009, a full four years before release.

With this in mind, Fielding suggests ‘using the current intel that has been gathered out of the Parliamentary Inquiry and consultation processes at different levels of government and drawing that together into a process is probably the most pragmatic and fastest pathway at this point.’

For policies that take this approach, we still need to ask ourselves:

  • Was the consultation comprehensive, genuine and sector-led?
  • Was the consultation sample representative or did it draw from or omit specific groups (such as the Parliamentary Inquiry’s suggestion to omit the Australia Council and the ABC from discussions about their future or ANA’s focus on the ‘middle-aged, middle income swing voters from suburban and regional Australia’ it terms ‘middle Australians’)?
  • Does the consultation draw from one or more sector peak bodies (and, if so, how does it address the potential art form or geographical bias our lack of an overarching arts sector advocacy body creates)?

This is the problem of peaks in Australia, of course. Unlike other industries, we don’t have a single membership based equivalent to the Farmers’ Federation with history of identifying and lobbying on shared priorities. While both Daley and ANA call for a new peak to professionalise collective arts advocacy efforts, Daley notes ‘such a peak body would need to show it is acting for all of them. And it is only likely to be effective if it has substantial dedicated resources of its own.’

Others argue that diverting limited resources into a new peak body ‘would be a big mistake—in effect the privatisation of public policy’ or that we need a national cultural policy brave enough to let the Australia Council do its democratically-mandated job. Not just to free it from current critique and overreach, but empower it to speak to power without fear of punishment (in the same way the Federal Government supports Sport Australia to undertake advocacy work).

  • Is it based on evidence, not ideology? Does it draw on transparent and reputable data? Does it respond to demonstrable need? In asking these questions, we need to acknowledge both the breath and challenges of the data available to us. The Parliamentary Inquiry report underscores how important it is for Governments to have ‘the most current and relevant information with which to make informed policy and legislative decisions’, and we have some significant available wisdom on which to draw. But ‘there is no single repository which captures Australia-wide data on arts funding and programs’ and stop-start funding of research and data agencies has created significant gaps. If and when a national cultural policy reinstates census questions about arts involvement, the ABS Cultural and Creative Satellite Accounts or the biannual Meeting of Cultural Ministers, we should remember it was disbanding these initiatives that left a holes in our cultural evidence database in the first place.
  • Is it based on multiple public value arguments? Over the past twenty years, Commonwealth Governments have asked artists and arts organisations to focus primarily on the economic value of our work (a position reinforced by current Minister for the Arts Paul Fletcher in his recent speech to the Sydney Institute).

While such economic evidence can attract attention, the financial impact of art and culture should be ‘a supporting plotline,’ Daley says. Yes, our sector has a strong economic case to make—but it’s more than a singular story (and the same goes for any other singular metric, like Daley’s focus on happiness). And this approach hasn’t worked: the rise of neoliberal justifications occurring over the same period that Federal investment in art and culture has reduced. ‘We need to stop buying into the economic argument,’ writer Andrew P Street said at Reset, ‘because it’s not being made in good faith.’

Not everything that counts can be measured, but the countless benefits of arts engagement are already well documented. The Parliamentary Inquiry report agrees ‘the value the cultural and creative industries provides to Australia cannot be measured in economic value alone. It provides an unquantifiable cultural and social value to our health and wellbeing, society, education and Australia’s identity in the world.’

We can use these different stories to appeal to different audiences, but should resist the urge to simplify the multiplicity of our success. ‘The benefits which flow from a healthy arts industry have never been needed more keenly than right now, as Australia emerges from living with the COVID-19 public health emergency,’ the Parliamentary Inquiry notes.

  • What language does it use? There is increasing critique of the ‘creative industries’ discourse which, as artist and curator David Pledger noted at Reset, ‘depletes art’s intrinsic value’ by tying our language to capitalism and neoliberalism.

ANA’s research shows arts advocacy efforts are more likely to be successful if focused on ‘arts and culture’ rather than just ‘arts.’ ‘Maybe we are our own worst enemies,’ Sydney Festival’s outgoing Artistic Director Wesley Enoch quoted a philanthropist at last November’s SAMAG conversation with Fielding. ‘We call ourselves ‘the arts’ like it’s an elite activity—when, in fact, we should just call ourselves ‘arts’ (in the way our colleagues don’t say ‘the sports’, just ‘sports’).’

We also need to be wary of the language of othering, such as outdated uses of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ (or former Arts Minister Simon Crean’s infamous use of ‘tolerance’ in Creative Australia), which work from a deficit position to imply a static point of comparison to be diverse from or included into. We want a national cultural policy that mirrors the strengths of our sector with strength-based, community-led and contemporary best practice language.


What’s in it?

As we prepare to campaign for culture this election, there are a number of consistent policy priorities we should expect to see on our scorecard.

  • First Peoples First. Recognising and celebrating the centrality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, stories and practitioners is another thing Fletcher, Burke and all the pre-policy papers agree upon, and was the first recommendation of Creative Australia eight years ago. Last year’s Australia Council Re-imagine: What’s Next sector consultation report articulates the importance of self-determination in achieving this goal, and ANA suggests policies should also ‘draw from Indigenous ways of knowing and experiencing, acknowledging the need for closer links between arts and culture and other aspects of our lives.’
  • Australian stories. ‘Under the cover of the pandemic, Mr Morrison’s government suspended quotas, particularly for genres of Australian-made television,’ Burke said at Reset. But telling Australian stories is crucial for our national identity and culture, and the individual wellbeing that comes from seeing ourselves reflected on stage, page and screen. A new national cultural policy should not just reinstate what’s been lost, but prioritise authentic stories told by those who have lived the experiences those stories contain, particularly from those whose voices have been ignored or marginalised in the past.
  • It’s not news that many Australians don’t have equal access to arts and culture. Addressing this inequity will require the strategic removal of barriers to ensure everyone has the opportunity to take part in all areas and at all levels: from who can participate and what stories they can tell, to where they’re from, what they do, and what roles or art forms they choose. However, equity doesn’t come from treating everybody equally, it comes from providing whatever is needed to make everyone equal. This was demonstrated in submissions to the Parliamentary Inquiry, in which ‘artists and arts professionals called for the industry to introduce quotas, industry standards and to tie funding to levels of equity and access,’ as Dr Jackie Bailey reports. This includes equity of access for:
    • All locations. Working in concert with State, Territory and Local Governments, a new national cultural policy needs to impact and be accessible for all Australians, regardless of where we live. This includes initiatives and investment to address the ongoing disparities between cities and the country, and between Sydney/Melbourne and everywhere else.
    • All art forms, types and sizes. ‘Advocacy focused on the direct impact of arts and culture, and that makes common cause with commercial and community sectors, is inherently agnostic about artform,’ Daley says. As such, a new national cultural policy must be applicable across all of our traditional, contemporary and increasingly hybrid art forms, across community and professional practice, and across all scales – including directing more investment toward independent practitioners and the small-to-medium sector that outperforms its bigger and better-funded counterpart at every level (except operating budgets).
    • All points of engagement. Initiatives to address our sector’s prevailing monoculture still tend to approach the issue from an audience perspective. But this monoculture will persist until we improve access and representation for all points of arts engagement – from audiences and participants, to artists and artsworkers, leaders and members of our governing Boards. This also includes access to arts education at all levels. However, while the Parliamentary Inquiry report emphasises the importance of professional development for artists and arts workers, Dr Claire Hooker notes for Arts Health Network ‘it continues to virtually exclude tertiary education, whose creative arts schools have been substantially destroyed over the past year.’
  • Valued cultural labour. Arts participation is often talked about as a human right, but less is said about the rights of the people making that art. More than ever, we need a national cultural policy that addresses practitioners’ precarious and subsistence living conditions (which have worsened during the pandemic, even as we relied more heavily on their work).

‘Finding ways to reverse the precipitous rise in casualised, low paid work is obviously paramount,’ O’Connor and fellow cultural sector academics Julian Meyrick and Julianne Schultz write. But it’s not just about wages, standards or income support. We also need policy settings around arts education and training, protection of copyright and intellectual property (including new protections for digital creation and distribution), support for mobility and export, innovative business models, fit-for-purpose legislative, regulatory, tax and investment incentives, and expanded collective bargaining rights. ANA notes we also need to ‘balance legal protections for creative works, in terms of protecting creators’ rights to recognition, compensation and expression, with the potential impacts of the exercise of those rights on vulnerable communities and individuals.’

‘Without this,’ Anatolitis says, ‘we will continue to see artists’ incomes stagnate or fall, and we will continue to see the creative and cultural industries neglected right when we need their strength the most.’ Doing so also risks homogenising the types of artists who can afford to work for so little return, and make creative practice something only the wealthy can afford.

  • Expert, independent and arms-length decision making. ‘When establishing the Australia Council as the nation’s arts funding body in the early 1970s, the Federal Government made it clear an ‘arm’s length’ process should apply,’ Jo Caust writes. ‘The decision making should be separate from the government of the day so that political priorities did not get in the way. It also advised the use of ‘peers’ who were knowledgeable about the field as the decision-makers. But fifty years later, we are seeing many examples of direct and indirect political interference in the grant decision-making process for the arts.’

Our sector needs the independence and transparency of the Australia Council. We need the expertise that only a room full of knowledgeable, representative peers can provide. And we need to stop wasting limited resources on duplicating unnecessary decision making processes (often with confusing, inconsistent or inferior results, as the Catalyst and RISE funding models have revealed).

  • Strategic investment. State and Local Governments have offset some of the last six years of Federal arts funding cuts, but overall investment in Australian arts and culture still isn’t matching our growing population. By international standards, we rank in the bottom quarter of OECD countries (investing just 0.9 per cent of GDP in arts and culture in 2019). ‘On a per capita basis, on serving a much larger and more complex population, we’re falling behind,’ Fielding says. Governments often measure their legacy in bricks and mortar. Everyone wants the shiny new thing, but a coordinated national approach that maintains and expands existing arts infrastructure and invests in new capital in the areas that need it the most would be both more strategic and more cost-effective.

We also need to end the ‘slow strangulation of the Australia Council and ABC’ by resisting the Parliamentary Inquiry recommendation that the Productivity Commission should consider ‘arrangements which govern funding of artistic programs’, reversing the trend for Governmental overreach interference in these agencies, and returning (and ambitiously increasing) their operating, commissioning and devolved funding budgets.

Yes, the Parliamentary Inquiry recommendation that the title of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications be amended to include the Arts is a good one. ‘More than just a word has been lost, however, and more than just a cosmetic response will be needed,’ Anatolitis says. Any cultural policy promises that return what was taken won’t really be gifts to the sector, but rather mistakes merely acknowledged too late.

With such low expectations and belief in anything more than Governmental disinterest or disdain, simply stopping the annual haemorrhaging of Federal arts funding may appear like a win. But the sector needs a strategic and significant increase in arts funding at all levels. ‘While project funding allows organisations to create and present work and pay artists fairly, that kind of funding does not support core operations – administrative costs are explicitly excluded,’ Leya Reid wrote for NAVA about the ways in which Fletcher’s ‘significant re-imagining of the Commonwealth’s approach to the arts’ continues to fall short. ‘The austerity era is over,’ O’Connor, Meyrick and Schultz insist. ‘Nations that spend nothing, will get nothing. The future belongs to those who are willing to build. That includes the Australian cultural sector.’

  • Multi-agency support. ‘Given that arts and culture can also improve outcomes in a range of other policy areas,’ Daley writes, ‘some advocate embedding them as a priority for education, health and social services departments.’ ANA proposes a plan informed by existing national 2030 plans for agriculture, sport, innovation, tourism and defence technology based on 21st Century priorities for Australian arts and cultural policy. This includes ‘using arts and cultural activities in existing and new initiatives across all relevant portfolios, especially in placemaking and community-building, to mitigate loneliness, social exclusion and isolation.’
  • Contemporary issues and ethics. ‘New challenges require new responses, not a return to old ones,’ O’Connor, Meyrick and Schultz write. It should no longer be optional to address the pressing contemporary issues of our time, including:
    • How our sector responds to the climate crisis, including what we make, how we make it, and the expectations and ethics of artwashing.
    • Digital innovation and distribution, alongside the issue of digital inequality which, as I wrote in Our Hybrid Future last year, was brought into sharp focus by COVID-19.
    • Rebuilding better out of the pandemic, not returning to the inequitable and unsustainable ecosystem we had before.


Where to from here?

There is ‘considerable cynicism that evidence to a Parliamentary Inquiry will achieve any policy outcome,’ Eltham wrote before the report’s release. ‘Arguments for Australian culture often focus on what it should say to demonstrate its worth,’ Meyrick agrees. ‘Rarely considered is the government’s capacity to listen, or the extent to which it is able to meaningfully interpret the truckloads of evidence put to it.’

It’s hard to imagine how we can beat such endemic indifference when the weight of our arguments and evidence haven’t been able to do so before. But there is significant risk in letting this moment pass. And the increase of independents expected to get seats in the new Parliament could present an opportunity.

Baily reminds us that we don’t have to wait until those independents and political parties pitch us their policies before we start creating the industry that we want to see. Her call to action includes encouragement for us to:

  • Lobby local councils to introduce levies and stipends to incentivise artists to live in their towns.
  • Establish micro-financing funds for arts activity.
  • Encourage philanthropists to support arts and culture.
  • Unite in a coherent voice to government and other industries.
  • Become leaders in climate responsible models.
  • Activate our arts industry ‘ex-pat’ mates in other industries like sleeper cells to advocate for arts partnerships.
  • Instead of lagging behind other industries, demand that arts organisations become leaders in equitable leadership, cultural safety and accessibility.


Image: Long Zheng

Kate Larsen

Kate Larsen is an arts, cultural and non-profit consultant with more than twenty years’ experience in the non-profit, government and arts sectors in Australia, Asia and the UK. She is on Twitter as @KateLarsenKeys.

More by Kate Larsen ›

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