Monday, April 30, 2018

Platform Papers No 55

Art, Politics, Money: Revisiting Australia’s Cultural Policy by David Throsby.  Currency House: Platform Papers No 55,  May, 2018.

Commentary by Frank McKone

In 2006 David Throsby wrote Platform Papers No 7: Does Australia Need a Cultural Policy?  After 12 years of a terrifying but fascinating political history, he concludes we should begin again. 

He suggests our starting point should be the ‘definitional proposition’ from the Labour policy document Creative Australia which came to nought in 2013 when the Liberal/Nationals Coalition under Tony Abbott defeated Labour’s Kevin Rudd.  The proposition reads:

 Australian culture is the embodiment of the distinctive values, traditions and beliefs that make being Australian in the 21st Century unique – democratic, diverse, adaptive and grounded in one of the world’s oldest living civilisations.

Throsby believes that this ‘can be seen to rise above Party politics’, and ‘is likely to be generally accepted, regardless of political leaning.”  He is concerned as probably we all are that ‘a wide-ranging rumination on our culture and its values at this present time is most unlikely to appeal to the Prime Minister or his Cabinet, given the cultural conflicts that keep re-surfacing within the Coalition’s own ranks, the Government’s apparent lack of interest in the area, and its preoccupation with issues they would see as having higher priority’.

But he does put up some practical suggestions for immediate application by a Labour Minister for the Arts after the next election, which must take place by May 2019.  I suggest his ideas should be taken up by The Arts Party, which has recently established a new formal structure with the objective of sending at least one member to the Senate next year.  We need a voice in the Parliament whichever party forms Government.

As Throsby puts it: The Minister for the Arts “will have his own ideas of
what might be included, but here are some suggestions for components for a new arts policy package, derived from discussion in this paper:

• A recalibration and expansion of the
artist-in-residence programs in schools;

• A forum or series of forums on arts funding,
perhaps including a broad discussion of the
role of peer assessment in evaluating grant

• In conjunction with the Cultural Ministers’
Statistics Working Group, persuade the ABS to
re-establish the National Centre for Culture and
Recreation Statistics;

• A program to increase funding for art centres
in remote communities to enable expansion in
their support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander arts in all areas of art practice;

• Re-establishment of the Cultural Industries
Innovation Centre;

• Set up a feasibility study to consider the
establishment of a Heritage Lottery Fund.”

A little explanation, in reverse order:

The “Heritage Lottery Fund” is based on the UK National Lottery, funding to which – as an example – the Royal Shakespeare Company has access through Arts Council England.  Throsby recalls, in support of this idea, the success of the Opera House Lottery which helped fund the construction of the Sydney Opera House back in the day.

“The Australian Government’s Creative Industries Innovation Centre (CIIC) was a wonderful organisation that worked with over 1,500 creative enterprises from 2009 to 2014. They provided one-on-one support, and facilitated research reports including Valuing Australia’s Creative Industries, which showed that the creative industries made a direct contribution to GDP of $32.8 billion in 2011/12, more than the contribution made by many traditional industries.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts centres are now a feature of many communities across Australia. They are already supported to some extent by the Federal Government but need more money and more security of funding to develop fully.  The rationale is that art is central to those communities’ social cohesion and ongoing stability, to the benefit of the whole Australian society.

Throsby writes: “Progress in implementing any policy needs to be tracked over time, and this requires data. In the cultural arena, the axing by the Federal Government of the National Centre for Culture and Recreation Statistics (NCCRS) of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2014 dealt a blow to the steady supply of data about arts and culture from the Centre that had contributed so strongly to supporting policy-making in the field.” (Page 57)

Throsby notes that the Australia Council has thankfully survived through all the political exigencies, including some shenanigans, since its inception as an independent statutory authority through the Australia Council Act 1975.  There are other models internationally for the evaluation of grant applications which he believes we should examine, especially because of confusions over the years about concepts like ‘quality’, ‘excellence’, ‘diversity’, and issues like inclusion, small to medium organisations, heritage, individual practitioners, ‘major’ performing companies.

An expansion of the artists-in-residence program in schools is a straightforward action a new minister could take immediately, as part of much broader policy development about the central role of arts in education. 

“There are many lessons to be drawn from the sad meandering tale that represents the progress, if it can be called that, of Australian cultural policy over the last ten years that we have charted in these pages.  Some of these lessons are encouraging – for example, as Australians we have shown that we can indeed countenance a coherent national cultural policy if the mood so takes us.  Some of the lessons are profoundly discouraging, such as the sense that good policy is fragile, it can be replaced by bad policy, and in the end does anyone really care?”, writes David Throsby.

Throsby’s paper is a clarion call for political action, and maybe there are signs of hope.  The Arts Party did remarkably well in the last election while it was still in a very early fledgling state.  It is now ready for a major campaign for 2019.

And equally remarkably, “Gonski’s radical review” was the front page Fairfax headline as I write (Canberra Times, Monday April 30, 2018). 

“Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will push for a radical overhaul of the Australian curriculum after endorsing a blueprint by his businessman friend David Gonski to fix the lagging school system.  The Gonski 2.0 plan will transform the school system to assess and reward personal progress, not just standard academic benchmarks.  It challenges the Commonwealth, states and territories to ditch their ‘industrial model of schooling’ in favour of a more modern and individual approach.” (by Michael Koziol)

This raises the possibility of applying the very model of student centred learning and personal development which arose from Currency House’s Platform Papers No 54 Young People and the Arts: An Agenda for Change by Sue Giles, which I reviewed on this blog in March 2018, and developed with a detailed article on my blog at

It’s time to take action, I believe.

SYDNEY: Launch of Art, Politics, Money: Revisiting Australia’s Cultural Policy
David Throsby in conversation with MUP publisher and commentator Louise Adler

When: 6pm – 8pm, Tuesday 1 May 2018

Where: Dentons Seminar Room
Level 16, 77 Castlereagh Street, Sydney (between King/Market Streets)

All welcome. Book or

Currency House’s Platform Paper No.55 is available for media on request and for
purchase on

Media enquiries to Martin Portus at or 0401 360 806.