Ben Eltham, ‘The Labor agenda for arts policy’, ArtsHub, 12 February 2015
It’s one of the enduring mysteries of Australia’s cultural debate that we don’t hear more about the cluster of industries and businesses that are variouly called ‘arts’, ‘culture’ and ‘entertainment.’
On any analysis, that’s rather strange. In terms of sheer numbers, these industries are a large and growing part of the economy. In 2011, for instance, they employed more than 310,000 cultural workers. At the time, that was a larger workforce than the booming mining industry, considered so central to Australia’s economic well-being.
The economic arguments about the value of arts and culture are well-documented, statistically robust … and almost utterly ignored by our nation’s politicians and policy makers.
To take the most obvious current example, Australia currently has no federal government policy for culture, and Arts Minister George Brandis shows no signs of coming up with one any time soon. In this respect, Brandis is at least consistent. As the Coalition’s Arts spokesman at the 2013 election, he proposed no arts or cultural policies or promises to voters.
The previous federal government did take culture slightly more seriously. Labor developed Australia’s first federal cultural policy for two decades. Unfortunately, it spent six years doing it, and introduced it in the dying days of Julia Gillard’s administration. As a result, Creative Australia functioned for just a few months before the fall of the Labor government. It has since vanished into a bureaucratic netherworld.
But politics moves fast. The Abbott government is in dire trouble, and Labor has every chance of winning government back in 2016. The middle year of an election cycle is traditionally the time when opposition parties develop their policies to take to voters in the following year.
So how is Labor going? Is the ALP developing a new cultural policy? What would it look like?
Last week in Melbourne, I had the opportunity to ask Labor’s Arts spokesman Mark Dreyfus exactly that, in a panel on Australia’s creative economy organised by Monash University’s Justin O’Connor.
Dreyfus began his presentation with a bold claim: ‘Labor is the party of the arts,’ he said, making reference to the achievements of the Whitlam and Keating years, as well as the significance of the new funding attached to Simon Crean’s Creative Australia policy of 2013.