NCP Predictions

‘Grand Cultural Statement At Last’

Matthew Westwood
Reproduced from The Australian, 12 March 2013

TOMORROW’S lunch at the National Press Club is fully subscribed, as arts professionals from around the country descend on Canberra to witness the launch of the National Cultural Policy.

It will be Arts minister Simon Crean’s moment in the spotlight. The policy that was promised before the 2007 federal election is finally seeing the light of day, late in the second term of the Labor government. It may not have emerged at all without Crean’s tenacity, and he deserves credit for seeing it through.

As policy launches go, however, it’s likely to be in a lower key than that of Creative Nation 19 years ago. That policy was brought forth by prime minister Paul Keating and attended by an adoring crowd at the National Gallery of Australia. Keating attached $250 million to his policy across four years, worth about $317m today.

It’s understood Crean has secured substantial funding for the NCP, if not at the level of Keating-era largesse. But it is telling that the cultural policy – given that Labor long has claimed the arts as its constituency – is not being launched by Julia Gillard.

What will be in it? The Australia Council for the Arts will feature strongly, as Crean responds to recommendations for a top-down overhaul of the arts funding agency. Almost a year ago, corporate advisers Gabrielle Trainor and Angus James found it had become rigid in its grant-giving and fuzzy at governance level.

Their 18-point reform plan would replace the arts-oriented governing council with a more businesslike board.

Under this arrangement, the council’s chief executive – position vacant, an executive search has been under way – would be appointed not by the minister but by the council itself.

The report recommended a funding increase of $21.25m, which would take the council’s allocation to just more than $200m a year. The boost includes $15m for “unfunded excellence”, the gap between artistic potential and available cash. But the proposal to do away with specific arts boards – literature, theatre and music, for example – is contentious. If Crean accepts it, grants would be judged by a pool of assessors, whether or not they are specialists in the field.

Also worrying is the recommendation to end the special status of the 28 major performing arts companies by exposing them to competitive funding. Competition is good for the arts when outstanding work is rewarded and waste is reduced. But competitive grant rounds don’t make sense when companies are intended to be artistic leaders. The Australian Ballet, for example, is funded precisely to be a national flagship, even though many underfunded companies would love a share of its $5.3m federal grant.

Crean will also use the NCP to respond to the review he commissioned from businessman Harold Mitchell into private-sector support. Mitchell’s review touched on crowd funding, micro-finance and something called “testamentary giving”: an immediate tax break based on a promised bequest when the donor dies. Other studies also have looked at ways of raising revenue for the arts through a mixture of public and private funds, financial instruments and tax incentives. One proposal is for a foundation for the artist, an idea put forward by a panel that included Julianne Schultz, chairwoman of Crean’s NCP reference group.

Crean already has put several measures into place, describing them as down payments on the NCP: a new body called Creative Partnerships Australia and the $20m Australian Interactive Games Fund. And it’s unlikely he will overlook Labor projects such as the National Broadband Network and the national curriculum, and ways the arts will contribute.

But the arts sector must wait until tomorrow to gauge the tone and import of the NCP. A genuine cultural policy would go further than topping up the Australia Council or boosting hip creative industries such as game design. It would attempt to shape the big picture: not only in the nation’s galleries and concert halls but in our communities and homes.

It makes sense to have a strategy for arts and cultural funding that gets the best value from it and spreads the benefits fairly. The worry is when governments start using culture as an arm of the nanny state. You may enjoy singing in your community choir, but do you want the government telling you to do it for the good of your health or telling you what to sing?

This is the difference between a positive arts policy and the worst excesses of cultural policy. There is no indication that Crean’s NCP will be so heavy-handed. But just as John Howard promised in 1996 to banish Labor’s attempts to engineer a national identity, we may expect an Abbott government to do the same.

Opposition arts spokesman George Brandis has yet to reveal the Coalition’s arts policy, but he will oppose anything where culture is prescribed like a dose of medicine. “It is not for the state to tell a writer what to write, a painter what to paint, musician what to compose or an arts company what to perform,” he told the National Press Club in 2007.

Whether Crean brings forth a cultural blueprint or a set of sweeteners for the creative industries, one thing is clear. The fate of the cultural policy will not be decided tomorrow but at the federal election on September 14.