A new round of very big-picture thinking about what nurtures our arts ecology has just opened up, led both by the new Victorian Government and the Federal Opposition. Yet while the language of the Australia Council and the arts community itself has moved more and more towards the recognition of the arts as an ecology, both of these new trajectories have their sights set on the arts as an industry.

It’s something of a double-edged sword. We want the work of being an artist to be recognised. We want the value of the arts to be recognised. We want artists and arts organisations to be able to attract public and private funds in virtue of that recognition. On the other hand, we want that recognition of the value of the arts to extend beyond the economic. We don’t want to see it reduced to dollars and cents; we want to see the value of all public goods expressed with more sophistication and impact.

Vital to recognising, understanding and valuing the role of the arts in our society is a policy framework that compels government to see itself as a key agent for cultural development. In the UK, the language here would be about ‘actors’ and not ‘agents’ – an important acknowledgement that artists, organisations, advocates, policy-makers, government are impactful not as agents on someone else’s behalf, but as actors in their own right. When a government has a policy that addresses creative people, it understands its own role as providing the calibre of public leadership that inspires innovation, experimentation and risk. This is the hallmark of good leadership: to offer a policy framework whose language and whose programs inspire creative responses that well exceed the bounds of what the policy thought possible.

Arts policy needs to nurture the ecology in all its complexities. It can’t expect artists to be the creators as well as the facilitators and the champions of that ecology. Its facilitators are curators, producers, directors, administrators, organisations as well as artists, and its champions are every one of us. An arts policy must necessarily speak to the entire community, as well as to parliamentary colleagues in education, health, regional and urban development, and so on. Neglect an arts policy, and you’ve neglected to understand what government is for: facilitating our creation of the Australian culture, and championing that diversity along all policy and programs – and across the world.

So what next for Victoria, and what next for Australia? On the national front, an event this week brought together some familiar voices in these debates and presented them alongside Shadow Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts, the Hon Mark Dreyfus QCHere’s my Storify of ‘Resetting the Australian cultural economy: towards a new agenda.’ The evening’s discussion made some timely assertions, stumbling on a couple of red herrings (while Sydney is just beginning to experiment with flawed lock-out laws, their failure here was part of the push for the new Victorian Agent of Change laws that protect live music venues, thanks to Music Victoria and others; while more public funding now goes to arts organisations than to individual artists, those organisations in turn support more artists than ever before and nurture the ecology with great care). Importantly, Dreyfus clearly asserted that he has Bill Shorten’s support in developing a new policy approach – we recall with frustration that after several years without the support of his leadership, Simon Crean as Minister for the Arts was forced to name publicly the colleagues who were obstructing the commitment of focus and funds to the National Cultural Policy, and even then, its launch was his swansong.

In Victoria, Minister for Creative Industries the Hon Martin Foley MP is busy with a new set of interconnected portfolios that he sees as critical to state development. At an Arts Industry Council (Victoria) roundtable during the week, Foley described the relationship between his portfolios of Creative Industries, Equality (Australia’s first Minister for Equality), Mental Health, and Housing, Disability and Ageing. He sees an important opportunity for a policy that drives a whole-of-government approach to creative industries – the arts, film, fashion, games and more – as well as cultural development more broadly. A whole government that understands its work as impacting on much more than the economic cycle is a welcome, mature development – and a big ask. It’s a beginning, and I keenly anticipate its next steps.