If you’re after a crash course in Australian politics, run a regional arts forum in a marginal seat, and ask candidates to articulate how their platform creates the nation’s culture. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The electoral divisions of McEwen and Corangamite are two of the most marginal in the state. Labor holds McEwen with a tiny 0.2% swing, which means it would take less than 250 undecided people to change that seat. Last year, there were 1,248 participants in Regional Arts Funded projects in McEwen, presented to audiences of some 5,500. Corangamite is held by the Liberals with a 3.9% swing, which would be lost if around 3,700 people were to change their vote. Last year, 4,218 people either participated in or attended an arts event supported by the Regional Arts Fund.

In both places, the creative community is significantly larger than the swing required to change the sitting member. The numbers I’ve just quoted don’t take into account the local arts activity of our Members, nor the impacts of our Performing Arts Touring or Education & Families programs, nor the work of our Creative Arts Facilitators – nor, of course, the work of artists who don’t seek funding or expert advice; the actual size of the local arts community is bigger than this. We’re obliged however for reporting reasons to collect data by electorate, and so these figures are easy to come by for Regional Arts Victoria. For example, we know that artists in both electoral divisions secured roughly the same amount in Regional Arts Fund grants last year – around $32,000 – through which 26 artists were paid for their work in McEwen, and 28 in Corangamite.

With so much focus on our capital cities during the election campaign, holding arts advocacy forums regionally was an important thing to do – important not only to provide local opportunities for public discussion, but also, to offer some insights for the rest of the nation on how regional politics works.

Regional Arts Victoria invited all the candidates whose contact details we could find to attend Creating the Australian Culture: Let’s Talk Arts. With more Australians expecting confident, authentic cultural leadership from our politicians, we wrote, the arts have become an election focus for the first time in a generation. We wanted to create a forum where local artists, audiences and candidates could talk about what the arts means right there in their own regions.

The response was heartening, with a majority of candidates getting in touch to let me know in some detail why they could or could not attend, and passing on some advice if they were regretfully unable to make it. This kind of direct and authentic access is a model for candidates in urban electorates to follow.

One candidate who couldn’t make it suggested I mention to the group that, if we were to cut the tax burden on citizens considerably, then there’d be more money in our pockets to spend on the arts. I’d be happy to present that argument publicly in that candidate’s absence – alongside the argument that the purpose of government is to redistribute public tax contributions to the public good, of which the arts is an essential component.

Another candidate asked me where the town was where we’re holding our forum. A town, that is, in their own electoral division. The division that they’re hoping will elect them. I was delighted at the honesty of the question: this person was happy for that lack of local knowledge to be exposed to someone offering an open platform to access an entirely new audience – a rarity in political campaigning, and something that would very rapidly be seized as an embarrassing gotcha moment in a media interview.

Yet another candidate couldn’t make it because they were attending a fundraiser. In the final week of the election campaign. In one of the most marginal seats in the nation, where a mere few hundred voters will decide the outcome. With just days to go, this candidate preferred to spend their limited time with the already convinced rather than meet a whole new segment of the electorate. This one did surprise me.

Candidates in regional areas are well accustomed to meeting locals and speaking their mind. They will, without prompting and without arduous overtures, articulate their own values and their party’s values in their own words. And in doing so, they will convince you with calm clarity of their sincerity. The true test of any would-be MP is how readily they can articulate the connection between their own single-issue focus and a wider social issue. If they can do that, they’re in a solid place to represent their constituency – which in a regional area is likely very diverse and very dispersed, with no obvious focal point geographically nor culturally.

By contrast, the National Arts Election Debate was a restrained affair, with structure and formalities necessitated by the expectations of leadership-level politicians happy to risk appearing superficial and disengaged rather than risk exposing their own convictions on how we create the Australian culture.

The most heartening conversation I’ve had to date in planning these forums was with a minor party candidate who will be joining us. Early in our conversation they bashfully admitted not being engaged with the arts – and yet, spoke fervently about the ways we can come together to foster a society where people are free to express themselves, where heavily marketed modes of pre-packaged addiction aren’t shoved down our throats through commercially fabricated peer pressure, and where depression is treated primarily not via readily addictive drugs but by local ways to express our feelings with confidence.

This was by far the most unexpected conversation of my past few weeks: an elegant polemic not merely for the value of the arts, but for a world in which we create our own culture, rather than consuming it ready-made. Developing and expressing such a vision is, after all, the key ethical duty of every elected member of parliament.

Regional Arts Victoria is presenting two arts advocacy forums in the week leading into the election –

In the electoral division of McEwen:
6:30-8:00pm Tuesday 28 June 2016
Wadambuk St Andrews Community Centre
35 Caledonia Street St Andrews


In the electoral division of Corangamite:
7:30-9:00pm Wednesday 29 June 2016
Colac Performing Arts Centre
95-97 Gellibrand St Colac (opposite Colac railway station) 

Come join us. And, most importantly, bring someone who isn’t part of the arts community, so that in our discussions, we can keep working on an authentic regional language for talking about what we value most.

Expect the unexpected.

This piece was first published at Regional Arts Victoria’s Inspiring Arts.