Who owns a cultural object? Who has the right to determine cultural values? And how can public institutions best exercise cultural responsibility?

It’s a timely set of questions as we consider the National Gallery of Australia’s ethical return of cultural objects – or the inexplicable intransigence of the British Museum – as I did last week for Eureka Street, touching also on Lionel Shriver’s rejection of minority cultural identities while hoping that the social rejection of cultural appropriation is a “passing fad”.

What about Malcolm Turnbull’s claim that a marriage equality plebiscite is “thoroughly democratic”? What kind of cultural responsibility does this express? And how does this claim compare with the expertise of mental health leaders who this week have expressed grave concerns, calling for the plebiscite to be rejected?

Poll after poll after poll shows that the majority of Australians support marriage equality. It’s only been since 2004 that Prime Minister John Howard changed the Marriage Act to redefine marriage as the “union of a man and a woman.” Yet current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is unable to exercise Parliamentary powers that would conflict with the wishes of a minority of his party. And despite mounting evidence of the community harm that the February 11 plebiscite will create, such as the recent intimidation and bomb threat to JOY FM, Turnbull insists that a non-binding vote is democratic.

Is that what democratic means in a culturally diverse society? The unsophisticated notion that if you include everybody’s voice, you’ve been inclusive? Is a museum more democratic if it includes a valued object from every culture in the world? Is a government more democratic if it upholds the right to be a bigot?

“There’s a difference between inclusiveness and cultural safety,” says Director of Footscray Community Arts Centre, Jade Lillie. “This is not an ‘inclusive’ space. Groups who exist to express racist, sexist or homophobic views will not be invited – they’re not welcome.”

The rejection of cultural responsibility unleashes complex, painful consequences that can undermine cultural value – or even cultural safety.

In allowing a plebiscite on marriage equality, and in dedicating $15m in public funds to shout the arguments for and against across the land, our Prime Minister is knowingly creating a culturally unsafe space – one not merely the size of an arts centre, but one spanning the public spaces of an entire nation. Not just our public spaces, but also, every space where we consume media, such that attacks on human rights enter our private spaces, our very homes.

“This is a dangerous thing to be doing to actually give a free rein to this debate. It will harm peoples’ mental health,” said Patrick McGorry, a leading mental health advocate and former Australian of the Year, at a media conference alongside Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten, and Deputy Leader, Tanya Plibersek.

By rejecting his cultural responsibility to protect Australians from discrimination, Malcolm Turnbull asserts a misplaced ethics; by creating a space of cultural safety, Jade Lillie upholds her cultural responsibility.

There is a great deal at stake in these questions of cultural ownership and cultural authority. Framing an issue of discrimination with detrimental mental and physical health consequences as “thoroughly democratic” is a distortion: it wrongly imagines a public space to which all voices have equal access and in which all voices have equal prominence.

Worse, such denials of cultural responsibility creates a culturally unsafe environment: one which increases the risk of verbal or physical attacks, psychological damage and self-harm in the community. And that diminishes us all.


IMAGE: Detail of a Dja Dja Wurrung bark work held at the British Museum