On the ethics of political neutrality in contemporary Australia

UPDATE 01.10.17
With thanks to the leadership of incoming Sydney Symphony CEO, Emma Dunch, as well as all of the company’s musicians, the board have now come together to consider the impacts of their intended “neutral” position, and have written a new statement in support of “inclusiveness, equality and fairness.”

* * * * *

There is no such thing as a politically neutral position. To offer such a position is a politically charged claim: it dismisses alternative viewpoints by rejecting their validity and thus silencing their voice by claiming its position as the uncontroversial one.

Across recent weeks, Australia’s most significant cultural organisations have made statements in support of marriage equality. Local and state governments, major corporations, sporting bodies, social services and arts organisations have come out in strong support of equal rights for all. It’s been heartening to see these confident expressions of shared social values – not only as considered statements against discrimination and violence, but also, as constructive statements that posit a confident future.

Among this constructive leadership, Sydney Symphony’s choice to release a statement that purports to take no position has been a surprising development. The statement ends:

There is no question that the SSO strongly supports the rights of all citizens to place on the record their views, by way of the private and confidential postal plebiscite and as such, the company does not feel it has the right to take a position and commit our stakeholders to one side or the other and has decided it should remain neutral. We urge all Australians to respect the democratic process of the majority decision, one way or the other, in a spirit of goodwill and cooperation towards each other in a peaceful resolution.

The response to the statement, which was motivated by inaugural Sydney Symphony chair Leo Schofield’s attack on the organisation for choosing not to make a public comment, has ranged from concerned disappointment to passionate reproach.

Sydney Symphony have taken a number of risks here in the way their statement can be interpreted. Actively legitimising a public survey on whether one group of people should enjoy the rights of all. Urging a quiet end to equality advocacy once the majority view has been expressed, one way or the other. Defining the position of neutrality as one which rejects the right to hold a position at all.

Such positions seem indefensible. And yet, according to the Australian Government’s own frontbenchers, advocates of ethically responsible positions should “crawl under a rock and hide”, “stop being delicate little flowers”, and “get out of my face.” And let’s not even start on what’s happening in Trump’s America – a situation that only recently seemed wholly unimaginable.

Across the world right now, a toxic set of circumstances are lurching us towards the protection of privilege for the few rather than the sharing of values and resources for all. Climate change threatens lucrative industries entrenched in old methods. Technological change threatens news media and its entrenched political relationships. Social change threatens conservative insecurity and its entrenched social structures. Adventurous thinking is needed – real innovation that takes real risks, recognising that diversity is as constitutive of the market as it is of the electorate.

In the face of these challenges, our political leaders must broaden their understanding of civic responsibility and public space. The political realm does not begin and end with Parliament House – an institution so insecure of its own civic duty that it’s built a clumsy wall to protect its open spaces from the public whose values it’s there to understand and uphold.

When we see governments take actions contrary to public good, it’s up to all of us to speak out – and in doing so, to raise the bar for governments and for us all. It’s our civic duty to use the platforms that we have, and to keep creating platforms for one another. Galleries. Stages. Public spaces.

This is what arts organisations do.

Arts organisations are committed to creating platforms for those in our community willing to engage in the most disciplined rigour and take the greatest risks. To pushing the boundaries of creative expression, the contest and the constitution of complex identities, and the making of meaning and meaningfulness, the questioning of values. To presenting the work that animates our minds, explodes our thinking and creates our world.

Arts organisations who are non-profit have a responsibility to the public good that’s defined in their constitutions. Arts organisations in receipt of public money have a responsibility to foster the public good for all Australians. That responsibility extends beyond dedication to members, artists, audiences, sponsors and stakeholders. It’s a long-term, future-building vision for the Australian culture. It’s social, it’s ethical and it’s political. Organisations who don’t recognise this public leadership role as political are in the wrong business.

In my final Regional Arts Victoria days, I’ve been immensely proud of the statement by CEO Joe Toohey. As I begin to imagine my NAVA days, I’ve been enormously proud of the statement by Chair James Emmett. And as I go about my days, I have been heartened by the statements written by people and organisations who I’ve long admired. These are the highly-respected creators of the Australian culture. This is our future.