Last Thursday night at the Budget Reply event in Canberra, I asked Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen an arts question in a roomful of 600 of Australia’s leading business lobbyists. His response told me a lot about how far we have to go as a sector to make sure that our advocacy counts. 

My question picked up on key elements of Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese’s speeches earlier in the evening. Shorten had spoken about generosity. Albanese about boldness.

Generosity and boldness, I said, were both needed – and both in alarmingly short supply. The very best way to combat the hate speech and the language of cruelty that quashes the resilient diversity of our culture is to invest in our capacity to create our own culture. 

We’ve got a lot of arts people in the room, I said, across contemporary arts, regional arts, screen, and live music, to whom ambitious commitments have already been made. 

As Treasurer in the next government, I asked, how would you introduce arrangements across the full range of portfolios that support artists in creating our future, foster communities who create their own culture, and invest in artistic courage?

A roomful of lobbyists listened with interest as Bowen’s answer distinguished between economic and cultural arguments for public investment in the arts. 

He said he often gets requests for tax incentives, or projects that pitch their economic multiplier effect. 

“Everything’s an economic multiplier,” he said, “and if I didn’t support this economic multiplier I’d support another. 

“Tell me instead how your work tells the Australian story.”

Bowen then went on to describe what the arts means for identity, community and cultural diversity. It was an answer that came more from the heart than from the fiscal expertise across the full range of portfolio areas that a treasurer needs to determine. 

So what does that tell us as arts professionals and advocates?

Speaking with clarity and conviction about what we do best remains the most important way to engage politicians in our work, inspiring long-term engagement for long-term policy. 

This was highlighted in a recent piece for the Australian by Matthew Westwood.

At the same time, however, we need to be able to join the dots for busy MPs in understanding the public benefit of our work. 

This means doing more than just mentioning an economic impact or multiplier. 

Economic impact in particular is a double-edged sword. It’s just too easy for bean counters to sit back and congratulate themselves on achieving so much by spending so little. 

How can we draw out the connections instead between what we do and how artists’ careers develop? How can we redress the unfairness that burdens our creative workforce with low pay and disrespected rights? How can we lift standards across the entire industry? What would it take to achieve that? And what’s at stake if we don’t?

In a roomful of lobbyists, that’s not news; that’s what they do every day.

And how did that room respond to the question?

They cheered. 

They cheered before Bowen had even had the chance to formulate his answer.

And they didn’t stop asking me great questions all evening. 

Don’t let anyone tell you that cultural policy isn’t valued, wanted – and keenly anticipated.



Monash University and NAVA’s national agenda-setting event is this Monday 8 April at the State Library of Victoria. Australian Cultural Policy: The Next Decade features leading thinkers, practitioners and policy-makers and is headlined by Tony Burke and Bianca Beetson.


IMAGE: The three full-page ads in the Australian by the Balnaves Foundation in the days leading into the NSW Election on 23 March 2019.