The 2020 Parliamentary Inquiry into Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions has now reported, and its first recommendation is that “the Commonwealth Government develop a national cultural plan to assess the medium and long term needs of the sector.”

Similarly, the 2015 Senate Inquiry on the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts reported late that year, and its first recommendation was that “the government develop and articulate, in consultation with the arts sector, a coherent and clear arts policy, including priorities for arts funding supported by evidence-based analysis…”.

While it’s long been clear that a more comprehensive, strategic approach is needed, we’ve yet to achieve that follow-through. 

There’s lots of good work here, and plenty of recommendations that can create valuable, lasting change. So it’s vital that the outcomes of the 2020 Inquiry are shared among our communities with some momentum behind them – and that momentum is up to us.

Key recommendations

The report’s recommendations span the full range of issues and concerns raised throughout the Inquiry:

  • Recommendations 1-2 focus on the need for a plan as well as improved coordination between local, state and federal governments. This echoes Recommendations 1, 7 and 10 of the previous report. While “levels of government should liaise regularly”, last year the biannual Meeting of Cultural Ministers was disbanded after decades of cooperation, opening the opportunity for renewed, purposeful focus. Notably, the first recommendation is not for the Commonwealth to develop a national cultural plan, but simply a plan to assess needs, and then devolve responsibility for redressing them;
  • Recommendation 3 calls for “a national centre of Indigenous culture and arts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork” – great – and while the report recommends this centre be “co-designed with Indigenous communities and arts bodies”, self-determination would be the best approach; 
  • Recommendation 4 calls for the return of “arts” in the department’s name, and while this would indeed redress the invisibility of the arts to the national agenda, more is needed. NAVA have applauded this proposed reinstatement, and APRA AMCOS have called for “a standalone Ministry of Culture and Creative Industries” in today’s Inquiry Hotlist. That’s a ministry I’d love to see: one encompassing all of the practices and knowledges that create our future, including education for example, so that we’re truly centring culture as the national agenda’s driving force;
  • Recommendations 5 and 18 imagine new apps as a one-stop shop on all arts events – the Holy Grail of access and participation! A single portal to what’s on, or to developing a creative career or organisation, would indeed be amazing – and impossible to develop or maintain, unless what we’re talking about is well-resourced cooperation across government departments to target information and services more helpfully; 
  • Recommendations 6-10, 17, 19 and 21 look at technical, sector- and artform-specific matters such as local media content quotas and digitisation, as well as mental health, recalling Recommendations 11-13 of the previous report;
  • Recommendations 11-14 focus on education and the need for improved curriculum, infrastructure and a cross-curriculum priority on ‘the Arts’ “in addition to (and not a replacement for) the arts as a key learning area.” While there’s a good dose of “STEM to STEAM” throughout the report, once again it’s the centrality of arts and culture that’s needed and not merely that superficial visibility; 
  • Recommendations 15-16 call for better data collection, which would be transformative for the Australian Government’s understanding of creative practice; 
  • Recommendation 20 calls for a new fund “to enable emerging Australian student artists, musicians, authors, playwrights, filmmakers, digital artists and game developers to apply for grants to support attendance at competitions, exhibitions, skills development courses relevant to their craft.” This was Recommendation 9 of the 2015 report. The Australia Council used to have an excellent range of exactly such programs – it would be so important to see them return; 
  • and, crucially, Recommendation 21 sets a review date, looking for a progress report by the end of next year from all relevant ministries. 

What’s missing?

  • There is no recommendation to substantially, ambitiously increase the Australia Council’s grants budget. This was Recommendation 2 of the previous report. Given the successive cuts since 2015, this is absolutely crucial. Without an increase – a doubling at minimum – it’s impossible for the Australia Council to meet current demand, let alone consider Recommendation 20. As a consequence of cuts to the Australia Council across the past six years, programs targeting young and emerging artists such as Jump and ArtStart have been the first to go;
  • There is no commitment to a national policy, strategy nor plan;
  • and here are some thoughts from before the Inquiry’s deadline on what’s still needed.

Understanding the sector

Throughout the report, the need to achieve a greater understanding of our creative and cultural industries and institutions is highlighted, especially in the first three chapters. Given the wealth of information out there – which, thanks to colleagues across the nation, has been presented to this Committee in thousands of survey responses, submissions and testimony – the challenge for the Australian Government is to make best use of it:

  • Reinstating the Australia Bureau of Statistics’ Cultural and Creative Satellite Accounts, and introducing Census questions that “better account for the professions of those working in gig economies, and across the creative and cultural industries with recognition of paid and unpaid work”, are important first steps;
  • A Productivity Commission Inquiry could prove valuable as a way of translating industry knowledge into government terms. While I am on the record as a supporter of such an approach, I also share the concerns raised today by Dean Ormston on the Commission’s “trust deficit with local artists” given its tendency to “misunderstand the creative economy, pursuing an agenda that undermines the rights of creators and the value of their intellectual property”. An industry mapping is what’s needed, identifying the key industry interdependences (e.g. education, tourism, urban and regional development, infrastructure) that open policy windows; 
  • Reinstating the biannual Meeting of Cultural Ministers (the successor to the Cultural Ministers’ Council established in the mid-1980s) and including local government as an equal voice, is also a vital first step. This ensures a communications and decision-making mechanism that harmonises those much-needed understandings, as opposed to hoping to enact Recommendations 1-2 (and 5 and 18) with a more ad hoc approach. 

Overcoming politicisation 

No national arts and culture approach has ever survived a change in government in Australia; despite the enormity of the industry and its centrality to our lives, we’ve too often seen politicisation rather than policy. Indeed, appended to that 2015 report was a “Dissenting Report from Government Members of the Committee.” Despite the report’s extensive presentation of “evidence-based analysis” from across the entire breadth of the industry, the Dissenting Report claimed that this work amounted to “cynical political attacks that lack factual basis and create uncertainty.” 

We need to see our elected representatives move beyond such confected clumsiness: study after study shows that Australians love the arts and participate in great big majority numbers. There is no uncertainty whatsoever in the community.

Our voices heard

The best thing about reading this report is seeing the expertise of artists and colleagues across Australia articulated so clearly. These are compelling visions for Australia’s future – and there’s no time to be lost in responding. 

Beyond being heard, we need to see these visions enacted. 

Arts and culture are central to our lives. They must also be central to our policy-making. 

Let’s be sure to communicate our thanks and clearest expectations to everyone responsible for ensuring this report’s success. 

Sculpting a National Cultural Plan: Igniting a post-COVID economy for the arts was released yesterday by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts.

IMAGE: Report title page screencap.