A new National Cultural Policy is an opportunity to radically rethink the importance of culture in Australia

Like the threshold for the government consultation on a national cultural policy (NCP), thousands of people in the industry are putting the finishing touches on their three-page submissions. These revolve around “five pillars” drawn from creative australiathe national cultural policy announced in the last months of the Gillard regime, but subsequently ignored by the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments.

Coalition arts ministers have shown little interest in cultural policy. Over the past nine years, national cultural institutions have lost funding, the Australia Council’s budget has been diverted to programs under ministerial control, and board appointments have reflected a lack of sector expertise.

As Gideon Haigh wrote in The Australian,

The pattern of the last 30 years in arts and culture is that Labor initiates and the coalition dismantles.

The new government’s consultation process is long overdue and welcome.

Creative Nation at Creative Australia

Creative Australia relies on creative nation, Paul Keating’s national cultural policy, launched in 1994. It grew out of Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit, two major surveys and a reference group of several dozen people from across the industry. It was designed to enable systematic engagement with culture in all its manifestations.

But a lot has happened in the country, economy and society since 2013. And while the recently announced announcement NCP Advisory Committee composed of 15 members includes people with extensive knowledge, there are some gaps.

Creative Australia brought together a range of competing perspectives and had a broad enough base to begin to give culture the weight it needed to be taken seriously as an object of policy. After it was passed, more money flowed to the Australian Council and other cultural agencies and institutions.

Read more: Australia should have a universal basic income for artists. Here’s what it might look like

In a tense world, a new national cultural policy needs an even broader framework. Culture touches every aspect of our public and private lives.

A cultural policy should include an arts policy, but also policies regarding national institutions, heritage, commercial cultural industries, soft power diplomacy, education, community groups and charities, as well as areas public administration such as First Nations, health, welfare and education where cultural activity is a valuable tool.

It must be able to align with state and local governments as active partners in this area.

A strong arts policy is a first step in developing an expansive and nationally relevant cultural policy. Art for itself, yes. But an art that binds, stretches and challenges contemporary society.

Above all, a new national cultural policy needs conceptual depth. Culture was once seen as a public good, but it has been gutted. The Australian Council consultation framing document defines its benefits largely in instrumental terms (mental health, social cohesion, education, tourism, creative economy). Meanwhile, the substance of culture’s intrinsic value remains unanswered.

A ministry of culture?

One of the main conclusions of the Creative Australia consultation process was the need for a federal ministry of culture.

Over the past two decades, the arts have been added to many other ministerial portfolios: communications, transport, environment, local government, attorney general and now employment. They must be at the heart of a cultural portfolio that brings together elements scattered throughout the firm.

Currently, the arts are buried at the bottom of a scrolling menu menu, while media and communications (including public and commercial broadcasting) fall under the responsibility of another minister.

A ministry of culture would allow efficient aggregation of the large expenditures on culture across government. They exist in most comparable countries. A duly constituted ministry could assess the cultural impact of new policy proposals from any department.

Read more: It’s time for Australia to create a national ministry of culture

In the 1990s, Australia was ahead of the global curve in redefining art and culture for a new democratic and multicultural era. The 2020s present different challenges: climate change, digitalization, globalization, inequality and a growing distrust of democratic institutions. A dedicated cultural ministry is the best way to approach them with a perspective that touches lives and builds strong institutions.

It’s not just a challenge for Australia. As Professor Hans Mommaasdirector of the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency, told us recently:

In the midst of our various problematic agendas… there is no longer a clear place… for the role of culture in the sense of creating and celebrating collective forms of imagination (and) communication… We must have a cultural sphere rich… for culture to be instrumental to these other agendas… Why not start by redeveloping the scenario that in the midst of the crises we find ourselves in, we urgently need a renewal of a cultural sphere and that the current lack of this … produces (a) distrust in the future and (a) lack of collective imagination.

Breathing new life into a decade-old national cultural policy is a good start. But as Arts Minister Tony Burke said of the current consultation process, “it’s a trajectory, not a destination.” What is needed now is a period of in-depth gestation to position culture as a public good in the life of the nation.

The right of citizens to participate in and contribute to community cultural activities is recognized in a number of international agreements to which Australia is a signatory. In the age of streaming platforms, cuts in public funding and growing inequalities, these cultural rights must be revisited and reaffirmed.

A new national cultural policy is an opportunity to radically rethink the importance of culture in troubled times. More than ever, we need creativity and an understanding of cultural heritage to imagine our collective future.

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