July 2016


Chaos in the arts

By Wesley Enoch
Consultation and transparency are the keys to successful arts policy

My grandfather died at the age of 43. My father died at the age of 65. My grandparents had no formal education beyond that offered by mission schools and workers on reserves. My father finished his schooling at age ten. He was the first in his family to buy a house, and along with my mother worked manual labour jobs for years to provide for their family. I am hoping to add 15 years to my life expectancy (the average indigenous male has a life expectancy of 69 years, whereas a non-indigenous man’s is 80). I went to university and am lucky enough to own three houses (and, yes, I negatively gear two of them). What are the major differences of Australian life for the between-wars generation of my grandparents, the postwar baby boomer world of my parents, and the Generation X life I lead now? Government policy, meaningful constitutional change, the emerging will of the people to recognise Australia’s First Peoples, and the dedication of those who have gone before to make a difference for those who have followed.

Good policy has made a difference in my life, from education, health, employment and economic development through to the public conversation on arts, culture, identity and self-determination. Government policy has removed impediments and opened debate, and has ensured the kind of national grounding that addresses injustice and provides a vision of the future.

On the other hand, recent policymaking in the arts – the federal government’s cuts in 2015 to the Australia Council and the ambiguity surrounding the ill-fated National Program for Excellence in the Arts (along with its equally obtuse offspring, Catalyst) – has been among the worst I have ever witnessed. The lack of consultation with experts in the field, the sidelining of industry representatives and the disregard for the likely effect on a multibillion-dollar industry are gobsmacking. Was this behaviour deliberately punitive? It was hard not to wonder. Either way, clearly there was a new trend emerging where consultation and good policy work were being replaced by the personal opinion of powerful individuals and the will of the interest group.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that it is the role of government to create and carry out policy even if I disagree with it. I have benefited as often as not, and am not arguing out of self-interest. Government revenues wax and wane, and are allocated depending on the urgency of community need and changing values. The status quo should not be protected purely to serve the comfort of those who benefit from it. I do, however, believe that well-formed policy should be transparent and should articulate measurable goals. The decision-making behind the past 12 months of cultural-funding changes has been the opposite: haphazard and impenetrable, subjective and secretive.

In the ’90s, the arts and culture sectors saw a huge boost in areas that I personally thought important. Yet these changes were not born of whimsical or arbitrary decisions. Back then, 20 years ago, it would have been unimaginable for a new policy to emerge from anything other than an expert panel or community consultation. (At the very least, it would have been tested on key focus groups before being announced.) These arts and culture policies sought to build our nation, and were successful in that. There was the creation of senior positions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the nation’s major collecting institutions, the national broadcaster, and many state and federal funding bodies. These policies also supported the growth of companies such as Bangarra Dance Theatre in Sydney, Ilbijerri Theatre Company in Melbourne, Magabala Books in Broome and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company in Perth. And the Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support program has since provided a long-term legacy to the country. The inheritance from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission years can also be seen in language programs, cultural education, festivals, the establishment of keeping-places, and in many tourism and employment strategies.

More recently, however, we have witnessed the growing influence of individual political opinion and ideology when it comes to developing arts and culture policies. Under successive prime ministers, from Keating to Turnbull, governments have attempted to exert executive control over everything they touch. It now seems that policy decisions can be made on behalf of the country without any corresponding responsibility.

The arts are not alone here: “on-water matters” became a wholesale euphemism for “we are not going to tell you”. I understand that the job is a hard one and that most political leaders are engaged in daily hand-to-hand combat, but they need to explain and defend their decisions publicly. It seems that our parliament has become less about actual debate than sledging or delivering party-room and backroom decisions. Am I unreasonable to want what is reasonable, that is, public debate and accountability?

The arts have a relatively low public investment, and the arms-length principle has traditionally been used in apportioning resources. This is not unlike what has happened in the areas of scientific research, higher education and environmental protection. This principle allows for the extraordinary and the specialised to be supported as well as the popular and the established. It empowers experts in the field to peg out future territory for the development in thinking and practice. I don’t purport to know what a brain surgeon needs to advance their practice; expertise in the arts and cultural sectors should be equally valued and consulted when devising policy directions.

Arts policy should not be based on ideological positions or what individuals think. Policy is best made when based on evidence and agreed principles. The latest Australia Council decisions, which saw more than 60 previously funded organisations miss out on four-year support, attracted a lot of heat. Unlike the federal government’s chaotic approach, however, and even in the face of these extraordinary challenges, the Australia Council was able to keep true to the strategic policy direction it had established through consultation with the sector. It honoured its strategic plan, which talks about cherishing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, by supporting 13 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. This reflected policy and planning that was several years in the making.

By contrast, it is worth looking at what has happened to the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in major collecting institutions, state funding bodies, broadcasters, festivals and the like. Where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people once held senior positions, many organisations have failed to replace departing staff or to create junior positions to develop such representation. In the face of funding shortfalls, many of these “strategic” positions have disappeared.

When I consider the challenges that future generations of my family are going to face, I can only hope for more informed, inclusive and enlightened government policy than we have endured in the arts in the past 12 months.

Wesley Enoch
Wesley Enoch is the director of the Sydney Festival and has been a theatre director and writer for more than 25 years.

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