Piggott, Michael: Waiting for a cultural policy for Christmas

Michael Piggott*

‘Waiting for a cultural policy for Christmas’, Honest History, 12 December 2022 updated

When Anthony Albanese announced his ministry at the end of May, Tony Burke became Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, and separately, Minister for the Arts, a hat he had also worn in the Gillard and second Rudd governments. Few before Burke have led a separate and distinct Arts ministry, though a responsibility for ‘Arts’ has been included in government portfolios ever since the charming Peter Howson was appointed Prime Minister McMahon’s Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts in March 1971. Not pleased, Howson allegedly commented, ‘The little bastard gave me trees, boongs and pooftas’.

Within the bureaucracy, Burke’s mega department – senior Minister Catherine King – is the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts, within which is an Office for the Arts. The latter has direct or indirect reporting lines from the majority of national cultural institutions, for example, the National Library (NLA) and the National Museum (NMA), but not the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATIS) or the Australian War Memorial (AWM).

Promotional material for the 2022 Policy, showing the link to 2013 (ArtsHub)

As many readers will know, the new government has begun developing a cultural policy. On 1 July 2022, Burke announced the initiative, acknowledging the earlier Gillard Labor government’s 152 page Creative Australia policy as the point of departure for ‘an updated National Cultural Policy that I intend to deliver before the end of the year’. Wanting to act so quickly meant Burke had no alternative to using Creative Australia, launched in March 2013 after six years of consultation. Unfortunately, as Ian McShane and Kieran Hegarty note in their submission, Creative Australia and its Keating predecessor are in a number of ways now badly out of date.

Was anything else rushed? It’s doubtless unfair to critically examine the wording of a press release and the announcements which have followed, but they revealed one of my enduring problems with such efforts: the lack of clarity of the underpinning conceptual frameworks. Our mental boxes influence what we see as important, what’s in and what’s out, who’s a stakeholder, what’s a priority, all of which in turn link to budgets, portfolios, ministries, and functions.

The Burke press release listed five ‘pillars’, explaining the new policy would be ‘based around’ them. The pillars will set the parameters of and agenda for the policy. They are:

(i) First Nations first

(ii) A place for every story

(iii) The centrality of the artist

(iv) Strong institutions, and

(v) Reaching the audience.

Following each was a sentence of explanation, including repeated mentions of story and/or stories. The clear implication is that we all have them to tell, usually bravely, and they simply must be heard and preserved. Anyway, it is apparently a truth universally acknowledged that storytelling is innate in humans. ‘Storification’ is now communications orthodoxy; it supports funding bids and sells food, financial advice, Presidential campaigns and a million other things. It is a favourite with cultural institutions’ messaging. It is also a lazy clichéd trope which suits our social media user-generated co-creating participatory times and, with rare exceptions like Maria Tumarkin in Australia and literary critic Peter Brooks in the US, is never questioned.

Since July there have been more press releases, the appointment of an Advisory Group and the creation of five expert panels matching the pillars. Submissions have been sought and received, and ‘Town Hall’ meetings and roundtables held.

We must assume the terms and language in the documentation were deliberate and carefully vetted before release. Some of it, though, was just public policy waffle, including ‘roadmap’, an old favourite, qualified in most documents as a ‘comprehensive’ roadmap, and once even a ‘broad comprehensive’ roadmap. As for the terms and labels generally, there was mention of artists, performers, creators, creatives, and creators of culture; of art and culture, arts forms and stories; and of the sector, the arts sector, the arts and entertainment sector, and the arts entertainment and cultural sector.

How such concepts interrelate is not clear to me. There is also a puzzling dissonance at the very heart of this framework, because ‘the arts’ and ‘culture’ are seen simultaneously as one and the same thing and different things. In the ALP’s policy launch speech at the Espy, St Kilda on 16 May 2022, Burke said ‘a cultural policy isn’t simply an arts policy’, though he didn’t elaborate. Now in government, he has stressed, ‘Cultural policy is more than some funding announcements for the arts’ and pitched a big picture, seeing ‘all Australians as the creators of culture’ and arguing that Australia’s arts and culture ‘touches all areas of government, from cultural diplomacy in foreign affairs to health and education’.

So, in fact nothing has changed since Professor David Throsby contrasted Australia’s restricted approaches with broader understandings from Russia, Canada, France and the UK, which have included concerns with, for example, cultural sovereignty, national identity, language, media rules, protection of intellectual property, scholarly academies and heritage protection. In Does Australia Need a Cultural Policy? Throsby concluded the Australian policy interpretation of ‘culture’ essentially equated it with the arts (Platform Papers January 2006, p. 5). Juliana Engberg, former program director of the 2017 European Capital of Culture – Aarhus, made a similar point recently in The Monthly (October 2022, p. 12). Culture is not art. Art is a subset of culture, she said, and conflating art and culture can be exclusionary and can stifle the arts and potentially foster assertive nationalism.


Discussing the need for a cultural policy, 2006: Lisa Anderson, John Harding, David Throsby, Neil Armfield, Ien Ang (ABC)

Given my longstanding interest in libraries and archives, my concern now is where the national collecting organisations will fit in a new policy. Will they benefit in any real way? In Burke’s new framework, these organisations are not mentioned at all, caught up we assume within Pillar 4 (‘Strong institutions’), as are, presumably, Screen Australia, the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australian Film Television and Radio School. The expertise of the three-member panel for the ‘Strong institutions’ pillar covers dance, art galleries, circus, arts festivals, and Indigenous skills development. So, no archivist librarian curator or historian.

For now, we wait. Twelve hundred submissions are being considered. One Budget has come and gone and without lifting the efficiency dividend. The War Memorial is still not considered a national collecting institution, still sits not in Arts but in the Veterans Affairs portfolio, is still seeking rent, is still taking Lockheed Martin’s money. (There is a strong argument that the Memorial’s portfolio placement of nearly 40 years has been of considerable benefit to it financially.)

The National Library has reduced services again, trying to find funds to fix its roof, is desperately short of storage (digital and analog), and seemingly lost its nerve, having shared its concerns in a 1 hour 12 minute Update for Researchers (on 26 October 2022) then refusing to leave the recording on its You Tube channel. The Archives, after ten years led by David Fricker, has a new CEO who works from Adelaide and continues to struggle with preservation processing and access examination backlogs.

The Film and Sound Archive’s parlous state remains as Kim Williams eloquently articulated last month, despite band aid funding for the most urgent preservation, The year’s only highlight was several galvanising and excoriating think pieces by Gideon Haigh in The Australian. The harsh realities remain.


The prospect of a fresh approach to arts (and who knows, cultural) policy has raised hopes, expectations, and begging bowls. As the season of joy and giving approaches, here are my four wishes.

The first concerns the boards and councils which govern, and in one case, advise national cultural institutions. As the Grattan Institute report, New Politics: a better process for public appointments (July 2022) showed, there has been a creeping politicisation of the appointments process, state and federal, Labor and Coalition. This, the Grattan report said, ‘harms the health of our democracy’ then explained in detail why this was and suggested how to fix things. The report’s focus was largely on appointments to tribunals, commissions, and government businesses, but incumbency’s temptation to reward has undoubtedly extended to national collecting institutions.

Statutory guidance about their membership varies, in some cases specifying Parliamentary representation or a specific background (the Australian National Maritime Museum Council must include an officer of the RAN). Otherwise, all are political appointments with only two or three statutes requiring appointees to have specific knowledge and experience. In practice, rarely have the choices had relevant professional backgrounds.

Thus, the Coalition government appointed Ewen Jones, former Member for Herbert, to the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) board in 2019. NFSA’s website tells us Mr Jones has a background in finance and real estate sales and ‘is an auctioneer by trade’. Reassuringly it added Jones also has ‘a strong interest in the arts’.

A different kind of example is Dr Bella d’Abrera, Director of the Foundation of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute of Public Affairs who was appointed to the National Archives of Australia (NAA) Advisory Council by the Coalition in June 2021. Given the Archives’ long-standing learning resources program, it has no doubt benefited from advice along the lines Dr d’Abrera provided to The Spectator of 8 October 2022, headed ‘Unfair dinkum history; how massacres and Marxism invaded the national curriculum’.

A final example is the National Library of Australia (NLA) chair, Dr Brett Mason, an ex-Senator. When asked recently by Phillip Adams – at the end of an interview on Mason’s new book Wizards of Oz (NewSouth) – about the Library’s funding difficulties, the response was more realpolitik acceptance than passionate critical advocacy (‘being a former politician I understand there’s plenty of calls on the government purse’).

The appointments process aside, what boards and councils have always lacked is to be held genuinely accountable for members’ performance, attendance, and remuneration paperwork aside. Who asks how effectively do they advocate for and defend their institutions?

My second wish is that Burke’s policy at the very least acknowledges the value of a single-mind perspective on the collective totality of Australia’s documentation. Are there gaps? Is there a regular audit informing proactive collecting, interviewing, copying, etc? Or just opportunistic reaction when a Royal Commission or windfall funds recommend and enable documentation? How well coordinated are current efforts, federal and state? Certainly not optimally I’d say, and messier still if we think of the vast rich and little known university collections, community archiving and the work of a thousand family history and local historical societies. Then there are the various state and federal community heritage grant schemes. How well funded and coordinated are they and whose responsibility is it to identify what should be saved but unfortunately doesn’t align with a grass roots community or minority keen to self-document?

Then there is the special case of prime ministers. Where does the apparent priority of their heritage fit? If delay and neglect has endangered Alfred Deakin’s home, should we start thinking now about Scott Morrison’s? What precedent has the Museum of Australian Democracy set by hosting a Howard Library? The questions and dilemmas are seemingly endless, although in 2018, unprompted, the Australian Memory of the World committee has led a Documenting Australian Society initiative. Unsurprisingly, it has struggled for lack of funding, volunteers and genuine buy-in from the national collecting institutions.

Recent work of the Australian Memory of the World Documenting Australian Society initiative

My third wish is that policy does not shy away from reflecting genuine Labor values, indeed that it explains why cultural policy is integral to a fair, just, civilised, diverse society, why the encouragement of the arts and the preservation of the nation’s estate of cultural and intellectual heritage matters. Somehow it must restate this for the 2020s, knitting together the things that make us and our environment distinctive – multicultural and First nations people, sport, war, the Voice, the Republic, and our enduring insecurities so fundamental to our national psyche (alliances, asylum seekers).

One of the best articulations I’ve read is Whitlam’s in his Arts, Letters and Media chapter of his The Whitlam Government 1972-1975 (Penguin, 1985). For all the justified praise accorded Keating’s Creative Nation (almost called Waltzing Australia, according to Don Watson), for the initiatives which followed such as the Australian National Academy of Music, the National Institute for Indigenous Performing Arts and for championing so early the relevance of information technology, Whitlam’s record is worth recalling, too. It included establishing the Public Lending Right, the Australian Archives, the Australian Film and Television School, the National Gallery of Australia, a reformed Australia Council, and inquiries initiated into public libraries and museums.

My final wish, admittedly beyond what any new cultural policy could initiate, is for better public discussion of national collecting institutions, for example, what they collected and have stopped collecting, how they prioritise digitising service standards and processing backlogs, their curatorial research, their relevance beyond Canberra. Even ensuring that their exhibitions are taken more seriously. For the most part the exhibitions are engaging, but rarely challenging, though even something as innocent as a list of 100 defining moments in Australia’s history can cause upset. As Nicholas Brown noted of the National Museum’s attempt, ‘Prime Minister Tony Abbott, launching Defining Moments and unveiling Arthur Phillip’s plaque, provoked a flurry of controversy with his remark that the arrival of the First Fleet was the (he repeated the) “defining moment in Australian history”’.

So, imagine a National Library show with the same impact as the British Library’s Windrush exhibition launched in 2018. Or the NAA, given its interest in government administration and recordkeeping, doing something on the unlawful Robodebt (OK, too soon) or on Whitlam, Downer, and East Timor.

Discussion happens occasionally in the professional literature but seems to surface more publicly only when funding crises manage to attract headlines, such as funding for TROVE, the ‘Palace Papers’ controversy, the audio-visual preservation crises, and staff cuts in the ABC archives. When did you last read a Quarterly Essay, a title in Black Inc.’s Redback series or a Griffith Review devoted to a memory institution or a cross-institutional issue – say on the 2019 Tandanya Adelaide Declaration? I cheered reading Mark Baker’s ‘Last Posts’  about digitisation priorities, watching Mark Fennell’s Stuff the British Stole on the War Memorial’s Shellal Mosaic, and listening to the ABC RN podcast ‘Kidnapping the Gods’ – and wished there were more such.

Perhaps when the new policy is announced. For now, we wait.

Update 28 December 2022: Minister Burke says cultural policy announcement in January, and foreshadows spending. More from Minister.

Update 22 December 2022: For a related piece, see Lyndon Megarrity’s survey: ‘Who is going to write the urgent histories of tomorrow?‘ in Australian Policy and History in July. Also, Sally Pryor’s article in the Canberra Times, warning of the demise of the National Library’s Trove service unless there is an urgent funding increase. And Mike Jones and Deb Verhoeven in The Conversation, also on Trove and the invidious comparisons.

Update 16 December 2022: Minister Burke announces appointments of First Nations people to two cultural institution boards, and notes the ‘yawning gaps’ in some of those boards.

On coming to Government I was publicly critical of some yawning gaps in some of our boards. We had galleries without any First Nations representatives and we had a museum without an historian on its board. I’ve been determined to upgrade representation of these boards so they can better fulfil their responsibilities.

* Michael Piggott AM is a retired archivist who has written many reviews and other pieces for Honest History; use our Search engine or References by author.

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