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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

A creative Australia: why we must harness and embrace the arts

10 June 2009

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I want to add my acknowledgement of country as well, to the Turrbal people; to their elders past and present.

Thank you Julianne for your introduction, thanks also to CEDA and Griffith University for the invitation to speak here tonight, and I want to recognise distinguished guests:

In 1942, Labor Prime Minister John Curtin, when he might be forgiven for having other things on his mind, boldly stated that, "no time [was] more opportune for drawing attention to the cultural development of the Commonwealth", and that, "in a young democratic nation cultural activities are important as a means of expression of the people".

Much like the nation building investment following the Second World War which led to great advances in Australian society, Curtin's actions in the cultural sector - his support for a national theatre, for independence for the ABC, for a national film board - marked a trail for many of the arts we enjoy today, from ipods to opera, computer games to public sculpture.

So it was the case for a later Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, who in a whirlwind of activity in the life of his government, saw fit to celebrate and amplify the importance of the arts saying, " any civilised community the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be seen as something remote from everyday life."

His legacy, too, returned a practical dividend, including the establishment of the Australia Council following the passage of legislation in 1975, a broader remit for the National Library of Australia and the introduction of the Australian Authors' Fund Bill, which lay the foundation for public lending rights.

It would be fair to say, as most people believe, that the arts is a good thing, that it permeates successive generations leaving a legacy of inspiration that continues on when more immediate concerns have faded away.

This declaration is a harbinger of practical action, namely, government assistance for cultural activity in all its dimensions.

The fact is Australia has a vibrant cultural life and produces, sometimes on a weekly basis, leaders in all the art forms.

The recent success of a film like Samson and Delilah is an expression not only of individual talent - though it certainly is that - but of a general propensity for Australians to express their visions of the world in unique artistic ways.

It is this propensity, which binds to that challenging word 'creativity', this Government believes we must harness and support.

For creativity, in today's world, is an undeniable force.

The impulse that leads people to write, to sing, to dance, to paint - to be active, in the sense of making and celebrating culture - is born of the same desire that causes people to participate, to innovate and create in diverse fields of human activity, and indeed oftentimes to make a wider contribution.

So I want to say clearly and simply, culture is at the heart of our nation and the arts are the heart of our culture and we gain no deeper understanding of this country, this great country, or of the many and difficult problems it currently faces, save by a familiarity with its artistic expressions.

This is what we mean when we say culture has 'intrinsic value'. It means we cannot conceive of living without it, because without it we cannot conceive.

From Shakespearean London to Comedy Festival Melbourne, from the sight of the Taj Mahal to the exquisite patterns and textures of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, from the ever present resonances of biblical phrases which cascade down through the ages, from Dylan to Dostoevsky to Oodgeroo Nunukul; from all these random examples, and there are so many more, we are brought into a fundamental understanding of life through art.

Culture provides the framework for many of our values - moral, spiritual and political. It provides the feedstock of our souls.

We gather at a time when Australia and the world confront a serious challenge to economic stability in the face of the global financial crisis.

So it is absolutely critical to recognise that the arts and culture sector is also a key economic driver in this country.

In the context of the current global recession it is important to acknowledge that the cultural industries are worth approximately $32 billion or 3.5% of Australia's GDP - which is a handy chunk of change for something intrinsically good for you - and support around 474,000 jobs in 102,000 enterprises.

Importantly, in 2007 the International Visitor Survey found that half (51%) of all overseas visitors attended at least one cultural attraction while in Australia. This is critical for a country whose tourism industry, especially in Queensland with its significant natural and cultural attributes, is of vital importance.

And a recent study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers on the copyright industries, which are creative by nature, found significant growth in the sector.

For example, the economic activity of the sector has grown by an extraordinary 66 per cent since 1996, including a workforce which has expanded 21 per cent over the same period.

But not only is our culture an economic driver, it also plays an essential social role.

As the effects of the global downturn start to wash through our domestic economy, we are witnessing more and more people turning, and returning, to the arts for solace, nourishment and inspiration.

Visitors to the National Museum of Australia reached record levels last year, with over one million visitors.

At the National Gallery of Australia, the recent Degas exhibition attracted over 150,000 visitors - generating around $30 million for the local economy.

And down the road at the newly opened National Portrait Gallery, visitor numbers have exceeded all expectations with over 300,000 people in its first five months of operation.

Yet this value, both intrinsic and economic, has never been fully appreciated at large, in part because it has never really been understood let alone embraced by the conservative side of politics.

Eleven years of Coalition rule left the cultural sector bereft of a true sense either of itself or of our future.

Political appointments plucked from the backbench to the boardroom; a distinct lack of vision or debate around culture at the highest level; erroneous and draconian sedition laws which paid scant regard to our traditions of freedom of expression - this was the legacy left to us.

There was a narrow view of the arts. It was to be managed, supported within the constraints of budget, but underneath there was no real forethought or enthusiasm for the creative enterprise and its prospects in a rapidly changing world.

For instance there was an almost total neglect of emerging cultural industries, the exciting, cross-sector/technological growth of digital forms. Ironically, the only noise in this space was the Howard Government's Digital Content Industry Action Agenda, an agenda which never took off, but lay at the bottom of the Ministerial in-tray.

The Coalition maintained an ongoing indifference to initiatives in cultural diplomacy, such as the important UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

And when action was taken, as was the case in 2005 by the then Foreign Minister, it was to pull funding for a documentary program at the Jakarta Film Festival, which included a screening of The President V David Hicks.

I am still surprised at how muted the commentary was on the fact the Coalition failed in a most public way to present any arts policy at all to the electorate in 2007. This was subsequently described by a 'senior party source' as a "political technique".

This contempt manifests when one glimpses the Coalition's posture on arts matters, in its attitude to the work itself and in the way the conservative parties harness the arts to aid short term political hits.

In 2007 the former Treasurer, Mr Costello, attempted to ridicule a Labor policy designed to boost employment opportunities for artists, crying, "What exactly is keeping them from producing their art? ... Poor old artists - they are on welfare and they do not have enough time to paint. We had better intervene."

And more recently we had the ill-informed and no doubt politically motivated blusterings of Mr Hockey who screamed blue murder when the National Gallery took the opportunity to purchase a Degas at the Yves St Laurent auction - an acquisition predominantly funded by private bequests I might add.

These actions reflect a broader cultural malaise within the Coalition - a sour combination of playing to stereotypes about the arts and a basic apathy leavened, now and then, by lashings of spite.

The aim for this Labor Government is to validate, deepen and enlarge the artistic endeavour - and in so doing to reconnect with the vision of a creative Australia founded at a federal level by Curtin, and actioned by successive Labor governments.

These governments provided not only support for culture in a financial sense, but a mission for it in a social and political one, and gave it a right to that support based on this connection.

The language of priorities, Nye Bevan observed, is the religion of progressive politics.

So in Opposition we undertook the task of detailing a new arts policy and as a consequence developed a bold document which committed to an ambitious raft of initiatives.

It's worth recapping the cultural achievements of this Government, some eighteen months after coming to office.

By working closely with the Australia Council, we have implemented a number of our key election commitments: ArtStart, the Creative Communities program, an artists-in-residence for schools program and new opportunities for young and emerging artists.

The Government introduced the Prime Minister's Literary Awards for fiction and non-fiction and managed the creation of Screen Australia as well as the establishment of the National Film and Sound Archive as an independent statutory authority.

In the critical area of Indigenous art and culture the Government has increased its overall support, including significant additional funding for Aboriginal Art Centres which are the backbone of the industry.

The Government also announced in February an investment of $17 million for the Creative Industries Innovation Centre to provide hands-on assistance to small and medium businesses in the creative sector to help boost productivity and enhance the potential for wealth and job creation.

And this year's budget, framed in the grip of falling tax revenues, was a success story for the sector, a strong show of support on behalf of the Government and evidence of its understanding of the mission of culture I spoke about.

It included additional investment of over $62 million, in areas as varied as Indigenous art centres, NIDA, the Australian Youth Orchestra, the Australian Ballet School, regional orchestras, national collections and the much-loved, and successful, Books Alive! program.

Of particular importance is the government's support for an Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct which will set agreed industry standards for ethical and transparent commerce, and the introduction of a Resale Royalty for visual artists, with the legislation now due to be debated in Parliament next week.

And critically, in a real boost for the sector, we now have the inclusion of the arts in the national curriculum, announced in April, which marks a sea-change in the relationship between the educational and cultural sectors, and I hope will lead Australian children receiving an arts-rich education.

These are the practical ways in which the Government has expressed its support for culture, and affirmed the value of the arts.

But arts policy is more than a list, so rather than detailing all the things this Government is doing, I want to talk about the future shape of Australian culture.

It's something of a truism to say art is always the same, yet always different. Nothing changes faster than culture, and yet those changes make us appreciate the traditional, classical and historical forms we inherit from the past.

The issue of which activities deserve support is a vexed one, as is the issue of what constitutes culture itself. But one thing is certain, it is the quality of the debate around these questions that will determine the value of our answers to them.

Having asserted that the arts have intrinsic value, the challenge is to move on and envisage a renewed, vital cultural sector. To say something is creative is a description, not a justification. It is the beginning, not the end, of the debate about culture.

In this respect, the 2020 Summit, maligned by the Coalition and some media as nothing more than a talkfest, was a crucial event because it put some current ideas about culture to a crucial test, the scrutiny of those working in the sector itself and looking to a way forward.

It also highlighted one obvious but important fact; there is no one idea of culture which can claim superiority, if there ever was, and it is not possible to prescriptively detail the artistic forms which comprise it.

Does this mean there is nothing to be said about Australian culture in the deepest sense? No it doesn't.

Australian culture has a shape formed on the history of Indigenous culture, with expression that precedes and now pervades modern Australia's creativity. It is informed by our inheritance of the western canon, added to and evolving in the multiplicity of modern forms and interactions, regional and global.

And I believe we can make two observations about it.

First, Australian culture is diverse, not only as a matter of fact, but as a matter of definition. The force and appeal of the art is created out of an immense sphere of activity whose variety is key to innovation and success.

As we look ahead, it is clear that this diversity of cultural expression now so intertwines with the economic life of the nation as to be virtually inseparable from it.

The benefits, both intrinsic and extrinsic, this brings are considerable.

Likewise the responsibility for ensuring these are maximised and well-distributed must be broadly shared.

Here the Government looks to the private sector to play an important role in supporting the cultural sector. 'Creativity' may be hard to define but the 'geography of buzz' - the relationship between traditional and cultural industries as in digital artwork morphing into groundbreaking software programs - is a vital plank in economic recovery.

Of course diversity and a taste for the new must be balanced by an awareness of the past and a respect for tradition. We are fortunate in Australia to have the oldest, continuous cultural practices on the planet - Indigenous dance, music, painting and story-telling.

And this brings me to my second point.

Indigenous art is more than just another part of the cultural rainbow.

It lies at the heart of our nation and our identity as Australians.

And whilst the backdrop of this creative outpouring is the significant and ostensible difficulties faced by many in Indigenous communities and to which we all, Governments and society, must continue to address and make good, this creative 'first peoples' spirit remains a great fortune.

It takes away nothing from the spectrum of culture but it lends a special beauty to its shape.

As this Government heads towards a reinvigorated cultural sector and a national cultural policy as a means of achieving it, I think we can comfortably say the diversity of contemporary culture and the centrality of Indigenous art mark the boundaries of what makes Australia not only vibrant but unique.

Art aspires to the universal, as we know when we feel its call in the blood. But it is made up of particular experiences that arise from the land and from life.

So harnessing and embracing the arts is something Curtin understood, even at the height of war.

"The arts have awakened in Australia," he exclaimed, looking ahead to the quality of life all Australians had a right to enjoy once their terrible struggles were over.

What he discerned was the necessary relationship between life and art, important not only to our sense of well-being but, in the deepest way, to our sense of identity.

Much later, Keating's Creative Nation put it this way:

"To speak of Australian culture is to recognise our common heritage.

It is to say that we share ideas, values, sentiments and traditions, and that we see in all the various manifestations of these what it means to be Australian ... [Culture] is the name we go by, the house in which we live. Culture is that which gives us a sense of ourselves."

In 2009 we are continuing that appreciation and tradition, as we celebrate and explore the shape of Australian culture, recognising the primacy of artistic expression to the life of the nation; its memories and imaginings, and its vitality, and knowing there is much, much more to come.


Commonwealth of Australia