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Changing cultural policy in Australia

By Marcus Westbury and Ben Eltham - posted Thursday, 4 November 2010

"Cultural policy" is not often thought of as an important topic of public affairs. That's odd when you consider that the Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that there are nearly 300,000 Australians working in a cultural occupation as their main job. In 2003-04, Australian households spent $14.6 billion on cultural items like books, CDs and pay TV. The impact of culture is beyond economics. It's at the heart of our identity and way of life.

Culture in Australia is simultaneously broad, diverse and multi-faceted. It ranges from the oldest continuous cultural traditions in the world to the newest digital forms of cutting-edge expression. It includes the highly trained professionals in our nation's orchestras, operas and dance companies, as well as the "weekend warriors" who dust off their guitars for a weekly neighbourhood jam session. It encompasses some of the most popular types of entertainment media to be seen on top-rating TV shows as well as obscure community arts projects and folk crafts.

But all too often, when we discuss government policies towards "culture", what we actually mean is "the arts". Indeed, when we think about cultural policy in Australia, we often think simply of grants to artists, or government cultural agencies such as the Australia Council.


One of the biggest problems is that the current framework views cultural policy almost exclusively in terms of arts funding, rather than the much bigger area of cultural regulation. Impacting upon the viability and diversity of cultural expression which are beyond the reach of the current paradigm could be copyright laws, media regulation and censorship, urban planning and public liability laws. Although they have a far greater impact on cultural life than the funding of any individual company or initiative, they are beyond the scope and responsibility of our cultural agencies.

The ad hoc nature of the current approach

The Australian taxpayer spends hundreds of millions a year supporting Australian films, but not Australian computer games. While some of the oldest living forms of music in the world slowly die out in central Australia, the Australia Council gives more than five times more money to Opera Australia than it does to its entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board.

We enforce some of the most stringent and punitive copyright laws in the world without examining the costs to consumers, schools, libraries and the public sphere. State governments promote contemporary music policies ("Victoria Rocks") at the same time as imposing crippling regulations on the live venues that support that contemporary music (such as the laws that shut down The Tote). We create powerful economic incentives to replace live venues with poker machines without any evaluation of cultural consequences.

We create regulations such as building codes, zoning and planning approaches without regard to the constrains on cultural practice. We maintain inconsistent and incoherent approaches to media regulation (for example; adults can watch an R-rated movie, but not experience similar material in video games, and perhaps soon, not on the internet either).

Where do we weigh the balance between the choices and options for media consumers and small producers on the one hand and the industry protections of media proprietors on the other? Where in debating copyright frameworks do we balance the rights of copyright holders (generally big media companies) with copyright users (generally consumers and public institutions like schools and libraries) in line with the realities of contemporary cultural practice?

Where do we weigh the merits of supporting living artists making original new work against the heritage artforms and traditional European genres that we overwhelmingly fund?


In the absence of a coherent cultural policy framework, much of the cultural policy action has taken place outside the Arts portfolio. In the Communications portfolio, the development of a National Broadband Network promises the largest cultural infrastructure project in the nation's history - despite rarely being described and evaluated as such. Indeed, there appears to be little if any discussion of the cultural impact of the regulatory, technical and economic rules that will govern such a network.

The proposal to censor the internet through an unworkable mandatory filter is a decision with profound cultural consequences. This $125 million effort must count as one of the strangest policies of the Rudd-Gillard Government. While the filters are unlikely to prevent predators and pornography, they will have major consequences for freedom of speech and expression.

The problem: the need for a holistic approach to culture

We are a long way from a joined-up approach to culture across and within Australian governments. In fact, Australia's cultural policy is hopelessly fragmented across many agencies, leaving great gaps.

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This piece is based on the chapter Changing Cultural Policy in Australia by Ben Eltham and Marcus Westbury from More Than Luck: Ideas Australia needs now a publication from the Centre for Policy Development edited by Mark Davis & Miriam Lyons. More Than Luck is a book for citizens who want to hear about policy ideas beyond the sound-bytes cannot afford miss. A to-do list for politicians looking to base public policies on the kind of future Australians really want, More Than Luck shows what’s needed to share this country’s good luck amongst all Australians - now and in the future. Click here to find out more. Like what you’ve read? Donate to help make good ideas matter.

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About the Authors

Marcus Westbury is a writer on media, technology and politics and the founder and manager of This Is Not Art, Australia’s largest media festival in Newcastle, NSW. At 28 years of age, he is a former professional token youth whose best days are behind him.

Ben Eltham is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Marcus Westbury
All articles by Ben Eltham

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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