A recent call for an overhaul of the Australia Council misses the real culprit. If Australian cultural policy is in disarray, it is not the Australia Council that is at fault; it is the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.
In a recent think piece for the Centre for Policy Development, bloggers Marcus Westbury and Ben Eltham call for changes and improvements to Australian cultural policy (Cultural policy in Australia). Their main recommendations are that the government needs to formalise its cultural policy making, take a holistic, or ‘whole of government’ approach to cultural policy, employ a more up-to-date concept of culture, and employ a wider range of policy ‘instruments’ to support culture (such as tax incentives, new regulations, etc.).
The think piece is a competent crystallisation of recent debates on Australian cultural policy. The need for a formal and comprehensive cultural policy has been bubbling under for some time, and will be familiar to most in David Throsby’s Platform Paper Does Australia need a cultural policy?, in Jennifer Craik’s Re-visioning arts and cultural policy: Current impasses and future directions, and the papers that arose from the Byron Bay forum Making meaning, making money: Directions for the arts and cultural industries in the creative age. The need for a rationalised ‘whole of government’ approach was one of the few interesting recommendations to come out of the 2020 Summit Creative Stream talkfest. The idea that policy needs to maintain a contemporary concept of culture stretches as far back as cultural policy itself: in the modern era, at least as far back as 2001 with the release of the Australia Council Saatchi and Saatchi report Australians and the Arts. Calls for a wider range of policy instruments, and tax incentives in particular, has been a constant in Australian cultural policy debate.
So there is strong consensus and sound historical precedents for the ideas expounded by Westbury and Eltham. Pretty much everyone agrees: The disparate, tardy, and scattered policy system that oversees culture is overdue for a healthy dose of rationalisation and updating.
So far so good.
But, for reasons unfathomable, the authors use the think piece as platform to launch an attack on the Australia Council for the Arts: Westbury in an article in The Age, Has the Australia Council had its day?; Eltham on his blog site, Why we need to reform the Australia Council, with the promise of more to come.
This doesn’t make sense. The Australia Council simply cannot implement the changes called for by Westbury and Eltham. Public policy 101 and international research reveal why not.
The bureaucratic ecosystem
The Australia Council is a member of a species of organisation that goes by various names: an arm’s length agency; a statutory authority; a Commonwealth Authority under the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act; a quasi-government body, or ‘quango’.
There are many such agencies undertaking functions that are not dealt with well by government departments and ministries (for masochists interested in the machinery of government, a full list and detailed description of Australia’s agencies can be found in John Uhrig’s 2003 review, which uncovered 160 such agencies operating in Australia).
There are all sorts of reasons why these types of agencies are established. Arts councils such as the Australia Council are designed to reduce ministerial influence over government support for the arts, to put decisions into the hands of people who know best, and to provide a ‘buffer’ for ministers on those exciting occasions when public money supports art that offends public sensibilities.
As a quango, the Australia Council is one step removed from ‘core’ central government. The Council is in the second tier circle of the diagram below taken from List of Australian government bodies and governance relationships (3rd edition) 2009. The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts is culture’s representative in the core circle, ‘within the Commonwealth’.
Do what you do best
A recent report from the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA), The independence of government arts funding: A review, reviews international thinking about what arts councils can be reasonably expected to do on behalf of governments.
Forty percent of countries have a system like Australia’s, with both an arm’s length arts agency and a central government department for arts or culture. The review reveals that the trick in a two-tiered system is to ensure the two cultural agencies are properly coordinated, doing what they do best and not duplicating efforts.
The report also provides a detailed list of what academics and policy makers consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of each agency type. According to the research, departments and ministries are better than arts councils at:
- championing the arts within government and encouraging cross-portfolio collaboration – ie. securing a ‘whole of government approach’ to culture;
- taking lead in government’s overall strategies and objectives in the cultural sector – ie. in developing cultural policy and revising underlying concepts; and
- bringing the full range of policy instruments to cultural policy – ie. developing tax incentives and regulations.
These are just three out of a long list, but are chosen for their relevance to the current debate. The review clearly supports what we might expect from an elementary understanding of public policy principles: arts councils are not the best agencies to address the kind of policy problems outlined by Westbury and Eltham.
Culture department vs arts council
If Australia needs a new strategic vision for cultural policy, especially one that covers a wider notion of culture, then the Department is the best agency to take the lead. If a ‘whole of government’ approach to culture is required, and a fuller range of policy instruments needs to be employed, then Department, not the Australia Council, is best placed to deliver. Such initiatives are better taken from ‘within the Commonwealth’.
By its very nature, the Australia Council simply cannot fix the problems identified. As an independent body outside the inner circle of government, the Council is not on an equal footing with ‘core’ government departments and ministries. It would be near impossible for an arts council to muster departments and ministries into a ‘whole of government’ approach to cultural policy, and to lobby for regulations and incentives over which it has no authority. Similarly, it would have difficulty developing a grand strategic revisioning of cultural policy for government. Its portfolio domain is but a subset of culture.
To add a little to the confusion, the Australia Council has at times undertaken tasks outside its direct brief and policy domain. It has regularly undertaken research, provided policy advice, and delivered projects over and above what might be expected of it. In doing this, it has been filling a void caused by an underperforming Department. Although such altruism may have fuelled confusion over the Council’s proper role, it does not mean the Council should be harshly judged for roles it should never have been required to do in the first place.
A disservice to the arts
Reading Westbury and Eltham in full, it is clear that they do not expect the Australia Council to undertake the reforms called for. Westbury argues for a ‘planning department’ that is ‘within government’. Unmistakably, his case relates to the incumbent department, not to the Australia Council.
So why then launch an attack on the Council, especially with a headline as blunt as ‘Has the Australia Council had its day?’ This appears to be simply choosing the easy target. There may be some short-term social purchase in bullying the smallest kid in the class – there’s nothing quite as therapeutic for the arts sector as harassing the Australia Council – but it is unfair, and does not serve the arts sector well in its struggle for recognition within government.
Taking aim at the wrong level of government is not good advocacy. The sector needs a strong, coherent voice if it is to get its concerns heard by perennially disinterested governments. Well-targeted proposals are critical in a policy area that is ‘one of the most complex areas of modern government’ according to François Matarasso and Charles Landry.
Targeting an agency that cannot deliver the requisite changes does the cultural sector’s cause a disservice.
Has the Department had its day?
Imagine instead if Westbury’s article had been titled ‘Has the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts had its day?’. The answer would have been an unambiguous and resounding ‘yes!’.
If Australia’s cultural policies are a shambles, then the real source of the problem is central government, represented by the bureaucratic behemoth that is the Department. By international standards, the Department is not doing all it should be doing, and is doing many things it shouldn’t. This is hardly surprising for an agency in which arts and heritage are subsumed by such momentous portfolios as environment and water. In this we may have some sympathy for Canberra’s cultural bureaucrats, but it is no justification for sparing them by attacking Sydney’s arts quangocrats.
We can criticise the Australia Council all we want – it’s an easy enough target. But it’s unfair to attack it for things beyond its control. Australia’s cultural policy problems need to be fixed from within core government, not from without by an arm’s length agency like the Australia Council. Proper engagement from within central government would let the Australia Council get on with what it does best, being an arts council. The Council’s relevance could then be measured against things within its power, not against things it cannot do. Maybe then we could call off the hounds.
This article was published on ArtsHub, 2 August 2010.