Sharing the luck

Cultural policy in Australia

51 Comments 05 July 2010

by Ben Eltham and Marcus Westbury

Policy context

In early 2010, more than 15,000 people gathered on Bourke Street in front of Victoria’s Parliament building to register their protest against an unpopular government decision.1  The colourful crowd chanted and marched, sported placards and banners, and listened to speeches by local identities.

What were they protesting about? Climate change? Refugees? The war in Afghanistan?

No, they were protesting about a decision by Liquor Licensing Victoria to enforce onerous security requirements on live music venues in Melbourne. The new regulations had led to the closure of one of Melbourne’s best-loved rock venues, a Collingwood pub named The Tote. Many other venues were threatened with the same fate.

This was a protest about cultural policy.

“Cultural policy” is not often thought of as an important topic of public affairs. That’s odd when you consider that culture touches on many of the things that Australians do, see, hear and engage with everyday. Watching television, reading a newspaper, playing a computer game, updating your Facebook status, sending a tweet, going to a bar to see comedy, even things like gardening and cooking: all of these activities are explicitly cultural.

“Culture”, as English critic Raymond Williams once pointed out, “is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.”2 Culture in Australia is no exception. It’s simultaneously broad, diverse and multi-faceted. It ranges from the oldest continuous cultural traditions in the world, to be found in the art and culture of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, 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 neighborhood jam session. It encompasses some of the most popular types of entertainment media, to be seen on top-rating TV shows like Masterchef or So You Think You Can Dance, as well as obscure community arts projects and folk crafts. Culture is about learning a foreign language, sharing thoughts, words and images with a friend on Facebook and listening to your iPod on the way to work.

But all too often, when we discuss government policies towards “culture”, what we actually mean is “the arts” – and only a small subset of the arts at that. 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, as though these are the principal aspects of government policy towards culture.

In fact, cultural policy cuts across many government portfolios and encompasses a vast swathe of everyday life. It’s as much about the rock band at your local pub as it is about the Sydney Opera House, as much about popcorn during the movie as chardonnay after the ballet. Cultural policy is about what you can and can’t watch on free-to-air TV or view on the internet, whether you can exhibit photos of naked children in an art gallery, or when and where a band is allowed to play.

The size and scope of culture

Culture is all around us. Millions of Australians engage in cultural expressions for their own pleasure every day. For every Hugh Jackman, there are tens of thousands of unknown but passionate artists in hundreds of different artforms, all grappling with the age-old challenges of making art that someone, somewhere will want to experience and engage with. In comparison with this vast cultural universe, the kinds of activities supported by the Australia Council – and by extension that are within the policy brief of government – are a small and dusty room.

One way of taking in the size and scope of culture in Australia is to examine the size of the so-called “cultural” or “creative” industries. These are a far bigger share of our economy than many people realise. The Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that there are nearly 300,000 Australians working in a cultural occupation as their main job; more than car manufacturing and mining combined.3 In June 2006, there were more than 77,000 registered cultural businesses contributing a total cultural output approaching $41 billion.4  In 2003-04, Australian households spent $14.6 billion on cultural items like books, CDs and pay TV. Culture is also a big part of our daily lives: watching television is Australians’ most important leisure activity, and the movies are our most popular destination when we go out. More than three-quarters of Australians read for pleasure, while nearly 14 million of us attend a cultural venue or event at least once a year.5 More importantly, the impact of culture is beyond economics. It’s at the heart of our identity and way of life.

So it’s quite a surprise when you realise Australia has no formal cultural policy, and hasn’t since Paul Keating’s Creative Nation policy of the 1990s. Cultural policy has evolved as an ad hoc series of decisions by governments of all levels. The result is that there is no coherent set of principles to underpin the way our governments at all levels support and regulate culture. Rather, a set of de facto policies has evolved, often haphazardly, which are inconsistent and contradictory.6

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. Things such as copyright laws, media regulation and censorship, urban planning and public liability laws that impact upon the viability and diversity of cultural expression are beyond the reach of the current paradigm. Though 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.

When you look at Australian culture in all its richness, the inconsistency of policy responses reveals the ad hoc nature of the current approach.

For instance, the Australian taxpayer spends hundreds of millions a year supporting Australian films, but not Australian computer games. We enforce some of the most stringent and punitive copyright laws in the world, without examining the costs of these special industry protections 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 capital constrained nature of cultural practice. We maintain inconsistent and incoherent approaches to media regulation that means adults can watch an R-rated movie, but not experience similar material in video games, and perhaps soon, not on the internet either.

Another consequence of these inconsistencies is a sustained lack of funding and support of Australia’s indigenous cultural expressions. In cultural funding terms, the “great Australian silence” towards the richness and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, first criticised by anthrolopologist W.E.H. Stanner in 1968, still continues today.7 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.8 Opera is a valuable part of the western tradition. But Australia’s indigenous cultures are a unique, rich and valuable set of traditions that are both vulnerable and potently powerful symbols of Australia around the world.

But our cultural policy debate rarely discusses these issues.

Where do we weigh the balance between expanding the choices and options for media consumers and small producers, rather than the industry protections of media proprietors? 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?

The Rudd-Gillard Government’s cultural policies

While the Rudd-Gillard Government under Minister Garrett has begun the important task of developing a National Cultural Policy, in practice very little has changed since the Howard era – continuing a lineage of ad hoc policies and evolving misallocations that stretch largely unbroken back to the Whitlam era.

In developing a national cultural policy and in taking submissions about what it should be, there has been a notable step forward. The Howard Government did no such thing in 11 years in office. However, whether the need to engage comprehensively with the policies that affect culture can be reconciled with a powerful inertia pushing towards a policy that is purely about funding for the arts remains to be seen.

In calling for submissions on a new national cultural policy, Peter Garrett at the very least encouraged us to examine the way things actually work – or fail to work – already. Arts and cultural debates in Australia often devolve into a contest between those opposing government funding, and those seeking to increase it. Cultural regulations are generally ignored. By focusing debate on our current policy settings, we now have a chance to advance some much-needed options for reform.

Meanwhile, 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, economic rules that will govern such a network.

Equally, 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 policy abandons our Western liberal tradition to follow a precedent established by totalitarian countries such as Iran and China. It’s hard to think of a more counter-productive policy for Australian culture.

Why the Australia Council needs to be reformed

The Australia Council for the Arts is the Australian Government’s dedicated arts policy and advisory agency, so it’s a good place to start when we examine cultural policy.

The Australia Council was formed in 1973 by Gough Whitlam’s government. It introduced meaningful support for artists and organisations working in artforms such as theatre, dance, visual arts and literature for the first time.9

Unfortunately, the Australia Council’s structure and artistic focus has changed little since the 1970s. In this time, driven by new technologies such as the internet, art and culture has changed radically.

The result is that the Australia Council is increasingly irrelevant to culture today. The act under which it operates defines both what culture is and how it should be administered in ways that are hopelessly out of date. For example, the Australia Council has had little meaningful engagement with digital and new media arts, social networking, or gaming. In a decision driven by internal bureaucratic politics, the Australia Council abolished its New Media Arts Board in 2005.10

In a tale familiar to students of public policy in other spheres, the Australia Council has also been “captured” by the arts organisations it funds. Although it contributes small but significant amounts of funding to smaller companies and individual artists, the Australia Council now exists largely as a conduit to funnel money to a small number of large, privileged arts organisations. Its supposedly important functions of peer-review, advocacy and arms-length policy analysis have withered away to almost nothing. In monetary terms, the majority of the grant dollars it distributes are not peer-reviewed at all.

The Australia Council is the cultural equivalent of the National Trust. For instance, while the Australia Council devotes approximately $90 million to music funding, only two per cent of this goes to jazz, rock, pop and other contemporary forms of music.11

The heritage aspect of the current Australia Council’s role is an important function. But it should not be at the centre of cultural policy. We desperately need a planning and development agency whose primary concern is contemporary cultural dynamics, opportunities and developments, and not merely heritage preservation.

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.

A glance at the way screen and broadcasting policy is handled in Australia illustrates this point. Australia’s federal Arts portfolio under Peter Garrett includes Screen Australia, the national film and television development agency. But Screen Australia plays no role in screen and broadcasting regulation, which is governed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, part of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Copyright law and the Australian Classification Board are the province of the Attorney-General’s department. Digital content innovation and R&D is under the purview of a fourth department, the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. University film schools such as the Victorian College of the Arts are the responsibility of the Education Department. Film festivals are generally funded by state governments. The permits and regulations for film-makers wanting to shoot in a particular location are imposed by local governments. There is no national screen policy that seeks to join up all these dots.12 Indeed, as film and video production becomes more decentralised, many screen-based practitioners are working in areas such as online video, gaming, and non-broadcast based media that have little or no engagement with, nor are consulted, by any of these agencies.

Australia’s cultural agencies were largely devised when the number of places in which cultural production and distribution took place was small and relatively fixed. At their core they are still rooted to the idea that a small number of elite artists produce and present large-scale culture through major institutions based on a classical European model or – in the case of film – major commercial producers and distributors.

In contrast, society is becoming more culturally diverse. Immigration, demographic change and new technologies and communications media have transformed the spectrum of cultural choices available.13 The large-scale infrastructure and mass subscription model that underpins the logic of many funded arts organisations is poorly equipped to respond to the plethora of new artists, artforms, audiences, genres, and sub-cultures emerging in a rapidly changing cultural dynamic.

The lack of engagement with cultural regulation in the music industry illustrates the counter-productive consequences of this disconnect. In Victoria, the state government has a specific policy for supporting contemporary music called “Victoria Rocks”, administered by Arts Victoria. Contemporary music is largely performed in small, commercial venues such as pubs, clubs and bars – and the proliferation of niche genres, markets and audiences is creating even greater demand for smaller venues. Yet these same venues are closing in response to tighter regulations from another part of the Victorian government that deals with liquor licensing. Nationally, the need to create viable small scale cultural venues – for music and other creative forms – is clashing with policies that are fostering denser urban planning, expanding numbers of gambling venues and poker machines, and requiring capital intensive building codes. Despite the Australia Council’s own research14 demonstrating that contemporary music is much more valued than the orchestras and opera companies that it overwhelmingly funds and focuses on, neither Arts Victoria nor the Australia Council have engaged substantially in these debates.

Our funding-centric approach to culture largely ignores these issues, yet federal issues such as tax, social security compliance, copyright and media policy, state issues like liquor licensing and public liability law, and local government issues like noise laws and urban planning are key cultural policy questions. There has been little or no effort by the Commonwealth or the states to try and adopt whole-of-government policies towards culture. As a result, much government cultural funding is wasted, and the practical needs of most artists, small organisations and even entire cultural industries (such as the design industry) are falling through the cracks.

Case study: Creating space for artists to be creative

One of the biggest problems for artists, who typically have low incomes, is finding affordable space from which they can create, distribute and present their work. While a prolonged property bubble has driven up rents and exacerbated this problem, there are still many spaces within Australian cities that sit empty. In late 2008, the Renew Newcastle scheme was established in the regional New South Wales city of Newcastle to take some of the 150 otherwise vacant commercial spaces in that city and make them available to artists, creative enterprises and community groups. To date, the initiative has placed more than 50 artists in shops, offices, studios, and galleries. In doing so, it has revitalised a once emptying city centre and seeded a series of creative initiatives, both commercial and not-for-profit. It is a model for facilitating low-cost decentralised cultural production that other cities such as Cairns, Townsville, Adelaide and Geelong have begun to emulate.

While the scheme has been a success, it is also a case study in the lack of responsibility for cultural regulation at a national level. The very presence of empty spaces in many cities is a product of both market failure and government regulation: many buildings sit vacant due to complex tax laws and planning regulations that provide strong incentives to owners to leave buildings vacant. As a result, flexible access to these spaces for artists and creators is essentially a policy setting – even if it is not an artform-specific funding issue.

Unfortunately, under the current model, there is no capacity for meaningful engagement with the Federal Government around these issues. The Australia Council’s ambit to fund or support culture is defined in the dated, art-form specific cultural responsibilities defined by its 1970s era legislation, and cultural practitioners who work in ways that don’t fit into this model have no place in such a structure. Further, because the Australia Council is also the national cultural policy advisory agency, these artists and their issues are not represented in the Australia Council’s policy advice.

Iconic institutions or starving artists?

Spare a thought for the people who make Australian culture happen: the artists. The debate about Australian culture often ignores the great achievements of the individuals who create it.

In 2003, economist David Throsby released an in-depth report into Australian artists’ incomes. The title of the report, Don’t Give Up Your Day Job, says it all. The report found that the mean creative income for an independent artist working in Australia was only $17,000 per annum (the average annual wage in Australia in 2003 was about $52,300). But in that year, the Australia Council distributed just 6.3 per cent of its grant funding to independent artists. The remaining 93 per cent went to organisations.15 A recent, comprehensive survey of Australian arts funding commissioned by Arts Queensland found that “grants to individual artists to make work are estimated to be fewer than five per cent of all arts funding.”16

As folk wisdom suggests, choosing the arts as a career can still mean a short road to relative impoverishment. Most artists and creative workers take a huge pay cut just to work in their chosen field of employment, and as Throsby found, nearly all of them need an extra part-time job or two just to survive. Of course there is not necessarily anything wrong with this: people like nurses and teachers choose professions that reward them in non-financial ways all the time.

But the huge imbalance of funding between artists and organisations is the result of a long-term decline in direct funding for Australian artists and creative workers that has damaging consequences for the Australian creative economy. In the absence of direct public sector funding for artists undertaking primarily creative work, the balance of arts funding goes towards administrative positions within funded organisations. The unquestioned assumption that large companies and fixed institutions are at the centre of cultural life has placed the management and maintenance of such organisations at the centre of cultural policy concerns and government expenditure.

In this era, such an approach is neither effective nor efficient. Despite their bohemian reputation, individual artists can often be highly efficient, as they are excellent at leveraging and making the most of scarce resources. They can also be flexible and capable of building appropriate structures and mechanisms to create, present and promote individual shows or projects. Their way of operating allows for small-scale experimentation, innovation and risk taking. Individually and collectively, they are highly responsive to technological change, changes in audience dynamics, and the decentralised environment of cultural creation and consumption. They require little in the way of expensive infrastructure. By contrast, the highly-centralised structures in which we invest most of our cultural resources have high overheads and are often conservative, risk-averse and place comparatively little value on experimentation or the creation of new work.

Individual artists (especially non-famous ones) are the forgotten voice in the Australian cultural debate, even while they provide the bulk of the workforce for our cultural endeavours. It’s high time Australia re-balanced its cultural investments and regulations away from big buildings and big corporations, and towards the creative human capital of the cultural sector. At stake is not the future of artistic achievement in Australia — for artists will always create, no matter their economic circumstances — but the ability of Australian creators to tell their own stories, and create for their own communities.

A new cultural agency for contemporary Australian culture?

The reliance on the Australia Council as the primary agency for cultural policy is inherently unsustainable. Australia needs a new government cultural agency with a contemporary brief: to ensure that we are a nation that is a creator and not merely a consumer of culture, and that Australians are active and enabled participants in the increasingly globalised cultural pool.

The brief should be primarily cultural, not economic – but must recognise that culture has an economic component. Culture is ethereal and beautiful, but it is also subject to market forces, and can bring great economic benefits.

Such an agency needs to work beyond the funding paradigm, to ensure the tax system, intellectual property law, social security regulations, compliance costs in the built environment and other policy areas take into account the needs of contemporary cultural production. It needs to ensure that contemporary Australian culture is funded and resourced at least as well as heritage arts, and that these policy priorities are elevated to at least the same level.

The key policy goal should be primarily concerned with the creation and promotion of contemporary Australian culture – in all its diverse forms. To do this, we must recognise that most Australian artists and creators do not work for or in large funded arts companies, and that therefore we need to promote policies that support and respect this reality.

One of the ambits of this agency should be to review and make recommendations on Australian industry and market regulations for the cultural industries, from a cultural as well as an economic perspective. The design of cultural markets, the rules and regulations that govern them and the incentives that they provide are often created by government, and have profound cultural consequences that no agency is currently charged with addressing. This role should not necessarily lead to public subsidy for commercial markets or protectionism, but it should recognise that the market fails to support many artforms – not just orchestras and arts centres.

The false divide between “high art” and “popular culture”

Cultural policy has long been bedeviled by a false distinction between what is sometimes called “art for art’s sake”, and for-profit cultural products created by the entertainment industries. Public funding for the so-called “high arts” is often justified by the artistic merit of artforms such as literature, theatre or orchestral music, and by the supposed inability of these arts to exist if left to the workings of the free market. In this world view, government support for popular culture is often frowned upon as a “dumbing down” of standards, and in any case unnecessary, because the market already provides these products.17

In the real world, this is a false divide. The “high arts” can often be boring, unoriginal and pretentious, while so-called “popular culture” can display high standards of creativity, originality and artistic craft – and vice-versa. Similarly, heritage artforms such as Wagnerian opera or Shakespearean theatre can be immensely popular and highly remunerative, while many types of popular culture can be very unpopular indeed.

In developing a new cultural policy, the age-old dialectic of “high arts” versus “popular culture” should be abandoned. Artworks are not good or bad just because they are popular or unpopular, and valid and original work can be found in every artform and genre.

Five policy solutions:

1. Recognise that “cultural policy” is about more than funding for the arts. It’s about policy frameworks across government including media policy, education, copyright and censorship law, tax, urban planning, liquor licensing and R+D.

2. Abandon the false divide between high art and popular culture. Art and culture of all different genres and types can be popular or unpopular, and good or bad. Cultural policy should not be based on preconceptions about which artforms are “worthy” of public support, but on cultural values that can manifest themselves in many ways, across many forms and genres.

3. Create a new cultural agency for contemporary Australian culture. Australia needs a new government cultural agency with a contemporary brief: to ensure that we are a nation that is a creator and not merely a consumer of culture, and that Australians are active and enabled participants in the global cultural pool. The Australia Council is not an organisation capable of this, or of becoming this.

4. Cut the red-tape that affects culture. Many artists and cultural organisations are constrained by access to appropriate infrastructure, like venues and work  space, as well as capital. The ability to put in place policy settings that allow them to perform, present and produce with limited capital is more important (and effective) in ensuring their success than direct subsidies.

5. Fund artists and production, not institutions. Ordinary working artists are the forgotten people of Australia’s cultural policy debate. Their average income is well below median Australian wages. Yet individual creators and artists are the life-blood of Australian culture. Where new funding is created, it should be directed towards individuals and small companies – not large institutions. And because so many artists are so poor, small amounts of funding can go a long way.

Photo Credit:  Angelica Jellibat,


  1. Donovan, P. (2010) ‘‘They can’t shut us down’: thousands rally for live music’, The Age, 23 February 2010. Available online:
  2. Williams, R. (1976) Keywords, Hammersmith, Fontana, p.87.
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) ‘Employment in Culture, Australia, 2006’, Cat. No. 6273.0. Available online: latest ABS figures are for 2006, when 284,793 Australians worked in cultural occupations as their main job.
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) ‘Australian Industry, 2005–06’, Cat. No. 8155.0. Available online:; Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) ‘Counts of Australian Businesses, including Entries and Exits, June 2003 to June 2006’, Cat. No. 8165.0. Available online:
  5. Cultural Ministers Council (2008) Statistics Working Group: Arts and culture in Australian life: A statistical snapshot, Canberra, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. Available online:
  6. See: Craik, J. (2006) Re-Visioning Arts and Cultural Policy: Current Impasses and Future Directions, Canberra, ANU EPress. Available online:; and Throsby, D. (2006) Does Australia need a cultural policy?, Strawberry Hills, Currency House Press.
  7.  Stanner, W.E.H. (2009) The dreaming & other essays, Melbourne, Black Inc.
  8. In 2009, the Australia Council distributed $3.7 million to its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board, and $17.9 million to Opera Australia. See: Australia Council (2009) Australia Council Annual Report 2008-09. Available online:; and Opera Australia (2010) Financial Report 2009. Available online:
  9. See: Gardiner-Garden, J. (1994) Arts Policy in Australia: A History of Commonwealth Involvement, Canberra, Australian Parliamentary Library.
  10. Gallasch, K. (2005) Art in a Cold Climate. Rethinking the Australia Council, Strawberry Hills, Currency House Press.
  11. Clayton, J. and Travers, M. (2009) Arts Plus: New Models New Money: Australian Survey, Kensington and Brisbane, Centre for Social Impact & Arts Queensland, p.15.
  12. Eltham, B. (2009) ‘Australian cultural and innovation policies: Never the twain shall meet?’, Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice, 11(2): 230-239.
  13. See: Holden, J. (2007) Logging On: Culture, Participation and the Web, London, Demos; and Hesmondhalgh, D. (2007) The Cultural Industries (2nd Edn), London, Sage Publications.
  14. Australia Council (2010) More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts, Strawberry Hills, Australia Council.
  15. Throsby, D. and Hollister, V. (2003) Don’t Give Up Your Day Job: an economic study of professional artists in Australia, Strawberry Hills, Australia Council; and Australia Council (2004) Annual Report 2003-04, Strawberry Hills, Australia Council. Available online:
  16. Clayton, J. and Travers, M., op. cit., p.19.
  17. The best discussion of this false dichotomy is by economist Tyler Cowen, in Cowen, T. (2006) Good and Plenty: The Creative Success of American Arts Funding, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

AUTHORS(S): Ben Eltham and Marcus Westbury