The Australian arts funding crisis and what it means for business

Dark clouds gather over Perth, Western Australia.

By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

As the owner of a small Australian business, I’m concerned about the ramifications that government cuts to the Australian arts budget will have for Australian businesses, particularly those that want to be innovative and those that want to export their goods or services abroad.

In the lead up to Christmas, the Australian Government made two announcements that demonstrate cognitive dissonance of the highest order. Firstly, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that Australia is going to have an “ideas boom” funded by a $1.1b four-year package to drive innovation, whilst at the same time, sans fanfare and in time for Christmas, his government released budget statements detailing severe cuts to arts funding.

Whilst jumping on the ‘innovation’ bandwagon, a buzzword that was so overused in 2015 that some pundits have questioned if it even retains any meaning, the Turnbull Government has demonstrated a worrying failure to comprehend how it even works.

So let’s put it in simple terms – creativity drives innovation.

If Australia wants to have innovative companies, those companies are going to need creative employees.Creativity is a learned skill, and the best way that one can develop creativity is through involvement with arts activities, particularly creating art.

As Madeleine Dore wrote in a great piece titled How to exercise your creativity;

Creativity isn’t a gift from on high. It’s a skill that grows with practice and can be developed through regular exercise.

And as I have written previously:

Most of the time that an original artist spends creating their art is on solving problems.  Take for example the songwriter who solves problems like “this chord doesn’t sound right”, “this lyric doesn’t fit” and “this tempo’s uncomfortable”.  To write a novel, writers solve problems such as “this character’s actions aren’t believable”, “this plot device leads nowhere” and “this section is really boring”.  A good artist is a good problem-solver. 

This type of sustained problem solving produces creative people.

One of the main sectors that will suffer from the Turnbull Government’s arts cuts is the youth arts sector. As the ABC reports:

Only three of 13 youth theatre companies in Australia will retain federal arts funding which will have huge and tragic repercussions throughout Australia’s youth arts sector, which, after having endured a decade of similar blows, has essentially been left for dead.

My question to the decision makers in the Turnbull Government is this: where do expect the creative people to come from to sustain the innovation boom you desire to create?

The very term “boom”, which is the word that Prime Minister Turnbull uses when discussing his innovation agenda, is synonymous with another word – “bust”. In Australia, where we have always suffered from the effects of a boom to bust economic history, you might assume we had learned our lessons by now about the importance of sustained economic growth, but apparently not.

The short-term thinking of successive Australian Governments who can only comprehend the effects of their decisions as far as the next election has been greatly detrimental to Australia’s national well-being. It’s precisely this short term thinking that led the Australian government to squander the benefits of the most recent mining boom and there appears to be no respite to such short-sightedness on the horizon. An innovation boom is great, but wouldn’t having a sustainable innovative culture be better?

I’m also concerned about how Australia intends to grow its export industries.

In a recent article for the Australian Financial Review, Michael Smith wrote that the “lack of a comprehensive long-term plan for engaging in Asia remains a major challenge for the Turnbull government heading into 2016”, concerns that the  Former Prime Minister Paul Keating has been voicing about conservative government attitudes towards Asian engagement since at least 1996 when he said:

Engagement with the region around us is not just commercial. And it is not just the result of some crude economic determinism… Australia must have a deep and continuous commitment to Asia — and for reasons that lie at the heart of our national interests.[1]

And perhaps more memorably in 1998:

Australian engagement with Asia is not a temporary enthusiasm. Asia is not a flavour of the month. We have not been on a ten-day package tour from which we can return with a couple of T-shirts and a handful of colour prints for the album. Australia can’t bolt on the Evinrude and motor off to the coast of California. If we know anything about dealing with Asia it is the importance of building relationships for the long term. That’s the business Australia needs to be in now.[2]

Living and working in South East Asia, I get to see firsthand the way foreign companies and their nations work to develop engagement in Asia where good relationships are crucial. Often, when the governments of western nations evaluate their engagement strategies in Asia, they do it by comparing their efforts with those of other western countries, however this ignores the fact that the countries whose companies and governments have the most successful engagement strategies are themselves from Asia. When I see the cultural engagement efforts of say, Japan in South East Asia or Korea in the Middle East, it’s apparent that Australia lags behind in its engagement efforts within the region it so openly seeks to prosper from.

Recently, at a Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce meeting in Ho Chi Minh City, I met a Japanese logistics expert who outlined the reasons he doesn’t do business with Australians; “they are too brash, they just want to clinch the deal, they always prefer to deal with you through a consultant which adds a lot of cost to the deal”. From many conversations like this, and in many other ways, it’s quite apparent to me that within Asia, we Aussies are the odd ones out and have strange working habits. Within the blokeiness of Australian culture, toughness and brashness are  much admired traits, but we often lack the soft skills and tact to work successfully in Asia.

We need to engage better with Asia and the best way that we can do this is through the arts and culture. Why? Because thats the way it’s actually done in Asia.

Look at China, India, Vietnam, Korea and other countries that are increasing their investments in cultural diplomacy, something the Australian Government hasn’t taken seriously for a long time. At a recent trade delegation event organised by the South Australian Government, China’s Deputy Minister of Culture described how in China, “relationships are based on politics, trade and culture” and that “China would not trade with anyone that did not combine the three”. An often neglected fact is that Australian artists and athletes have been visiting Asia and building relationships there since long before our governments and businesses conceived their Asian engagement strategies, something that Aussie football legend Johnny Warren wrote about in his memoirs Sheila’s, Wogs and Poofters. I’ve already written about Chinese cultural diplomacy and the video below demonstrates successful Korean initiatives that Australia could benefit by emulating.

Why arts based cultural diplomacy works so well is because the language of the arts is international and has the ability to build relationships across linguistic and cultural barriers, which is why so many Asian governments and companies invest in its techniques. Cultural diplomacy works where words fail to do so. Australia’s main methods for engagement with Asia appears to be through student exchanges and economic diplomacy, both of which rely on the arrogant and flawed assumption that to know an Australian is to love Australia. When in Rome, so they say, do as the Roman’s do, but when in Asia, Australia just does what Australia wants, no matter how out-of-step it is with the region. Without a strong arts industry Australia simply won’t be able to engage appropriately with Asia.

The Coalition Government under Abbott and Turnbull has been bad for the Australian arts industry. The scrapping of the Australian Cultural Policy, industry uncertainty, frequent changes to the arts minister and funding arrangements have all greatly reduced productivity within the sector – and that’s without mentioning the funding cuts.

Of course there will be those who say “but times are tough, we’ve got to cut spending on the superfluous; why should tax-payers fund unprofitable arts initiatives?”; a type of statement that demonstrates both an economic and a social ignorance and represents a misinformed sentiment that I’ve addressed in an earlier post.

Whilst I have only outlined briefly and in economic terms how arts cuts affect Australia’s ability to innovate and trade, there are also a gazillion other negative implications such an artless approach to governance will bring about to national security, social cohesion, creating vibrant cities, attracting Foreign Direct Investment and building the inclusive institutions that are needed to develop a thriving economy.

For the sake of Australian businesses, our economy and the broader society, it’s time for the Turnbull government to re-evaluate its hostile attitude to the Australian arts industry.

For more posts about the value of the arts click here.

Sources are on the next page.

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