In defence of the Australia Council

In defence of the Australia CouncilA 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’.

Commonwealth of Australia 2009

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.


11 thoughts on “In defence of the Australia Council

  1. Thanks Christopher for the detailed, intelligent and informed response. I actually disagree with very little of what you have said but feel the need to clarify a couple of points.

    My criticism of the Australia Council’s limitations and your analysis of why it can not be the agency to deliver the changes that Ben and I are calling for is actually the same point. I agree.

    Where perhaps i differ is in the emphasis. The Australia Council, in their own words, is Australia’s “principal arts funding and advisory body.” It’s in this second capacity, as an advisory body, that i am critical . As long as the Australia Council claims the mantle of principle advisor to the Australian government on the arts then i think it is legitimate to criticise them for failure to do that comprehensively.

    If you argument is that in practice they are not the nations arts advisory body, or that they are not effectively capable of being that and that it is the department that has that role and responsibility then i largely agree. It is also our argument. I would simply argue that we need to formalise that and place that responsibility somewhere capable of taking it.

    • Hi Marcus
      Yes, I do think we agree on the whole. My main concern is that we shouldn’t expect an arts council to do more than it is capable of doing – these organisations are limited by their positioning between government and the sector.

      A key point to emphasise, as you and Ben do, is the difference between the arts and culture. We can expect the Ozco to be the key advisor on arts policy, but it can only be one of a range of agencies providing broad cultural policy advice. Here I think the Council has been trying to fill a gap left by central government. Keeping in mind that, even if concentrating advice on the arts, the Australia Council could not deliver tax and regulatory reforms without central government support.

      A ministry of culture would clearly fill the void, as those at the 2020 Summit thought. The only thing I would say is that we should be careful about the ‘creep’ of central government into the arts sector – this has been happening around the world, especially in countries with an arts council model, and the results have not always been welcome. Arts councils were established for specific reasons – to remove arts support from undue govenrment influence. A ‘shortening of the arm’ will bring increased central government control, and we should be aware of what the sector may lose as a result of this. Again, it is critical to ensure that the various agencies are doing what they do best.

      • Again i am largely agreement. Although putting the Art v. Culture argument aside i think it is possible to identify a range of areas where the Australia Council has failed to grapple with key issues within what most – including its own act – broadly defines as the arts.

        The Australia Council Act explicitly identifies music, for example, as an area where it has the key funding and advisory role and yet the OzCo has been missing in action on many of the major issues facing musicians working outside the major companies. I think that’s a failure to grasp the responsibility the Act gives them rather than an example where their Act or role doesn’t allow them to engage.

        I would also argue that the Australia Council’s role is to advocate within government for reforms that it is not in itself capable of delivering. I actually think it has a strong history of doing this at times where it aligns with the interests of its core constituency – which are mostly large organisations.

        Again, thanks for the engagement with the ideas and always keen to continue the discussion.

  2. The second point i intended to clarify was that I do not write the headlines over at The Age. Your suggestion that the headline ‘Has the Australia Council had its day?’ appears to be choosing an easy target is probably correct. I suspect it was written by a sub editor in search of hits and eyeballs for precisely that reason. It wasn’t written by me.

    I am responsible for the content of the piece and not the headline. I think if you read the content of your piece and mine we are largely arguing the same thing albeit with greater emphasis from me on the idea that the Australia Council is the arts advisory body it claims to be.

  3. Hi Christopher

    I won’t add to what Marcus has already commented, but I thought I would add that I have written an article for the forthcoming Overland in which I canvass some of the options for DEWHA/OzCo reform.

    Briefly, these are:

    * return the MPO Board to the department – after all, there is no peer review of these organisations anymore, so why shouldn’t they simply become line items like the National Gallery or Library?

    * what remains in OzCo should then be reformed radically – perhaps even given a new name – and certainly a new brief, to support a much broader ambit of culture and the arts

    * new money should be found to do this, specifically to support independent artists and small collectives currently locked out of the current institutional support structures

    * structurally, although the UK experience reveals problems with the DCMS model, there are excellent reasons to house the Arts department with Communications, as it used to be in the previous government

    * the policy debate needs to be encouraged, precisely so these discussions can progress. It can’t do that until we recognise that the current status quo is an impediment to reform. As Marcus and I have been arguing, and indeed as academics like Jennifer Craik and Gay Hawkins are on the record as pointing out, even within its ambit, the Australia Council has some real and obvious wewights and biaises towards certain types of artforms and certain types of cultural expressions – and against others. This is not a trivial issue – the Australia Council remains the key cultural agency of the Commonwealth

    • Hi Ben
      Many thanks for the comment. Those proposals for reform all look interesting – I will keep an eye out for the article.

      I think we agree on much, especially that the Australia Council should not be the government’s key cultural agency as it currently is. I do think, though, that we differ slightly on the sequencing of reforms. I’m arguing that we shouldn’t target reform at the Australia Council until central government’s role in culture is sorted out – in the large, not just at the edges. If we had a clearer vision from central government, and a more coherent ‘all of culture’ policy system within the Commonwealth, the role and place of the Australia Council would be much clearer. This would make any needed reforms to the Council more obvious and more attuned to what we might reasonably expect from a semi-independent agency.

      • Christopher,

        It’s worth adding that Ben and I don’t entirely agree on this either. He’s wants to go further than me in terms of the role of the OzCo in particular. What we both agree on – and what you seem to broadly acknowledge – is that the status quo is untenable. We simply have to have a debate and move the ground on from whether we get more money for x or y to some wider discussion of what we are trying to do here.

        One thing i would argue and that has become very obvious as soon as i open my mouth on this is that there is a massive constituency for reform. Both massive and influential. Virtually everyone is outside the current the system. Many inside the current system generally acknowledge that when speaking informally.

        Perhaps the greatest fault of the last decade or two has been the failure to reconcile the arts and culture that Australian’s are excited about and engaged with with those we aim to support and enable. That’s the key to reform and also to unlocking new resources.

  4. Pingback: Updates from the world of arts policy | marcus westbury

  5. Pingback: An introduction to Australian cultural policy | Christopher Madden

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