The Federal election on Saturday 18 May has profound implications for culture, heritage and the arts – and voters would be well advised to take heed of what is happening in NSW.


NSW – a case study in cultural vandalism

Since its re-election on 23 March, the Berejiklian Coalition Government in NSW has renewed its assault on the arts and its pro-developer agenda.

Two weeks after the State Election, in a sign of things to come, Arts Minister and Liberal Party numbers man Don Harwin announced that the government would be “forging ahead” with its signature policy of demolishing the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo. The announcement came in defiance of professional opinion, popular opposition and a damning report from an all-party Upper House inquiry.

The Powerhouse Museum Alliance has vowed to continue the fight, but it’s an uphill battle. And there is more vandalism to come. On the back of her electoral success, Premier Gladys Berejiklian has engineered a significant shift of power to the executive branch of government, with serious implications for culture in NSW.

First, ministries have been amalgamated and decisions concentrated in the hands of just eight super-departments, with Arts transferred to the Department of Premier and Cabinet. This means that scrutiny of cultural projects will be even harder and independent professional input even less likely. Greens MLC David Shoebridge has described the move as “a one-party state approach to bureaucracy” and says there will be a “critical loss of independence”.

Second, in a further reduction of accountability, the number of Parliament’s sitting days has been reduced to just 35 for the year. The Upper House Inquiry into Museums and Galleries, which spanned almost three years of the last Parliament, concluded that a further inquiry was needed under the new government. But it has yet to be established and requires a new vote in the Legislative Council.

Passing under the radar of parliamentary scrutiny so far is the $344 million Sydney Modern project at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The Upper House last year forced the publication of the business case for the Powerhouse move – a heavily redacted version, released only because the Government was brought to the brink of constitutional crisis over the issue. But the business case for Sydney Modern, the Coalition’s other major cultural infrastructure commitment, remains a closely guarded secret, with the Government claiming it as “Cabinet in confidence”.

Museum professionals believe its costings are unrealistic. Building costs alone are likely to double, and ongoing funding is a mystery. Given that the Upper House Inquiry found that the business case for the Powerhouse move was “a political document designed to justify, at any cost, [a] fundamentally flawed decision”, why would anyone trust the Government’s business case for its other big arts project?

Gladys versus Who? It was no contest

On the eve of the State election the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) issued its report card on the policies of the contesting parties. Under the heading “NSW culture” both the Greens and Labor were found to have positive policies. Labor’s included a new $500m Western Sydney institution, funding for live music and night-time arts, a review of previous funding decisions, the de-politicisation of board appointments, and the repeal of restrictive festival regulations and anti-protest laws.

Findings for the Liberal Party under the same heading were all negative. The report said it had: “No commitment to integrity in funding decisions and governance”.

But while Labor had far better cultural policies, the party failed to harness them to anything like a visionary appeal. And Michael Daley – a little-known, lacklustre, temporary party leader – proved no match for the unquestionably energetic Gladys Berejiklian. 

What is at stake in the Federal Election

There are lessons in the NSW experience for the 18 May Federal Election– especially if, like me, you shudder at the thought of a re-election of the grinning, boat-stopping, baseball-cap wearing Pentecostalist Scott Morrison and his back-to-the-fifties cronies.

Federal Labor at least has a published arts policy, developed over the past three years under Shadow Minister Tony Burke. I’ve searched the Liberal Party’s platform for one, in vain.

Shadow Arts Minister Tony Burke with Bill Shorten

The arts and culture section of Labor’s national platform begins: “Arts and culture are essential to the good life; while a creative nation is a prosperous nation. All people can participate in arts events and education and express their creativity in an array of different cultural forms. Labor will not only support artists, we will strengthen communities and develop a creative culture so Australians are ready for the challenges and opportunities of life. Australia’s cultural institutions play an important role and Labor will support these institutions to collect, preserve and make available Australia’s cultural heritage. Arts and culture also contribute to innovation and lift productivity.”

There is much more in the same vein, all good motherhood stuff, and streets ahead of anything the Coalition parties have issued. It’s redolent of a desire to return to the inspirational atmosphere of the Whitlam era. But there’s a reality to be faced.

The National Library of Australia – cultural institutions at risk

For 35 years, Labor has been vying with the Liberals to cut public spending in the cultural sector. It was the Hawke-Keating Government of the 1980s that introduced the “efficiency dividend”, the notorious recurrent spending cut to the public service. It was part of Labor’s embrace of the damaging, anti-social outlook of neoliberalism, now much discredited but still a force in the land. According to this dogma, society and culture are nothing; the individual and the dollar are everything.

In the hands of Coalition Governments the efficiency dividend, enforced by politically-appointed boards, has weakened national cultural institutions to the point that heritage collections and programs are at risk – at the National Library, the National Gallery and all other institutions except the Australian War Memorial.

A tiny fraction of the national budget would restore cuts to those institutions, to the ABC, the Australia Council and the CSIRO. Labor needs to make that clear commitment.

Pericles of Athens

A reluctance to do so goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to justify arts expenditure on the grounds of economic expediency – the arts generate income – rather than on the grounds of social need.

Two and half thousands years ago, the Greeks knew better. “Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance,” said Pericles; “our love of things of the mind does not weaken us. We regard wealth as something to be properly used rather than something to boast about.”

That’s from the man who built the great monuments of the Acropolis.

Scott Morrison

The only monument Scott Morrison wants to build is a statue of Captain Cook to celebrate the invasion of Australia by the British and their relentless assault on indigenous culture.

After the heady promise of the 1970s, we’re still a long way from securing the great new, inclusive culture we know can be achieved in the Great South Land. A step in the right direction is to oust the Coalition from office on 18 May. And then stand ready to insist a Labor government junk the neoliberal agenda and give real support to cultural development.

Until next timeI’ll be taking a further break from this blog over the next few weeks, in order to focus on longer-term projects. But it’s always good to hear from readers, either via the Comments section below or on email –