The Australian summer has begun with two disastrous developments: out-of-control bushfires, and out-of-control governments waging war on the arts, sciences and civil liberties.

The Morrison Government in Canberra and the Berejiklian Government in Sydney both seem hell-being on reversing key cultural gains of the past 50 years. Their recent actions signal a new dark age. My New Year’s resolution is to oppose this slide into philistinism and authoritarianism. Who’s up for it?

Federal arts department abolished

On Thursday 5 December Prime Minister Scott Morrison terminated the Department of Communications and the Arts and incorporated it into one of his new mega-departments under Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. Not even a mention of the arts. Respected former department head Mike Mrdak and his staff were not even consulted.

Esther Anatolitis: shocked

Leading figures in the arts reacted with shock. “Making the arts invisible is retrograde, dangerous and so disappointingly unimaginative,” said Esther Anatolitis, executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA). “At a time where social cohesion is needed to redress the most perilous problems of our times, we need to invest strategically in the creative thinking that will create our future.”

Paul Murphy, chief executive of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance said: “This government’s disdain for the arts has reached a new low. It did not release an arts policy at this year’s federal election, and its attitude has been cut, cut, cut.”

“There is more at stake to losing a dedicated arts portfolio than economic values,” theatre director Jimmy Dalton wrote on the SBS site The Feed. Along with cutting funding to smaller organisations while pumping up vanity projects for large institutions it “contributes to the ongoing narrative in this country that the arts are only for the wealthy and hyper-educated”.

Public servant Mike Mrdak: blindsided

The move, wrote university teacher and author Dan Dixon in a heartfelt piece in the Canberra Times, “affirms a disdain for the arts and contempt for the notion that among the nation state’s fundamental responsibilities is the provision of opportunities for its citizens to flourish creatively and spiritually… The bureaucratic language of efficiency and management that Morrison deploys to cast himself as a pragmatist, a champion of ordinary budget-balancing Australians, is incompatible with the stuff of life that matters most.”

And the website ArtsHub warned that, given the Government’s record of cuts to the ABC, the Australia Council and other national institutions, “the worst may well be yet to come”.

NSW arts for the big end of town

Rolling the arts in with infrastructure and regional development signals that for this government the arts are there only to serve the needs of corporatisation, developer deals and pork-barrelling.

Arts Minister Harwin: corporatiser in chief

In NSW the Berejiklian Government is already expert in this. It is ploughing ahead with the disastrous demolition of the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo, throwing an extra $100 million at the cost blowout of its vanity project at Walsh Bay and turning the sod on the soon-to-blow-out Sydney Modern project at the Art Gallery of NSW. Meanwhile Arts Minister Don Harwin ends peer assessment for arts funding, concentrates decision-making in his own hands and keeps deals with the big end of town under such secrecy that the full business case for his major projects has never been revealed. This is the same minister who was happy, as journalist Lisa Visentin revealed in the Sydney Morning Herald, to spend $1,000 a night in taxpayers’ money for accommodation on his recent “cultural study tour” of London, and is racking up many millions of dollars in “consultation” fees to manage publicity and planning for his pet projects.

The stalwarts of the Powerhouse Museum Alliance continue, at the eleventh hour, to campaign against the Government’s wrecking plans. Their most recent statements reads in part: “We argue that it is better for audiences, and more cost-effective, to maintain the Powerhouse Museum where it is, establish a new institution in Parramatta and support regional museums. The government has ignored the excellent recommendations of the Upper House Inquiry into Museums and Galleries, is proposing to override the recommendations of the Pyrmont Planning Review about over-development, while the ‘business case’ for what may remain of the Ultimo museum site remains a secret.”

Museum specialist Kylie Winkworth in November wrote a closely argued paper, “It’s time to re-think the move of the Powerhouse Museum”. She concludes: “NSW needs a fair and equitable museum plan, including strategies for museum development in regional NSW and western Sydney and landmark museums in Sydney. Cultural equity matters for museums and communities across NSW. One extravagant museum project in Parramatta is not a plan, nor is it fair or equitable.”

Unquiet Australians

Richard Flanagan: calls them out

The Coalition’s bulldozing of opposition to its cultural vandalism, both federally and in NSW, is central to its move towards authoritarian executive rule. Who needs the arts, when they assist people to think outside the box? Who needs thinking citizens at all? When PM Scott Morrison says his constituency is “quiet Australians” what he means is that everyone should shut up and be content for him to pray rather than govern in our interests. When Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s government instructs public servants not to raise the link between climate change and bushfires, they want all meaningful discussion shut down.

No wonder they want a stranglehold on the arts. From writers and artists come the most powerful voices challenging this culture of unthinking. No one has called out the Prime Minister on climate change more effectively than writer Richard Flanagan. In a 24 November article “Scott Morrison and his big lie about climate change: Does he think we’re that stupid?” he writes: “As Australia burns, what we are witnessing nationally is no more or less than the criminalisation of democracy in defence of the coal and gas industries.”

Flanagan says what any Opposition worth its name should be saying: that this is a government that has introduced the most draconian curbs on civil liberties of any supposedly democratic country, that has put education at the service of big business and is rapidly degrading our finest national cultural institutions.

Morrison and Berejiklian do not have a mandate to do this in our names. 2020 beckons as a year to stand up for culture and civil liberties, join forces with all those resisting the erosion of our rights, and oust these usurpers.

Political leadership in the arts

“I want to see a country where the creativity and joy that comes from the arts is available to the many, not reserved for a privileged few. I want to see a country where the arts flourish and breathe life into, well, everyday life.

“I want to see a country where the arts are available to us all and help us express ourselves as unique individuals, brought together in diverse communities. I believe the arts and creativity are integral and inseparable parts of what it is to be human.” – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, September 2018

Books for this summer

Adani and the War over Coal by Quentin Beresford, NewSouth 2018. Charts the extraordinary hold the fossil fuel lobby has over Australian politicians, dissects the big lies it peddles and offers hope for the resistance. Read it to stoke the rage.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Magabala Books 2014/2018. The most important book of Australian history in years, based on evidence of pre-invasion civilisation that’s been hiding in plain sight. No apologies for mentioning it again, especially since it’s recently been attacked by that luminary Andrew Bolt. Read Bruce Pascoe’s reply.

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