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Cultural policy in Australia

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3485 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The paper aims to identify, with reference to the recent Australian federal election policies, how has Keating’s Creative Nation had a lasting impact on Cultural policy in Australia? Following this, paper reviews the period, when Australian cultural policy achieved an unprecedented level of attention from Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, who saw the arts and cultural activity as critical components in a renewed focus on cultural identity. Under Keating’s government, Australia saw the development of its first cultural policy statement, Creative Nation, a framework that continues to shape the policy priorities of the present day.

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Paul Keating succeeded Bob Hawke as prime minister in 1991. Under Keating’s stewardship, the public profile of Australian arts and culture was greatly enhanced. This was because Keating was an arts enthusiast. There was a big increase in the Australia Council’s appropriation over the term of Keating’s government (Milne 2004). The profile of Australian arts and culture was also tied to Keating’s vision for Australia’s future economic and social viability, which entailed a concomitant movement toward republicanism, reconciliation with Australia’s indigenous peoples, and strengthening ties with the Asia Pacific region (Kelly 1994). Brett (2002) points out that after winning the 1993 election, Keating turned his attention toward “big picture issues,” addressing Australia’s cultural and national identity (Brett 183). Keating’s big picture was, Brett says, “grandiose” because he “claimed for Labor all the reforming energy in Australia’s political life” (184). Keating saw republicanism not only as desirable but as essential to Australia’s economic and social well-being. It would make Australia “a robust social democracy, a player of substance in the world, integrated with our region and prosperous in a way that we have never been before . . . not only in material comforts but in ideas and innovation; in our capacity to make things and sell them to the world” (Keating 1995, 155).

A sense of cultural identity would be essential to the success of this transition, and artists therefore occupied an important role in Keating’s vision. “The shift we’ve made in this country from just being a quarry and a farm to a great manufacturing society, as we’re becoming, that shift to innovation and manufacturing is a call on the fountainhead, a call upon the ideas and the art” (Keating 1993, 2-3). Like Horne, Keating talked about republicanism, cultural identity, and industrial development as different parts of the same phenomenon:

“the Arts and industry are one, can be one, should be one, because. . . both give of the sense of creativity which this country has . . . we’ll never get pride from a truckload of coal” (Keating 2-3). The renewed focus on cultural identity was part of Keating’s nationalist reading of Australia’s past and his grand vision for its future. It was a vision underwritten by his belief in a distinctive Australian nationalism and the importance of national self-realization. But, at the same time, this was the era when Australia was beginning to feel the impact of globalization; this, along with Keating’s free-market ideology, had the potential to destabilize national boundaries and heart-felt nationalist sentiment. Keating, with a foot in each camp, saw himself with a mission to redefine the nation (Curran 2004).

According to Curran, Keating rejected the idea that globalization necessitated the abolition of the nation-state and instead supported “an enduring, central role for government in a globalized world” (208). In 1994, Keating released Creative Nation (Commonwealth of Australia 1994), the first comprehensive cultural policy statement by a sitting government (previous statements had tended to be part of a political party’s preelection policy) and it has set the benchmark for Australian cultural policy in all its subsequent iterations (Smith 2001). Creative Nation declared that “being open to the world” and not cultural protectionism would preserve Australia’s fragile national cultural identity (Commonwealth of Australia 1994, 6). As long “as we are assured about the value of our own heritage and talents,” Australia could only benefit from the “meeting of imported and home-grown cultures” (Commonwealth of Australia 1994, 6). Thus, the AUD $250 million in additional funding that it promised to cultural institutions over four years was geared toward strengthening the diversity of cultural activities in Australia and promoting cultural uniqueness. In Creative Nation, the government identified five broad categories for defining the role of cultural development: “nurturing creativity and excellence; enabling all Australians to enjoy the widest possible range of cultural experience; preserving Australia’s heritage; promoting the expression of Australia’s cultural identity, including its great diversity; and developing lively and sustainable cultural industries, including those evolving with the emergence of new technologies” (Commonwealth of Australia 1994).

This new policy framework was significant for a number of reasons. It focused a new and heightened level of public recognition of the contribution of cultural production to the national economy. It insisted that “culture” be seen and understood as a larger and more diverse category of activity than that implied by the “arts.” It recognized, for example, the importance of the new multimedia and digital arts (Smith 2001). It also provided a means of raising the political clout of the cultural industries because for the first time communications and the arts were ensconced in the one portfolio that “positioned ‘culture’-or rather, cultural production-in a pivotal position at the centre of governmental strategy” (Bennett and Carter 2001, 23). Creative Nation also encapsulated a new way of understanding the roles and purposes of culture by putting forward “an industry/economic argument for culture’s significance to the nation” (Bennett and Carter 5).

Johanson (2000) and Gibson (2001) argue that the arts-as-industry paradigm was apparent in Australian political thought at least since the Industry Assistance Commission Report, which, as early as 1976, argued that the arts could be viewed as “one industry among many.” Although the report was rejected in its day, it nonetheless “has been crucial to the way the arts has come to form itself as an industry” (Gibson 2001, 79). What was distinctive about Creative Nation was its presentation of a mixed approach to the rationalization of the state’s subsidy of the arts. The policy continued to emphasize the importance of the arts as a catalyst for the production of national sentiment-the objective that had marked the work of the Australia Council from its inception in the late 1960s. Further, the policy continued to promote the values of participation and diversity, which had been the hallmark of policy development in the 1980s, through the work of multicultural arts and the Community Arts Board. But the striking new policy development was the stress it placed on the economic value of cultural production.

Indeed, as Stevenson (2000) writes, “The federal government was intent on framing a cultural industries agenda for the arts that not only privileged the celebration of nation through artistic expression, but was grounded in economic rationalist philosophies that accelerated the move to user-pays” (16). For the arts, the policy signaled a significant shift away from the idea of an arts community to the notion of an arts industry-a discursive shift underlining the view that arts organizations should be exposed to the same market forces as non-arts industries. Furthermore, whereas many of the earlier cultural policy statements had identified the benefits of intersections with other industries, Creative Nation called for “a cross-fertilisation of ideas to develop new products and new markets” (Rentschler 2002, 30). This emphasis on the nexus between arts and economics is made clear in Creative Nation, which states: This cultural policy is also an economic policy. Culture creates wealth. Broadly defined our cultural industries generate 13 billion dollars a year. . . . Culture adds value, it makes an essential contribution to innovation, marketing and design. It is a badge of our industry. The level of creativity substantially determines our ability to adapt to new economic imperatives. It is a valuable export in itself and an essential accompaniment to the export of other commodities. It attracts tourists and students. It is essential to our economic success. (Commonwealth of Australia 1994, 7)

Thus, this new version of the arts-as-industry paradigm privileged the export potential of Australian arts and the important role of touring arts productions and products as a means of promoting Australia as a tourism destination. Indeed, according to Radbourne (1997), Creative Nation signaled the arrival of “a new entrepreneurial era” (278). Radbourne (1997) and Rentschler (2002) see Creative Nation as a new way of looking at the cultural sector in terms of employment opportunities and the “development of creativity, national identity, marketing, tourism, information technology and economic success in Australia” (Rentschler 29).

Behind Keating’s commitment to republicanism, Aboriginal reconciliation, and furthering Australia’s status within the Asia-Pacific region was a conviction that Australia’s social and economic future in the world could be created and steered and that its “success in the world does depend on our strength as a nation, on our faith in ourselves and the way we represent that faith” (Keating 1995, 39). In this perceived need to define, fortify, and represent Australian identity was the importance of cultural policy, as culture was “the skeleton, heart and mind of a community” (1995, 39). In the Sydney Morning Herald, John McDonald (1994) argued that even the largesse of Creative Nation reflected the republicanism behind it, as it aligned Australia with “the cultural big spenders” like France and Germany rather than Britain. “It is that Anglo-Saxon inheritance that Paul Keating is attacking by making the arts such a prominent feature of government policy” (McDonald 14a).

Under Howard, the emphases and priorities articulated through Creative Nation have intensified. Along with an ongoing focus on the convergence of technologies, the central concern of the policy to place cultural practices within a wider commercial context remained the principal rationale for arts funding under the federal Liberal-National government (Rentschler 2002).

Cultural tourism in particular continued to be a priority and was seen as a strategy that benefits arts organizations, as well as providing promotiona opportunities for Australia’s individual states, giving them access to international and local tourism markets (Stevenson 2000). The Australia Council’s role was increasingly oriented toward the development of new audiences and marketing the arts. Recent Australia Council publications testify to the council’s intensified commitment to researching audience development and marketing, and promoting these priorities and strategies to the arts community (Australia Council 2000; Australia Council 2000). Rentschler (2002) confirms that this shift in the council’s priorities was a reflection of a continued movement away from the supply side of funding programs, that is, artistic and creative production and development. Instead, there was a greater focus on audience development, consumption, and demand.

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Brett (2003) defines the new policy regime catalyzed by economic rationalism and instigated by Howard’s government as a shift “from citizens to consumers” (172). This shift entails the disaggregating of “the public of citizens into self-interested individuals who become clients and customers of government”(175). The philosophical commitment to consumerism has impacted current cultural policies. The corporatization of the arts and universities are exemplars of this policy framework. As levels of government funding for culture have remained static or diminished, the level of corporate sponsorship for art galleries and museums has increased (McKnight 2005). Robert Hughes points out that such dependence on corporate sponsorship is problematic because of the implications for public culture being determined by “the corporate promotion budgets of white CEOs, reflecting the concerted interests of one class, one race, one mentality” (Wu 2003). This problem is not unique to Australia. Wu points out that corporate sponsorship of the arts is a global phenomenon by which “art becomes the unwitting accomplice of a new cultural hegemony” (270).

Another example of this shift toward private enterprise in contemporary cultural policy (since Creative Nation) can be seen in the attitude of the government toward public broadcasting. Throsby (2006) argues that the Howard government demonstrated an ambivalence toward ABC, Australia’s largest government-funded broadcaster, which stems from an “ideological distaste for public-sector involvement in any area they see as being better left to private enterprise” (10).

The development of cultural policy in Australia from 1972-96 can be understood as exemplifying the distinctive ideologies of the two major political parties. This frequently took forms that may have defied expectations and appeared contradictory, such as the ALP’s support for elite art forms and the Liberal government’s support for community arts, but we have identified the driving role that such ideologies played. How, then, does the absence of a current cultural policy statement reflect current ideological priorities? The Australian political scene of the past decade, much as in the international sphere, has seen a blurring of the ideological boundaries between the Left and the Right (McKnight 2005). The economic rationalist priorities and objectives established by Keating’s Labor government in the first half of the 1990s were subsequently enshrined in the policies of Howard’s Liberal government from 1996-2007. In this sense, the ideologies of the two parties have merged, and this manifests itself in the changed patterns of voter support and traditional class-based party affiliations.

We argue that the absence of dialectical ideological engagement has consequences for cultural policy where there is a palpable lack of questioning about the role of arts and culture. In this vacuum, it is difficult to see how cultural policy can continue to develop-it has been the beneficiary of more than twenty years of interrogation as political parties have debated and redefined its political objectives. However, that interrogation appears to have ceased. At the time of publication, Australia’s current Labor government was halfway through its first term and had had little opportunity to define a cultural policy. However, there are some suggestions that cultural policy is being considered more broadly in relation to the government’s policy. Prior to its election, the Labor Party signaled that it would aim to protect the independence of the Australia Council; it foreshadowed funding increases and new initiatives to enhance various parts of the cultural sector, including indigenous arts, creative communities, and arts and crafts. Although these initatives are important, they do not represent a significant ideological engagement with broader issues around the sociopolitical role of culture, and arguably do little to advance the task of bringing fresh thinking to the project of cultural policy.


Historically, the political parties’ approach to cultural policy has been shaped by their distinctive party ideologies, albeit in unexpected ways, but this influence is less clear in the policies of the past decade and as a result there is little room for political opposition in cultural policy discussion. Several notable commentators, such as Hall (2005), Archer (2005), Battersby (2005), Marr (2005), and Throsby (2006), have argued for a critical review of federal cultural policy. However, in the absence of a dialectical debate between the two political parties and their cultural policies-debates that had been in evidence in earlier decades-these oppositional voices will find it hard to be heard. In this sense, we concur with Wimmer’s analysis of the stalemate in cultural policy development in Austria where he argues: “the major objective of the . . . approach of conservative cultural policy seems to be to end public debate on cultural policy” and thus has established a “silent cultural hegemony” (Wimmer 2004). But for a few countervailing voices (such as Hall’s), in Australia there is silence, too. Our political reading of the historical development of cultural policy in Australia underlines its fundamental relationship with changing party political ideology. In the absence of this dialectical engagement, the cultural policy project has also suffered.


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