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The arts as a human right



After the environment portfolio lost its right to stand alone, moving into Department of Environment and Energy in 2016, perhaps it is no real surprise that the current coalition government is going ahead with the axing of the Department of Communications and the Arts.

Cropped image of man performing with acoustic guitar on street ( Abhijit Patil / EyeEm)It will become part of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications from February 2020. Note there is no mention of arts in the name, nor did the Prime Minister mention the arts in the press conference following the announcement, nor did the same government present an arts policy in the lead up to the 2019 election.

While we can only speculate on what it means in practice for the future of funding beyond the current budget, alarm bells are certainly ringing for many of us who recognise the symbolic power of rendering the arts invisible at a federal department level, and who have a shared understanding that a strong and vibrant arts sector is essential to a thriving democracy.

Australia as an open democracy is already under question for recent curtailing of rights. Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) reported that according to CIVICUS, an international alliance dedicated to strengthening civil society, Australia has been downgraded in its civil space tracking monitor from 'open' to 'narrowed'.

CIVICUS makes reference to the police raids on journalists earlier this year, anti-encryption laws and their impact on privacy as well as changes to security laws in 2018 with the passing of the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill, criticised for infringing upon freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

HRLC are calling for a Charter of Human Rights and there seem to be an increasing number of signs that we need one.

Without a stipulated national human rights framework to turn to, we can look to UNESCO, of which Australia is a member, and the 2001 Declaration on Cultural Diversity. Article 5 recognises that cultural rights are inseparable from human rights, along with Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises the right to free participation in cultural life and enjoyment of the arts. The arts need be promoted as public goods that are accessible to all. Subsuming them into an already large portfolio implies the opposite.


"In the face of so much adversity, from climate crises to a broader climate of instability, we need art in all its forms more than ever."


A 2017 Australian Council for the Arts report indicated that about 17 per cent of artists in 2014-15 spent time in creative practice that did not generate income and that of all the arts, musicians had the lowest creative income and highest non-arts income. With the funding reductions seen to date and the uncertainty about future funding, more time in more artists' lives continues to be consumed by unrelated work in order to make ends meet and ultimately impedes on artistic output.

The arts benefit the economy and there are statistics to prove it, with a contribution of $111.7 billion in 2016-17. Yet there is a much more personal aspect that impacts each and every one of us directly; that the arts are ultimately good for the soul. This may be harder to see for those who don't engage with the arts directly or regularly or knowingly, but there is no doubt that at the very least all of us have been touched by learnings, realisations or just good vibes that another has shared with us thanks to the arts.

In the face of so much adversity, from climate crises to a broader climate of instability, we need art in all its forms more than ever. We need art and the artists who create it to reimagine our futures, to bring us new perspectives, to voice our concerns. The fact that art is so entwined in our everyday lives, be it the busker on the street, wall art, literature or creative community groups, may make it impossible to separate ourselves from the arts at all.

In this vein, a change.org petition is in motion to withhold all art and music from display at Parliament House, an attempt to show those in power what they'd be missing.

We must continue to question the true motives behind the arts' disappearance from view in the national public sector. With so many other issues of concern everywhere we turn, it is easy to feel cultural rights are less deserving right now. But art is worth fighting for, and is inextricably linked with our other rights that must be asserted. In these trying times these assertions are fundamental. At minimum, for the sake of our souls.



Bree Alexander's words have appeared with Enchanting Verses, Westerly Magazine and Australian Multilingual Writing Project. Under pseudonym Lika Posamari, she was shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize 2018 (NTEU category) and published a poetry chapbook The Eye as it Inhales Onions.

Main image credit: Abhijit Patil / EyeEm

Topic tags: Bree Alexander, arts, human rights



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Existing comments

Now lemme get this straight... at the same time you're reciting Article 5 and the enjoyment of the Yartz as a human right, and declaring a change.org petition is in motion to withhold all art and music from display at Parliament House. Juxtaposition? Or are they not human..? I'm afraid you can't use "In this vein," to introduce the petition in any supportive manner unless there's some imperfect subjunctive in play in the preceding paragraph(s). I also take issue with "In the face of so much adversity"; to whom? My grammatical issues aside, I'd encourage readers to review the Government's Ministerial leadership team webpage and determine who is missing in action...surprise!!

Ray | 12 December 2019  

I was similarly alarmed to see that there is no Ministry for Train Spotting - not even a junior Minister role appointed to represent this 'good for the soul' activity. I propose a collective boycott of train services to Canberra. I guess avid Train Spotters will have to figure out how to exercise their passion independently without the tutelage and largesse of the Government of the day.

Andrew | 12 December 2019  

Will we have a Minister for Book Burning next? Such a shame! I thought Arts are good for the soul.

Helen V | 12 December 2019  

The arts are the keepers of the culture. Perhaps this government does not think there is much worth keeping.

Jorie Ryan | 13 December 2019  

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