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Where have all the arts ministers gone?

  • 02 March 2018


I've come to wonder why we call the portfolio communications and arts when there is so little emphasis on the latter. Current Minister Mitch Fifield is better known for his culture war with Triple J over changing the date of their hottest 100 countdown than for reforming Australia's media landscape.

Growing up under the Howard government, a lack of meaningful arts policy was the norm, while my adulthood has been marked by friends and family redefining the starving artist. I turned the lense on them for my university video journalism stories: capturing the anger over George Brandis' axing of the Australia Council for a new slush fund emphasising 'excellence', and the disappointment at the closure of Sydney community film centre, Metroscreen.

Is it any wonder that when I came to work in the press gallery I was a little cynical about arts policy?

I started during budget week — a baptism of fire. In those frantic lockup hours scouring budget papers it was clear yet again when it came to winners and losers the arts would not bet seeing any victories.

But it wasn't always this way. Although I've only been in Canberra watching the sausage get made for about five minutes, Capital Hill's collective memory tells a different story. The prime ministers and arts ministers of yesteryear produced arts policy informed by their personal and political interest.

Fifty years ago Harold Holt's vision for advancing modern Australia included commonwealth support for 'distinctive cultural activities', exemplified through the establishment of a National Gallery and formation of the Australia Council for public funding of the arts.

In 1968 prime minister John Gorton's proud nationalism extended to a close personal interest in the arts leading to the development of the Australian Film Development Corporation, National Film and Television Training School, and the Australian Council for the Arts.


"Why, at a time when we are on the front foot of defending Australian 'culture', are we on the back foot when it comes to nurturing and shaping it?"


Our 21st prime minister Gough Whitlam said 'the enjoyment of the arts is an end in itself' — he lavished money on the Australia Council, increased support for the film industry, established the National Library Act and revived support for crafts and Aboriginal arts.

Whitlam's successor Malcolm Fraser was a strong arts supporter apropos his mother and artist sister. He made funding accessible by decentralising the Australia Council and established the Community Arts Board, Australia's Artbank,