by Rebecca Hawkings,
Rebecca Hawkings is in the Department of Modern History at Macquarie University
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The Coalition Government’s presumptive Arts Minister, George Brandis, is as passionate about the arts sector as any previous Minister to hold the portfolio. But his ascension back into the role is not good news for Australian popular music practitioners.

The 2013 Federal election campaign, now in the final gasps of post-play analysis, was primarily concerned with leadership instability and three-word slogans. But it was also the site of a ferocious, if short-lived, fight about the future of the arts in Australia. On a Monday night in Blacktown, a month out from election day, Labor’s Arts Minister Tony Burke and the Coalition’s Shadow Attorney-General and Arts Spokesperson George Brandis traded insults about their party’s competing visions for the arts in this country.

Two grown men verbally brawling like overly-articulate schoolboys was, commentators noted, the closest we were likely to get to a genuine debate on the arts in this election cycle.

The Labor Party and the Coalition differed significantly on their arts policies, most notably in the areas of funding and the role of the Federal Government in the running of the Australia Council. But what was most concerning in the lead-up to the election was the Coalition’s – specifically, George Brandis’ – treatment of popular music.

It didn’t exist.

In July 2013, under the leadership of Kevin Rudd and then-Arts Minister Tony Burke, the Labor Government established the National Live Music Office. Given $560,000 in initial funding, the NLMO was tasked with consulting popular music practitioners and developing a comprehensive, sensible national live music policy. In the same month, the Government allocated six million dollars to assist community radio stations make the transition to digital radio over the next three years.

A year earlier – this time, under Julia Gillard and Simon Crean – the Creative Australia cultural policy document had included three million dollars for live music programs, as well as significant funding boosts for contemporary popular music bodies like Sounds Australia. The document also singled out Triple J’s ‘Unearthed’ program and Channel Nine music television show The Voice as indicative of the disparate and unique needs of the popular music industry in Australia.

The Labor Party, it should be noted, had not always recognised the needs of popular (or live) music in their conceptualisation of the arts. Gough Whitlam’s establishment of the Australia Council arts funding body in 1973 included a Music Board, but once which wholly consisted of practitioners and experts from the worlds of opera, classical music, symphonies, and chamber music. In 1994, Paul Keating’s landmark cultural policy document Creative Nation was notable for its lack of discussion about popular music, with references to contemporary rock music perfunctory at best. But by the twenty-first century, the Labor Party had recognised popular music as an integral part of the Australian arts landscape, and had legislated accordingly.

The same cannot be said for the Coalition. In 1993, in an attempt to pre-empt the Labor Government’s release of a new cultural policy, the Coalition released A Vision for the Arts in Australia. For popular music practitioners, the signs were promising – Vision contained an entire sub-section devoted to popular music, and seemingly recognised the economic (if not the cultural) importance of live music in urban centres. Certainly, Vision provided a little more by way of recognition of popular music than Keating’s Creative Nation a year later. But the Coalition’s approach to popular music policy has not just stagnated since 1993; it has regressed significantly. The Liberal Party’s arts funding under the Howard Government was a cornucopia of privilege and elitism, with money redirected from local youth music schemes to increased funding for major established arts institutions. One of the few Coalition engagements with popular music in the last two decades was during the inaugural Save Live Australian Music Rally in 2010. Incensed by the closing of local iconic music venue The Tote, more than 20,000 Melbournians took to the streets to demand changes to liquor licencing laws affecting live music venues throughout the city. On the steps of Parliament House, Liberal Party staffers held placards declaring “Liberals Love Live Music.” Tellingly, the organisers and protestors alike regarded the placard-bearing Liberals with hardened cynicism. The Coalition, one speaker later noted, cared about votes, not The Tote. Little has changed.

In an interview with Radio National one week before election day 2013, Brandis described the goal of the Coalition’s arts policies as one of “want[ing] to celebrate” the achievements of the “big major performing arts companies,” and to reject calls of elitism in doing so. When pushed, Brandis named which of these arts companies he particularly wanted to celebrate (and to fund) as Arts Minister: the Australian Ballet, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Opera Australia. Three stellar companies, who are already heavily funded and subsidised. Three companies who would easily fall under that ungainly definition of ‘high art.’

Brandis’ branding of the Labor Party as “philistines” in the lead-up to the Gillard-led National Cultural Policy Document in March was telling. With that judgement-laden term, Brandis single-handedly brought back to the fore a dangerous divide between ‘high’ (classical) artforms and ‘low’ (popular) arts practices. Worryingly, this divide appears to not just be a personal one for Brandis: it looks to characterise his attitude to funding as Arts Minister-elect.

George Brandis’ venture of “art for art’s sake” is a worthy endeavour. But the problem lies not in the platitude, but in the definition of ‘arts’ itself. For Brandis, and for the Coalition, there is a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, and only the former is worthy of significant funding.

Our domestic music industry will be all the poorer for it.

Citation: Rebecca, Hawkings, Art For (High) Art’s Sake. Australian Policy and History. September 2013.


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