Interview with Kylie Baxter, ABC Radio Hobart


KYLIE BAXTER, HOST: Tony Burke is the new Arts Minister in the federal government and it is a role that Mr. Burke has held previously. In fact, as a Minister in the Gillard Government. He seems to have hit the ground running, starting out in Tasmania, consulting with the national art sector or the nation's art sector, ahead of a big tour right around the country. And he's promising to revitalise the sector after what he called nine years of neglect, contempt and sabotage by the previous government. Today, Mr Burke's been in Hobart. He was speaking at an event that was attended by around about 100 arts community representatives. Mr Burke, thanks for joining me on the Drive programme.


BAXTER: So, what are your hopes and your ambitions at this early stage in the role?

BURKE: Well, we've started the national conversation here in Tasmania. I really wanted to start here and so the consultation on getting cultural policy moving again will go throughout the whole country and continue until 22 August. But the first of those meetings was today and effectively, what I want from people, is to be able to imagine not just what do they want in the next budget or anything like that. It's more long-term than that and it's trying to work through what are all the different ways that government policy affects arts, entertainment, culture, the events industry, and how do we get the policies right in the long term to really foster that. The dream I'd love, we often talk about how much of the sort of culture that we have in Australia, how much comes from overseas in terms of particularly American content and things like that. I'd love to think we could get to the day where we're a net exporter of culture and stories and all the different forms of works of art, whether it be visual, whether it be TV, whether it be music or theatre. There's so much available here, there's such a richness here. If we get government policy right, I see no reason why we can't just turn that on its head and effectively be a net exporter.

BAXTER: And so what's your assessment then of the situation in Tasmania? What are some of the issues that you think are unique to our state?

BURKE: It was interesting. I come to Tasmania every chance I get, I always have, but there were things that surprised me today. So, for example, there was one producer there from children's television who was talking about the change in the Australian quota system that was made by the previous government only a couple of years ago in the middle of the pandemic. And just telling me straight how many people had lost their jobs here in Tasmania just in his business because of that changing government policy. And he was raising how important it is for us to get quotes on to the streaming services so that there's some rules to start to back Australian content again. So I wasn't expecting that conversation. Another one that was particular to hear was there's a movie that I referred to in passing I hadn't planned to refer to it called Alex and Eve. That was set in my part of Sydney. It was set in Lakemba and I referred to it, so probably no one here has seen it. And there were two people there in the crowd who in fact had helped make it. That gave me a sense of, well, too often I think I would have worked from the perspective of the Tasmanian industry being there for the Tasmanian audience, and it was just a really sharp reminder of the creative talents from here in Tasmania, actually telling stories from all around the country.

BAXTER: Now, you were arts Minister under the Gillard Government. Are you going to be looking to revive any of the initiatives from that period of government?

BURKE: Yeah, I've referred a couple of points already, Kylie, to cultural policy, and that's different to just arts policy. So when you get your cultural policy right, it can affect your education policy, your health policy, it could affect foreign affairs in terms of how we do cultural diplomacy. So you're looking at the whole picture. Now, the last time Australia did that was under Julia Gillard with Simon Crean as the Arts Minister. And then shortly after that, I became the Arts Minister and was responsible for rolling it out. Now, one of the things that happened when we lost office, the incoming Liberal Government didn't change the cultural policy to something that was more along their lines, they just abolished the whole thing. So we've gone for nearly a decade without there being any guidance to the public service and departments when they're providing advice as to the fact that our own cultural stories matter in themselves. So last time we did cultural policy and when it was done under the Keating Government as well, it was about a four-year process, getting the whole thing together. Now, after everything everyone has been going through with the pandemic, I know what people would want to do to me if I said I look, we'll be back in four years time.

BAXTER: So what are you proposing then, Tony Burke? Are you hoping to do it in a much faster period of time?

BURKE: Yeah. So what I'm doing, I'm taking the five pillars that were part of the previous Julia Gillard's Government, the five pillars of that policy, and we're saying, okay, that's the basis, and we're going to consult based on that. And that should turn a four-year process into about a six-month process. So I'm hoping this year we're back based on those five pillars which go from first nations, from there being a place for every story, the role of the artist, strong institutions and making sure we're looking at the audience as well. You get those five things as the basis, that's the basis for consultation and I reckon that way we'll be able to move much more quickly.

BAXTER: If anyone has just joined the conversation, my guest is Tony Burke, the Federal Arts Minister. Now, Tony Burke, we've spoken to a couple of people who attended your event today. They both said that they were reassured by your broad messages, but they left feeling a little bit unclear about whether there would be a real tangible increase in funding, support for the sector and where it would actually come from.

BURKE: Yeah, well, this is where we're starting a consultation without Budget decisions being made. And the reason that I'm not, often when you do consultation, a government just opens submissions, puts out a media release, and six months later closes them, might take into account what they got, or might just do their own thing. Because I really want to make sure we get full investment from people. That's why I'm going around doing these meetings. So this is what it's about. This is where my thinking is that it might be right, it might be wrong, I want your ideas. Some of the things that need to happen don't actually require money. You don't need money to be able to put quotas into the streaming services, for example. You don't need money to be able to put rules around making sure arts workers have safe workplaces. To put the money back in, for example, that was cut from the Australia Council, those sorts of decisions will take Budget decisions, and all of that happens after the consultation. So if they were reassured by the messages but not sure whether there was money coming, they're absolutely right. That's exactly where we're at right now. And I hope that I'll be able to build the case for whatever's required. Some of it, no doubt, will be dollars, but some of it, as well as getting your policy designed right, and all of that needs to be carefully targeted from what we've got. The previous government, for example, threw a lot of money around during the pandemic. Some of it was really well targeted, exactly why we knocked back a whole lot of Australian companies and we invested a whole lot of money in a Guns and Roses concert, I'm not sure. So the fact that you have dollars doesn't always mean you get targeting. I hope we end up with a situation where we get both.

BAXTER: Are you hoping that it will boost funding to the sector? Is that your intention and you'll make a case around at the Cabinet table that that money should be forthcoming?

BURKE: I'll always argue that as Arts Minister, always. Exactly how far we get along that path is something where those decisions haven't been made yet. And so I'm not going to get ahead of myself. The more I turn up with the best possible arguments for the sector, and that's part of what I'm trying to harvest now. The more I turn up with the best possible arguments, then that will determine what sort of policy outcomes I can get.

BAXTER: So it's a bold and ambitious plan, obviously, to revitalise the arts sector in Australia, and I think that there'd be many people in that sector very happy about that bold plan. Is there any chance that you're at risk of over promising and under delivering, particularly on funding?

BURKE: I've been up front with people. We've got a trillion dollars worth of debt. It's not an easy time to be able to get additional funds. Some of the things that need to be done do require funding, some of them don't. And so for all of that, I want to be able to argue the case. I will argue it internally. But against all of that, I want to make sure that every dollar we find to commit is really precisely targeted. Because the endpoint of this really matters, the endpoint of this - a lot of the consultation now is with the people who are producing work in different ways, whether it be what ends up in theatre, or galleries or movies or even on your home TV or on your radio. But ultimately, the impact of it is to every Australian. And the outcome that I want to find a way of getting to is where, more and more, when you turn on the radio, the soundtrack to life in Australia is predominantly Australian music. I want, when people are dropping by the newsagents or to a bookstore, and they're picking up something to read, I want it to be odds on a fair proportion of what they're choosing to read is material written by Australian authors. I want when you turn on the TV or when you go through a streaming app, I don't want it to be so hard to search for where's the Australian content? I want it to be good content that's being promoted and being put in front of us. So what you get out of all of this, ultimately, and what really makes a difference, isn't simply what's it like to work as an artist - that really matters for people who are in the sector the whole time. But if we get this right, it affects what it is to be an Australian, because the stories, the music, the shows, that's at its best, how we see ourselves, how we get to know each other in different ways, and ultimately how the rest of the world sees us.

BAXTER: And just finally, Tony Burke, I don't think anybody would question the importance of Mona in Tasmania's cultural life, but there's also a bit of a feeling among some in the Tasmanian arts community that Mona tends to steal the show and the government support as well from smaller local arts initiatives. Where does Mona fit into your vision for Tasmania?

BURKE: I actually made a specific reference to that very early in my remarks to people today, where I just said, look, I'm from Sydney, I live in a part of Sydney called Punchbowl. I love the Sydney Opera House, but the Sydney art scene is much more than the Sydney Opera House. In the same way I love Mona, but the art scene in Tasmania is much more than Mona. And we need to make sure that cultural policy doesn't just speak to what might be viewed as the brightest, shiniest part of cultural policy. You really want to treasure those assets that you have, but everyone, whether it be in the smallest community workshop that's happening right through to someone who might be playing small halls around the state or small galleries, you want to make sure that for all of that, it's understood that cultural policy isn't about a single monument, it's about an ecology. And you've got to make sure you've got it right as to how it all fits together.

BAXTER: Tony Burke, thanks for joining me on the Drive programme.

BURKE: Great to talk, Kylie.

BAXTER: And Tony Burke is of course the new Federal Arts Minister in the Albanese Government.