Interview with Michael Cathcart, ABC Radio National


MICHAEL CATHCART, HOST: Well, we’re celebrating the inaugural Arts Week on ABC here this week, and the theme is “Art is Everywhere”, and there are a lot of programs that cover the diversity of arts right across Australia. So, it’s only fitting that we invite the new Federal Arts Minister on to the show. He’s Tony Burke and he’s holding town hall meetings around the country to get feedback on what artists and art lovers want from the new government. He’s also taking submissions online until 22 August. Now, the new government already has an arts policy, and it marks a return to objectives that were defined by the Keating Government and then restated by the Gillard Government when the Arts Minister was Simon Crean followed by Tony Burke himself. So, what are those priorities?

Minister, welcome to The Stage Show.

THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: I’m pretty happy to be back on, Michael. Pretty happy to be here.

CATHCART: Let’s talk about these five pillars that you have been promoting, the five pillars of the Labor arts policy. We’ll work through them. So, pillar number one is a focus on First Nations art. So, Minister, there’s been a huge increase in the amount and quality of First Nations theatre in particular and there’s new performing artists coming out of academies every year, so where do you see this going next?

BURKE: Well, you’ll notice from the old policy, First Nations was pillar 2 or 3. We’ve quite deliberately moved it to the first pillar. Every time I raised it, people agreed that in Australia it should be First Nations first. That should be the principle that we start with. When you’re dealing with the oldest continuous culture on the planet, then you’re dealing with a heritage of art forms that goes all the way back to the first sunrise. But dealing with that in a way that also acknowledges all the cutting-edge and new developments that are happening there as well, whether it be in music – theatre is a classic example, where even three years ago I was bringing forward an idea at the 2019 election of establishing a First Nations national theatre company, that we’d co‑invest with the existing companies like Ilbijerri, Yirra Yaakin, [indistinct] and the other ones that are around. And this time people have said, “Well, if you’re going to have some national First Nations fund” – people are saying they want it to be able to cross over maybe theatre, maybe dance, maybe combinations, new art forms.” And so, it just shows how if I’d simply photocopied what I took to the 2019 election, we would have got it wrong.

CATHCART: I suppose I can take you through these five pillars and you can say these heart‑warming things, but, in the end, it is about how you’re going to pay for these things. You’ve got a trillion-dollar debt as a government that you’ve, I guess, inherited. Where will the arts come when the Ministers gather to thrash out the priorities of the new government? Because how much can you give to promoting First Nations arts is going to come down to the cheque isn’t it, in the end?

BURKE: Well, you’re right, Michael, in saying that money is harder now than it was a few years ago. It just is. And with inflation, the interests that’s being paid on the more than a trillion dollars of debt that’s there, it all means that it’s harder to get money than it was. It’s also true money is part of the story, but not the whole story. So, for example, with First Nations art, whatever action we take on dealing with fake art is incredibly important, and that’s not a funding issue. That’s a “what’s the will of government?” issue. Similarly, for example, what we do with new technologies specifically with streaming content and whether we introduce – well, we will introduce some sort of quotas on streaming, but how we do that at what level we do it, what sort of sub-quotas we have for children’s and the like, they’re not issues that require government funding. They’re issues that take government resolve and government commitment.

There’s a lot more changes that are more than a decision about money. And part of my job and the expectation of the sector is going to be that I bang on the doors around this building to try to get as much funding as I can. But that’s not the whole story, and I think we’d be missing the point if we implied it was.

CATHCART: So, pillar 2 is about drawing on the diversity of our stories and the contribution that all Australians can make as the creators of culture. That’s the sort of language you’re using for this pillar 2. Would that mean you’ll require heavily subsidised companies like the ballet, like the opera, to tell Australian stories, to develop distinctively Australian ballets and operas? Is that going to become part of their core mission?

BURKE: I’m really interested in that being part of what they do. So, for example, a few years ago, the Queensland Symphony program, one of the works they had just had a water theme and so they did Handel’s Water Music and the different water music that will get people in the door, but they also, the Antarctic Suites while you were there. So, I appreciate that it’s often what a view – what are viewed as the all-time greats, the headline productions that will get people in the door, and I can be like that; I’ll confess if there’s a Puccini on, I’m pretty keen to go and see it. I think if we can find a way where the companies are still doing the blockbuster ticket sale works, but we can weave into there an increasing Australian presence as well, I want that.

CATHCART: Yeah. I mean, I enjoyed seeing The Picture of Dorian Gray performed by the STC. It was impressive.

BURKE: Wasn’t it just phenomenal?

CATHCART: But I did also think that there’d been several theatre versions of this story in London over the past decade, and I was asking myself, “where is the virtuoso one-person show which tells an epic Australian story that we can then tour the world with?”

BURKE: The thing is – like, I’ve been watching Kip Williams’ direction for a lot of years now and if you watch the way his direction has developed, I think, the first of his I would have seen is Romeo and Juliet, I am completely fine with this being part of what the companies do. To hone your craft on some of the greatest stories ever told in the history of the cannon is a good discipline and it does lead to greater work, but I want it to lead to when we’re telling our Australian stories, that we are telling them on the biggest canvas with the best colour scheme imaginable.

CATHCART: Pillar number three is the centrality of the artist. I guess we can take that as given, and move nimbly on to – 

BURKE: No, pause for a sec. Pause for a sec if we can.


BURKE: Well, on this one I reckon 10 years ago we got it wrong because we only talked about the artist as creator. And this time we need to still talk about centrality of the artist as creator but we also need to talk about the artist as worker.

CATHCART: Well, that does raise an issue that has played on my mind ever since Labor started producing these policies because the term “creative industries” or “artistic industries” was always at the forefront and I was always a bit uncomfortable at the notion of the arts as an industry because it seemed to me to commodify everything and put a dollar value on it and I wanted you to talk about the ways in which the arts were not an industry, but COVID has kind of made me wake up to the fact that we do need to think of the arts as a productive sector as well as in that other intangible way.

BURKE: Yeah no, I was completely with you, but during the pandemic, I changed my view, because I realised there were too many people who thought we were talking about people doing a hobby, that workers weren’t real workers, that businesses weren’t realty businesses. So, I’ve conceded post-COVID that we need to do both.

CATHCART: Let’s talk about pillar number four, which is strong institutions. The Australia Council, I suppose is at the top of our minds. What’s its role in your thinking, Minister?

BURKE: Bigger. Bigger. So, I want to work out from the perspective of the Australia Council, what role it can have for the entire ecology of the sector, and that may well involve it having a very serious policy role for helping guide advice to Government on what would otherwise be regarded as purely commercial operations that it usually hasn’t engaged with. I also want them to deal much more closely with the philanthropic sector. So, that’s why I am wanting to bring creative partnerships back over, across to the Australia Council, and merge the bodies.

CATHCART: Well, if you’re going to give it a bigger role, you will have to give it more money, because it suffered severe cuts over the last few years.

BURKE: And in advance of budget decisions being made, my hands are tied as to what I can say only to say I’ve railed against the Brandis cuts and have continued to rail against the Brandis cuts, and I am encouraging people to let me know what the impact of the Brandis cuts was during these submissions, and then we’ll respond.

CATHCART: Minister, this brings us to a philosophical point. The key argument against having an arts policy is that it sets an ideological agenda for the arts. It’s a government saying, “we want you to do these things and we’ll fund those and we’re not so interested in those things so you’re on your own if that’s where you’re going.” It punishes artists effectively who don’t sing to the government’s tune. And if you have a very clearly defined arts policy, then the Australia Council is kind of taking direction from government rather than being independent in the way that the Australia Council is often spoken as being. How do you think your way through that philosophical issue?

BURKE: When I talk cultural policy, I start with the principle that it speaks not just as an arts policy; it speaks to every department. So, if you get your cultural policy right, it affects how you run your health system. It affects how you run your education system, your trade policy and how you conduct your soft diplomacy in foreign affairs. So far from being a cultural policy telling the artists what to do, a good cultural policy effectively has the arts speaking to the whole of government, saying, “this is how you can do things better.”

CATHCART: Pillar number five is reaching the audience. I’m thinking about community arts here. We often talk about arts as though many of us participate in the arts as members of the audience, as ticket-buyers, but I’ve come to understand that there’s an enormous appetite in many communities and especially in regional Australia, for community theatre and community choirs and community dance. Do you have ambitions for that community involvement to be part of your remit?

BURKE: Yeah, look, it was raised really strongly with me in northern Tasmania during the election campaign, and I’ll confess often I do think in terms of performer versus audience and I always have to crosscheck and think, “no, no, no, that’s not how it is.” One of the most significant arts activities that happen in my part of Sydney is the Bankstown Poetry Slam. Whenever I go, I go as an audience member, but a big part of the value is the participation. You have some of the best performance poets in Australia, and the biggest poetry gathering in Australia is happening there in Bankstown. The audience/performer line is blurry, particularly when you get to the community level. I’m very conscious of making sure that that participation in the community arts story is something that is respected and valued no matter where you live.

CATHCART: So, in three years’ time, Minister, what will be the achievement by which you want to be judged as we go into that next election? What do you think you will have achieved?

BURKE: I’d love to think we were there in three years’ time. If we get this policy right, the benefits will continue coming in 10, 20 years’ time. The ambition is living in Australia, when you pick up a piece of literature, whether it be a poem or a novel or even nonfiction, you are more likely to learn something about Australia by doing so. I want the songs that as people get older and you hear a bit of music and it takes you back to your youth, I want as much as possible Australian music to be that soundtrack to someone’s life. I want when somebody says to their kids, “oh, there’s a movie you’ve got to watch”, I want it to be really likely that on the list of the handful of things that you really want to impose and inflict and watch the next generation resist that there’s some Australian stories there. And it will never be all of the stories but it can be so much more, and if I can shift the dial in that direction, then there will be an impact from this cultural policy long after I’ve left this job.

CATHCART: Minister, thank you for joining us.

BURKE: Great to talk to you, Michael.

CATHCART: The new Federal Minister for the Arts, Tony Burke. And if you would like to make a submission to the government to tell them what you reckon they should be doing for the arts, just search for the term “a new cultural policy”. That will take you to the place where you can make a submission, make a suggestion. All you need to know is there at that site. That link is on our website.