Purrumpa address


THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Thanks so much, John, for that welcome. And a real privilege to be with you all on Kaurna country and grateful to Elders, past and present, and acknowledging all of you as custodians of stories, song, art, that dates back on this land to the first sunrise.

My department have helped me prepare a really elegant, beautiful speech that I will provide to the organisers but I'm not going to deliver!


TONY BURKE: And it really is beautiful. It's a lovely speech. The limitation of it is only that it brings you up to date with where I've been at today, and I want to use the opportunity to largely think out loud and give you a sense of what I'm thinking we might do next. So, sorry to whoever put so much work into this because it really is lovely.

If I start with this, because, as you know, we're working on cultural policy at the moment and we're dealing with the five pillars of cultural policy, which were in Creative Australia. We changed the order because First Nations had to be first. So, there's First Nations first, a place for every story, the role of the artist both as creator and as worker, the role of institutions and its architecture of the sector and, finally, making sure that we're properly engaging with the audience. But I want to look at all of that in a slightly different lens.

Forget all of the pillars for a second. I want cultural policy in Australia to be a response to an invitation. I want, when the Government releases its cultural policy, for it to be a response to these words. “We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.” I want that generous invitation from the Uluru Statement from the Heart to be felt when we release cultural policy; that cultural policy is appropriately a response to the generosity of that invitation.

Now, there's a whole lot with cultural policy that I sometimes explain as though it's new and by definition, it's not. And if I give a couple of examples. One I wasn't going to refer to but both go back to when I was Environment Minister – and I just spotted Michael, Michael Mansell, in the crowd. There was a moment – the first time Michael and I met – where there was a road going through an area where the excavation was happening for the road, extraordinary items of cultural heritage were found. And the request was for me to use powers for an emergency heritage listing to enable a negotiation to happen with the Tasmanian Government. And all of that went through.

We ended up with some challenges; by virtue of the emergency listing there was a technical problem with turning it into a permanent listing so I'm not going to pretend everything turned out perfectly, but I just spotted Michael and it reminded me of the way Michael and others described it to me. Because it wasn't in the way that a whole lot of Australians will think of items of history in terms of what they mean for memory. It was in terms of artefacts and the connection they provided right now and into the future and that continuity back to the first sunrise. And none of this is new to you. But at that moment it was new to me. And it was then reaffirmed in what I regard as one of the highlights of my entire time in politics.

This work had been started by Peter Garrett when he was Arts Minister before me, but in the Kakadu National Park World Heritage listing there was a hole in the middle. There was a gap known as Koongarra and Koongarra had not been included in the World Heritage listing and the reason was that at the time, the Djok clan had not wanted it included, so it hadn't been included. Jeffrey Lee was the – and still is the only surviving member of the Djok people, and Jeffrey took a view that when he was in that position that he did want the land preserved forever. And notwithstanding that there's a French uranium company that was offering him millions and millions and millions of dollars, which, you know, had he accepted the money and spent the whole money on a Western-style museum he would have received the highest office of the Order of Australia, I suspect, but instead said no. He wanted it preserved as it was forever. When I ended up putting the legislation through to include Koongarra I had Jeffrey Lee and Bob Hawke sitting side by side on the floor of the chamber – with Bob Hawke in the media conference afterwards describing Jeffrey as one of the greatest Australians he’d met.

But when I went out on country with Jeffrey I went as Environment Minister thinking I was going to be shown the different sites. But the first thing Jeffrey took me to was what I would describe as a painting of old possum. That was the starting point for me to understand the landscape I was about to see, to understand the ceremony that would be performed to allow me to be in various parts of country, and for me to understand the stories of ancestors that he was going to explain. What he was saying to me, and what I want for all of Australia, if I put it in simplistic western language – which will always mean a whole lot of it is lost and I get that but hear me out – was he was saying art and culture is a whole‑of‑Government operation. You can't separate this into tiny sections. It is all connected.

So, what we're trying to do with cultural policy through those five pillars is have something that is not just an arts policy, have something that is about the place and role of culture in everything we do. If we get that right, it affects how we deliver our health policy, how we deliver our foreign affairs and trade, absolutely how we deliver decisions on environmental protection and how we deliver our First Nations policies. It affects how we make decisions on veterans' affairs, on exports, it affects everything it reaches – everything. I often describe this as though it's something new and, of course, there's not much new in this concept at all. It's been around since the first sunrise.

So, when we talk about First Nations first as a pillar of cultural policy. If we get cultural policy right, First Nations first is not simply a pillar or a section. It is the foundation from which everything else is possible. And that's what cultural policy in Australia really should be. As well as a whole‑of‑Government policy it's something where you have interaction with each level of Government throughout Australia. I'm really pleased that the Northern Territory Cultural Minister Chansey Paech is here. David Templeman from WA is here. I was with my counterpart Andrea Michaels from South Australia last night and Andrea has agreed to bring together Arts and Culture Ministers from around Australia today and that will happen. But in all of that, the sense that Australian Government cultural policy needs to learn from First Nations is the way that everything is connected and we need to make sure that that principle is not something that is confined to the First Nations pillar. It's something where we have to be willing to learn a whole lot that has been on this continent long before my ancestors came fleeing a potato famine in Ireland.

I give all that as context as well to also acknowledge that celebrating today, or at the moment through the Australia Council – and I acknowledge Adrian Collette and everyone from the Australia Council who's here at the moment, particularly Francesca Cubillo, the executive director of First Nations arts and culture – that what we acknowledge in 50 years is important in terms of cultural policy in Australia because that's all we've had for cultural policy for a Government since Federation. But it is also just a blink of an eye in the context of cultural policy on our continent. And so this is something where I also want to acknowledge as we go through my parliamentary colleague Sarah Hanson‑Young, and to make clear that the values of cultural policy and the determination for us to get cultural policy back into Australia is something that I've been passionate about. But Sarah from a different party, but we have worked really cooperatively on this for a long time, and I think we're both really hungry for the opportunity – that instead of playing defence we can start to advance again.

So, let me just work through a couple of concepts that I'm trying to build into cultural policy in the consultation that we're having at the moment. The first is to go against my instincts as a Federal Minister. The instincts of every Federal Minister is: “What can I do? How can I use the power of Government that I have got to force the different things that I would love to happen?” I think the announcement from the Premier this morning is another example of regardless of the conclusion, the process matters. The process of consultation matters and you can't simply judge the outcome by the conclusion. The instinct of people in my job is to always start with the conclusion. It's what we do, particularly when we've been out of Government for a long time. We're hungry to start seeing the outcomes. But I'm trying to work through how do we design the national system in a way that accepts the starting point of the stories, the cultural practice – including the new forms of cultural practice – the new songlines, the new dance, the new stories, where they appropriately start at a local level?

So three years ago I had a – which was a better design than we had three years ago – but three years ago I took to an election, that we didn't win, a policy for a national Indigenous theatre company. And people were sort of a bit okay with the structure but very much – and Rachael Maza has said to me many times you need to make sure that you're not starting with the national. You need to start with the local and have the national be able to facilitate. And as I've heard some of the different things that we're being asked to facilitate – for example, I want to make it possible that when somebody starts with a work, as an artist, that there is a level of cultural control as the reach of the work expands.

Now, some of this is more simple issues, which are clearly problematic, like the need to take serious legal action against fake art. It's been around for so long as a problem and legislating – there are points at the edges where the lines aren't as clear, but the fact that there are blurry lines at some points shouldn't stop us from starting the process of making what is clearly unacceptable illegal, and I want us to be able to get moving on that. Similarly, there are areas like continued support for the preservation and indeed expansion of language is something that we can get moving on, and I want to get moving on straightaway.

I'm very conscious – I live in a part of Sydney which is one of the most multilingual parts of Australia and I'm terribly conscious that with my Irish heritage we arrived at a time when Gaelic was unlawful. So I can say “hello” to my friends in a whole lot of their communities’ languages, but not the one that's my heritage. That's not an exact parallel and I'm not pretending that it is to the significance of languages that have a home on country here and on the islands around, but I simply give it as an example of the significance of language. So there are things there that we can do and we need to do. But the big challenge is: How do we make sure that the artist retains control as a work expands its reach? And what does that mean?

It means, first of all, should concessions be forced on the artist, that you – say it's a performing arts work, that, yes, the words of the art will be yours, but the director might not be First Nations or the set designer might not be First Nations or we might have no available lighting designers who are First Nations. As that happens, at what point does the work of art that started as a First Nations work start to become less than what the original creator wanted it to be? So what I'm trying to work through is how without establishing – not only limited to theatre – without establishing a First Nations company that is sort of creating its own, how do we establish a mechanism that allows there to be financial power for the artist, the First Nations artist, when dealing with non–First Nations companies so that that power of the creator isn't lost by the time it reaches the audience?

One of the things we're looking at – and we haven't settled on this, but it's one of the things we're looking at and I'd be grateful for the conversation that comes from this – is whether or not as an autonomous agency housed within the Australia Council, but one where it has a First Nations board that is in control of those funds, whether or not we have a body that itself with full autonomy has the capacity to deal with funding to work out what work gets leveraged so that you change the negotiating power. So if, for example, keep the theatre example I had earlier, if a playwright is going to a major theatre company, that's what they choose to want to do; they go with the financial power to be able to say, “Yes, we're happy to do this as a co‑production, we want this to be part of your subscription season, but I've already got the funding and I've chosen the director and I've chosen a whole lot of the production staff and this is what we want it to be.” So the nature of the transaction is one where the First Nations creator retains the autonomy and the authority.

Similarly, a body like this would have the capacity to work directly with the existing training colleges. Now, for example, for dance we've just provided additional money for NAISDA, which is an incredibly important organisation. We've also as Chancy is very much aware of, established additional money I think it's $80 million for the National Aboriginal Art Gallery in Alice Springs and, David, you will be upset if I don't mention it so $50 million for the Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Perth. And there's lots of these centres being established, but we don't at the moment have a pipeline of people being trained to be the curators. So, a body within Australia Council that has the capacity to say to the training colleges, "We need this training done", stops us from hitting a challenge that I'm very worried about in five to 10 years' time where we start to establish some fantastic institutions, and a whole lot of them in the first instance end up being run by people who are not First Nations simply because we haven't done the planning in the professional training. But to do that, I really think it starts with an autonomous body.

Now, people would ask why would you do that within the Australia Council? Partly I'm wanting to bring everybody to the same place. I think there's advantages in doing that. Also, I think sometimes if you establish something off to the side, you think you're creating more autonomy but because you're not getting the same people in the same location you, in fact, create something weaker than you otherwise would. That's what I'm working through, but I'm raising it today because today for me is not a day of announcements. I'm trying to enter into the spirit of the dialogue that Purrumpa is meant to be about. So if you can think about that, if you can give your views to myself, to my staff, to the department, to the Australia Council, I'd be terribly, terribly grateful. We want to get this right.

At the same time, cultural policy – there could not be a worse time than at the moment for me to be trying to get money. It's like – it’s a really bad time. And some people have said to me, “Why don't you just delay until the budget circumstances are better?" What I want to do is get the structures right now and change the trajectory so that we've got the policies and principles as part of that whole-of-government decision and then every year we just try to get more money into it. But I want to try to get those structures right now for the reason that I said right at the start, which is that challenge that if you don't get the consultation right, the outcome can be diminished even if it might be something close to where you would have headed anyway.

If we get this right, here's what it means. It means the visual artist who was going to produce magnificent work anyway will have greater agency and autonomy over the reach of that work. Will have greater agency and autonomy and professional opportunity to be able to build a lifelong career out of that work. There will be and there always are people who will provide an economic argument saying, "Oh, this is problematic, that's problematic.” I remember when Peter Garrett took the resale royalty principle through the Cabinet and at the time it was viewed – and all the advice we were getting was economically terrible thing to do, wrong thing to do. It's made a huge difference. It's made a huge difference. In the first 12 months it made almost no difference to anyone. If you get these structures right, over time, the impact is really important.

So, I'm impatient to start on cultural policy. That means some of the things that we would like to be within it won't be as soon as we'd hoped. But the First Nations structural elements I really, really want to get right. The impact of getting it right is one of connection. Ultimately, cultural policy is meant to say what's different here in Australia to other countries? What have we got that others haven’t got? How is a work that comes from here a work that could not have come from anywhere else? And, of course, the starting point is pretty damn obvious. Oldest living culture on the planet. Like, everything, everything – that is the advantage. The extraordinary gift here in Australia starts with First Nations first. That's where it starts.

And so the ambition I have is pretty bold because what I want cultural policy to be part of is this, and excuse me for reading the words. I'm not like – I know Tom often recites them by heart, Tom Mayor, but I'll have to read. I want cultural policy to help deliver this: “When we have the power over our destiny, our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.” “Purrumpa”, as you know, means flourish. If cultural policy delivers what we hope, if we get this right, then it is a significant part of the Government of Australia answering the invitation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and responding to that extended hand – that incredibly generous hand. I often remind people if I'm the first speaker after a welcome to country – I think most Australians don't think as to what an incredibly generous thing a welcome to country is. There's lots of reasons to say something else. Welcome is a real act of generosity. The Government and myself, we want to be part of returning the gesture of generosity and making sure that we shift the place of culture and the importance in which it is seen throughout all of Australia and throughout every part of Australia's Government. And in doing so, we start every step knowing that it's First Nations first; there is no other path.