Speech - Launch of Creative Australia

TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: Thank you so much to Allen Madden, Uncle Allen, for welcoming us to country. I think Welcome to Country, when you look at some of the recent public discussion, it’s so easy to forget what a generous thing it is. You think of all the things that could be said, and time after time the words we hear are “welcome”. It’s an extraordinary act of generosity, and we find similar generosity in the Uluru Statement from the Heart – a generous extension to walk together to the rest of the nation.

I’m very pleased to be here before you as a member of a government that is part of wanting to walk that walk with the rest of Australia with a generous response from the referendum later this year.

To my colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, to everybody who is here, the creators and those who provide the platform for the creators of Australia, to the new chair of Creative Australia, Robert Morgan, and the CEO, Adrian Collette. But also to all the people who play the different roles within there, Larissa Behrendt and, of course, Franchesca Cubillo. Also the Australia Council of Royalty that’s here in Jenny Bott, Michael Lynch and Rupert Myer. What we start today is only possible because of the foundations that were already built.

It means a lot to me that we’re launching Creative Australia here at the Sydney Theatre Company. As a kid I used to save up my paper run money, and on one occasion I had to save up for months and months to be able to buy the ticket to Nicholas Nickleby – something in the order of 10 hours of live theatre, and as you walked along the wharf to get to this theatre you would have gone past a photograph of that production.

The Sydney Theatre Company was a big part for me of opening up a world where you could be taken through that roller coaster of emotions where live performance would live as we do – in the moment. There was no pause. There was no rewind. There was no chance to go back and see the identical show. It lived in the moment, and that mattered.

The last time I went out with my mum was to see the production across the road – the Sydney Theatre Company production of Gross und Klein – and more than ten years ago now we went through all the emotions of Cate Blanchett’s extraordinary performance there together.

And so, I’m much more comfortable at this venue in the seats that you’re in than where I am right now, because my love of what this portfolio brings is not as a producer; it’s as a receiver. I actually went to my careers adviser saying I wanted to be a theatre director. The careers adviser lied to me – he said that wasn’t a course. I’ve sort of gotten over it, but have found another way to contribute.

The contribution that we now launch today is not simply the next chapter; it’s a different way of doing things. It builds on all those foundations that I referred to, but now instead of having the old system of Australia Council there for the funded sector, Creative Partnerships there for the philanthropic sector and the commercial world out on its own – we bring all three together in one body, in one organisation. Because let’s face it – it’s the same workers, it’s the same audience, all there whether it’s government funded, whether it’s philanthropic or whether it’s commercial, and a whole lot of productions are a mixture of all three.

This creates a body that can be dedicated simply to Australian stories, simply to Australian creativity in all its forms. The new board – and I’m so pleased with what we’ve managed to do. I want to pay tribute to those people who were on the previous Australia Council Board who have not stayed on. We managed to keep roughly half, but in producing a new board we had to make some difficult decisions, and none is a reflection in any way on those who haven’t stayed on with the new board, and I’m deeply grateful for their service to the arts in Australia.

But for those in the new organisation that we now have, we have Robert chairing, we have Alex Dimos staying on, we have Christine Simpson Stokes staying, people who have made an extraordinary contribution already. Then with the new people coming on, people such as Wesley Enoch, Lindy Lee, Courtney Stewart, we’re reaching all sections of the arts, we’re reaching all sections of creativity, and we know we have merit because we have a board that looks like modern Australia. We know that gives us merit.

Similarly with Music Australia. Adrian’s gone through all the names, but to have performers like Fred Leone, who’s already performed on stage today, going on the board of Music Australia with other performers – like, I’ve been a personal fan for a long time of Sophie Payten who performs as Gordi, and, of course, Danielle Caruana. But also to be joined by someone who’s been so much a part of the commercial world of music in Michael Chugg gives us a chance with Music Australia to do something that has always been a limitation of the old Australia Council – and that was it never quite found a way of leveraging into the commercial contemporary music world.

And our concept was – in fairness, it’s commercial, it will look after itself. But as we’ve seen changes as people have gone from purchasers to streaming, as we’ve seen the challenge of overseas music where you don’t have the automatic audience that you have in Australia, as we’ve seen an increasing reliance on live performance and festivals, we need an organisation that guarantees those contemporary musicians are always in the frontline of being the storytellers of Australia. Music Australia will be charged with that job.

With the board that’s there I know they’re going to do it well. But the music industry was also the industry where some brave performers, including Deena Lynch, who helped us with the work on Revive, made clear that the workplaces that were telling tough stories were also often being unacceptably tough workplaces and unsafe workplaces. This is why it was important for us – and for me personally to – depart from what had always been the way I’d advocated for the portfolio. I used to get handed notes when I was first Arts Minister ten years ago, and the notes if I was opening a visual art exhibition would take me through – and I remember one of these at the National Gallery – it took me through the complexities of the insurance between us and the overseas gallery, the Tate, to get the works over here. The value of the tourism that would come to Canberra as a result, the number of people we expected to visit, the total value of the collection. And I remember saying, “But, am I allowed to talk about the art? Like, is that allowed to be part of it?” It got to a point where I figured if the Arts Minister needs to rely on the economics, then we may as well give up.

What I then saw during the pandemic was a realisation that for some people, because the work of artists bring so much joy, because the work of artists touches our heart so deeply, that somehow we would not consider this a real industry or consider people in real jobs. So I understand now we need to make the economic case too, and in making the economic case we need to ensure that people are properly remunerated, and that people have safe workplaces – safe from discrimination, safe from bullying. Safe workplaces.

Of all the people who – and there’ll be seven or eight people here who all will say they suggested this to me, and it’s all true because I kept it really tight so you can still own it – but the one name that kept coming up for Creative Workplaces was, “Do you think you can get Kate Jenkins to chair?” The credibility and authority that comes to Creative Workplaces by it being chaired by the individual who was responsible for the Respect at Work report I think can give everybody hope that we are serious now about delivering safe, proper workplaces for arts workers in Australia.

And the board that Kate will chair – half workers’ representatives, half employers’ representatives – and workers like Bjorn Stewart, who will be known to many of you who I’ve met through a whole lot of the First Nations work that the Media Alliance have been responsible for – Media and Arts Alliance – someone like Michel Hryce who – from Michael Cassel Group – was responsible for all the work that went through in the production of Hamilton in making sure that the safety of those workers was dealt with in a new way. We’ve got people who’ve been at the cutting edge of safe workplaces on that board, and it’s going to make a difference.

But I do send the message to every organisation out there: we are serious. As Creative Workplaces sets minimum standards, we expect you to keep to them, and if you choose to not keep to them, don’t come knocking on the door for government money. We are serious about changing for a safer workplace for people who are in these creative industries.

Over all of that sits Creative Australia, and Creative Australia now has the simple job – it’s the agency charged with elevating the place of culture in Australia. Some of that will be the big, grand productions. Some of it will be stages like this. And I should give a special shoutout to the set designer of Constellations – I don’t know what possessed you to match the colour scheme to the front cover of Revive, but I’m deeply grateful for it; it’s worked perfectly.

But for every industry right through to the most local, I had no idea as to the choices as to who would be put on stage today. I live in Punchbowl. I live in the suburb next to Bankstown. I’ve been rocking up as an audience member to Bankstown Poetry Slam for a long time. To see today Creative Australia choose Sara Mansour as a representative of some of what is best in the arts in Australia I think says something about where the best work often begins.

For a long time the whole discussion about making sure we cover the whole of Australia was how could we make sure that the big companies visit as many sites on the map as possible. Regional Australia is important, but it’s not simply a destination for urban stories to get to. It’s important that we’re going out to the suburbs, we’re going out to the regions, but not simply to perform other people’s stories, but to create together.

If we get this right we will see each other no matter who we are. We will get to see ourselves on stage, hear ourselves in song, read our own stories that reflect our homes in poetry, in narrative, on the screen – and through that we will better see ourselves. We will learn about each other, and it will be the way that the world comes to know us.

It’s just over six months since the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stood up and launched Revive. At that moment everybody had at the Espy – and a lot of you were at the Espy that day in Melbourne, one of my favourite venues – and you took the copy of Revive like we were holding the program and the lights were going down. Today we launch. Today the lights come back on, the music starts playing and the work of Creative Australia begins.