State of the Arts Oration

TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: My sincere thanks to Professor Clare Pollock for the generous introduction. Uncle Harry, thank you so much for the Acknowledgement of Country, and at this moment in our history I think it’s always important to remind ourselves of what a generous thing it is for somebody to stand up and for a First Nations person to stand up and acknowledge or welcome us to Country. It’s an extraordinarily generous thing to do, and I just want you to know how much we appreciate it.

I want to thank the University of Western Sydney. I know over the weekend there’s been very much a celebration, and a whole lot of speeches acknowledging the great legacy of Gough Whitlam. I want to start there because for anyone in my party, the history and legacy of commitment for federal policy to the arts is very much always in the shadow of Gough.

I would very often – during the latter part of his life – see both Gough and Margaret either inside or outside the Sydney Opera House. Outside when it was a celebration of usually Greek culture where Gough was a very proud philhellene, or inside at interval for various productions. But more often than not if Gough and Margaret were there it was a night of opera.

Gough would always want to talk – sometimes more than listen – and want to go through all the history and the detail underlying whatever you were seeing and add that extra layer of depth. I remember calling him shortly after one of my daughters had been born to let us know that we’d named her Helena, and he immediately went through the history of the name Helena, at which point I said we weren’t aware of that. Gough simply responded by saying, “You won’t have to talk to me for long and you always learn something.”

But one of the critical things – and I want to get to this because it’s used as a physical legacy of Gough all the time, but it also goes to what we need to do as a nation with respect to arts policy – and it’s this: we often talk about Gough in terms of curbing and guttering and providing a sewage system for the western suburbs which didn’t have one. This is 1972, and we still didn’t have that in much of Western Sydney.

The concept, though, wasn’t simply about sewage. In Australia we have a natural dialogue that is always there as to whether the regions are getting a fair go, as to whether the country is getting a fair go. It is so hard in a discussion about Australia to get people to think about the differential in our suburbs. Whenever you start to draw attention to it you’re accused by various media organisation of somehow lodging a class war.

But the reality is the disparity between some parts of our cities and others is often much more stark – or at least as stark – as the difference between city and country in terms of resources, in terms of government funding. Gough squarely said we need to pay attention to what’s happening in the suburbs as well. If we are serious about equity, we need to be serious about the suburbs.

The University of Western Sydney, it’s very existence is a testament to the need to do this.

The University didn’t exist when I finished school. I was one of the people who caught the train to get off at Redfern and walk along to Sydney University. The concepts that had never occurred to me growing up in this area of how the rest of Sydney – or a small part of Sydney – viewed the majority of Sydney, I found extraordinary.

It had not occurred to me that I would be one of the only people in my class trying to find new friends because most people already apparently knew each other. They even wore matching Country Road clothing. They were not astonished when the lecturer said, “We don’t like you taking part-time work while you’re studying”. How else were you meant to be here unless you had part-time work?

I was puzzled when in my second year I’d joined the university club for my political party, which had the sign ‘ALP Club’ and was puzzled by the number of people who turned up. Well, first of all excited by the number of people who turned up but then puzzled by the number who just presumed because it said ALP it was the Alp Club and we must be the place to organise the international ski trips.

The disparity between what I’d always known and what had suddenly meant to go to university made it clear straight away why so many people didn’t finish, why so many people felt they were in a world that wasn’t welcoming for the simple reason that they were in a world that wasn’t terribly welcoming.

For the arts I found my entry point through cheap uni tickets. That was how I started and I used my paper run money over the years because the fluke of having one teacher who told me that those venues in the city were welcoming. But for most people, you might see the ad on the back of a bus or on the back of a taxi that for some reason has found its way out here. But for most people entry to those venues is like when you walk past a church or prayer room or temple or synagogue that is not our own faith and you just know that’s one of the places that unless there’s a really personal invitation you just don’t go on inside.

What arts funding started to do was to try to fix this by visiting. Just as I felt very much a visitor to the lectures I was attending, so too the arts organisations would visit us. There might be a touring circuit that would find its way dropping past Riverside at Parramatta. There might be other tours of shows that might have appeared in the city but would also make their way through the registered clubs in auditoriums. It never would have occurred to me to go and see Roger Woodward perform at the Opera House, but certainly I knew it was okay to go when there was a performance at a leagues club. That concept of they might visit, they might tour. We would be the ticking of a box on the way to the regional tours so that Western Sydney had been looked after as well. But they were visitors to us. The art, the work, was not of us.

Gough didn’t simply try to end the culture war; he fearlessly engaged in it. There is no other way to explain Blue Poles. It was not simply a really smart investment the likes of which the federal investment has never been able to match in terms of the multiplier. But it was also a statement to Australia that you might think this stuff’s not important. It is. It matters. The investment that was made – not just in Blue Poles – but in the reforming of the Australia Council in 1973. The anniversary of which obviously we celebrate this year, was not simply that there be more funding for the arts but it was also that there be the beginnings of a democratisation of access to the arts and access to permission to create.

The expansion of the arts boards didn’t just see an expansion of formalising different art forms; it also saw an expansion and a permission for who could be on an arts board. The very beginnings in 1973 of an acknowledgement that we have now taken to the next level in the last 12 months of saying that you do not have to be a senior member of the relevant political party or a senior business person to have the right to be a custodian of Australia’s national collection or to be an adviser on where Australia’s arts money will go.

Gough, for example, in establishing the Aboriginal Arts Board made that point. Something unthinkable now – but if you think of what it meant in getting arts off and their funding off and going – they became the largest purchaser in Australia of First Nations art. In 1973, that mattered.

As the boards were established we started to see people who lived and breathed the sector finding their way on to the boards. The Screen Board involved Phillip Adams. The Literature Board had David Malouf. That principle of bringing artists into the decision-making process is something that in 12 months I think we’ve done okay on. Turning a corner on arts boards that would occasionally have the token artist, that were overwhelmingly populated by business friends of the minister of the day.

Don’t get me wrong – I do believe there is a place on arts boards for people with significant business skills. I do think there is a place on arts boards for people who know and have a relationship with the Government of the day. I do think there's an important role for someone on each arts board to have significant financial skills. But how on earth we got to the point that it would be an oddity on an arts board to have an artist is something I just don’t understand.

To give you a sense of the scale of what we’ve done. I was our last Arts Minister in 2013. I’ve been back in the job for just over 12 months. In terms of appointing artists this is what we’ve done: on the new Australia Council, the board of Creative Australia: Wesley Enoch, Caroline Bowditch, Lindy Lee, Courtney Stewart, Kitty Taylor. Music Australia: Fred Leone, Danielle Caruana, Sophie Payten known as Gordi. On Creative Workplaces: Tony Ayres, Ruth Hazleton, Fiona Donovan, Bjorn Stewart. On the National Gallery: Sally Scales, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. On the Film and Sound Archive: Annette Shun Wah. On Screen Australia: Marta Dusseldorp, Sacha Horler, Pallavi Sharda. On the Australian Children’s Television Foundation: Michelle Lim Davidson. And on the National Museum – which think about this; the National Museum didn’t have an historian on the board – now Clare Wright. That’s in just over a year – reforming boards and finding places for artists.

That matters, because in that we also give permission to create and we also – if you listen to the names that I’ve offered – we are getting to having boards that look much more like modern Australia.

I want to link that to this particular part of Sydney and say something about why we’ve called the cultural policy Revive. This part of Sydney is a perfect example to talk about the lessons of the pandemic. The cultural sector in Australia entered the pandemic weaker than it should have. Weaker from the day that George Brandis, one of my predecessors, took away the money that had been added to the arts budget by Simon Crean and myself in the Creative Australia cultural policy.

When that money was taken away there was an immediate decision that none of the major companies would be penalised. That meant there was only one place left and the cuts were made to small and medium companies. When you make the cuts to small, medium and independent, you make the cuts to the suburbs. That’s where it happened, and Western Sydney in particular took a huge hit.

The lessons of the pandemic are different here to what they are in many other parts of Australia. Where we are right now in Bankstown – I live in the suburb next door in Punchbowl – all of Australia experienced lockdown in different ways, but the lockdown here was different.

The lockdown here was accompanied by constant commentary that somehow we weren’t up to obeying the rules. That somehow the virus was spreading more quickly in our communities because we were lawbreakers.

The immediate response – in the first instance – was to put mounted police on the streets because somehow horses would help prevent the pandemic. When that wasn’t seen as strong enough the military joined the police in going door to door. We had a curfew and of an evening choppers would fly overhead watching the streets to make sure that, one, we were kept awake and, two, there weren’t people on the streets.

It had never occurred to actually ask the people of our local area why the virus was spreading so quickly. The answer of course was simple: we don’t have that many people who you might call being of the laptop class. We don’t have that many people who were able to work from home. If you’re a cleaner, if you’re in retail, if you’re in construction, saying you’ll work by Zoom doesn’t really cut it. You had to physically go to work and physically go into work where you catch the virus.

It was not the situation of a community failing to keep to the rules; it was a community keeping the rest of the nation going. People felt that really deeply. Just as the rules and the response didn’t understand Western Sydney, so too the support that was given in COVID did not understand the arts. I argued, probably more publicly than anyone, when I was in opposition that we needed to have a wage subsidy, and I support that JobSeeker was brought into place. But if you wanted to design a wage subsidy to exclude as many arts workers as possible, you would design JobKeeper in the exact form that it was.

The restrictions didn’t understand Western Sydney. The support didn’t understand the arts.

We ended up when we came to thinking about what do we need in a cultural policy, recognising we need a cultural policy for this moment in time, because the position of weakness was huge. That’s why it’s called Revive. That’s why it’s a cultural policy for the next five years. We’re getting close now to having four years to go, and the clock is ticking. This is different to what happened under Gough, different to what happened when Paul Keating introduced Creative Nation, different to when Julia Gillard and Simon Crean introduced Creative Australia.

All of those cultural policies put themselves forward as a blueprint for the ages. Right now we need to revive and to get things moving again. In five years’ time it might be another five-year policy, it might be something for longer. But we need to be taking things to a destination which is impossible to see immediately following the pandemic.

In the reform that Gough did, that Paul did, that Julia did and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese did when he launched Revive – people often just go straight to the dollars. But the dollars have not simply been about making sure there is more; it’s also making sure that we democratise funding for the arts.

There are five pillars: First Nations first, a place for every story, the centrality of the artist, strong cultural infrastructure, and engaging with the audience.

That second pillar – a place for every story – is about acknowledging all the different forms of change and diversity, of representation that you find in Australia. Some of them go to cultural background, some of them go to faith, some of them go to gender, some of them go to linguistic differences, some of them go to physical location, some of them go to ability and disability and different levels of ability. But all of them are places with stories and stories belonging in place that need to be told.

There is a line in the movie that most of you will have seen – it’s pretty old now – Good Will Hunting where you’ve got this great scene where Robin Williams is sitting on a bench chatting to Matt Damon. And he says something like, “I bet you’ve read enough books to be able to tell me about every painting that Michelangelo has ever done, but I’m sure you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.” Similarly while people from all over Australia can write about our area – and from time to time The Daily Telegraph will turn up for a few hours and write pages about our area – people who live here, people and artists and storytellers who are of here are uniquely positioned to be able to explain what it is to be here.

This is why it’s been so important as the arts centres have grown, whether it’s Bankstown, Casula, Granville, Hawkesbury, Blacktown Campbelltown, Parramatta. The various art centres, the various hubs of artistic activity, what that has meant for the storytelling and the accurate understanding of the rest of Australia is beyond what any local member of parliament can do.

Sara Mansour who was the narrator in the short documentary, the short presentation that was there on the video before I spoke. She is one of the founders of the Bankstown Poetry Slam. Here in Bankstown we have the largest gathering of poets in Australia. It happens here in Bankstown. It wasn’t a decision of government that it would happen; it was having the hub, local community getting together and every month local poets putting in their names – only a limited number getting drawn from the hat – and being able to tell the story of here.

When we launched Revive Sara was commissioned to perform a spoken word piece in honour of cultural policy. Just as I referred to that line from that American film, Sara went through the smells and flavours of the area. She spoke about the rose water, the garlic and coriander. She used a line that I think is very telling. She said, “I’m not trying to paint a picture; I am drawing a map.” That map of Western Sydney is a part of the Australian story that initially got told by others. You had scenes in Punchbowl for the novel and movie They’re A Weird Mob, but actually written by John O’Grady.

I had an extraordinary conversation I offer as an example, where I was at one of these fundraising for some philanthropic events. I forget what it was for, but what I remember was in the foyer someone approaching me. A businessman. I presume from one of the suburbs where the Country Road people at Sydney Uni live, saying, “You don’t really live in that area where you represent, do you?” I said, “I always have. I live in Punchbowl. Love it.” He said, “Punchbowl? Yeah, but what do you really think?” I said, “No, I love it.” He said, “Just between you and me.” And he said, “You know Trent from Punchy?” I said, “What?” He said, “Get on YouTube. Google it. You’ll see what your area is really like.”

I ended up googling it, discovering that this was a parody piece that some people had been fooled by. It was an actor who had gone to Punchbowl to mock people. But apparently the person who was talking down to me was one of the people who’d been fooled by the parody and thought it was authentic.

We can’t allow in Western Sydney, the stories of Western Sydney to be told by anyone other than ourselves. That’s why I referred to the Bankstown Poetry Slam. But what has grown from that I think is extraordinary. There is a long list of writers and performers who started at the Bankstown Poetry Slam and have gone on to all sorts of work. We’re now finding in schools a novel by Rawah Arja called ‘The F Team’. A wonderful work of young adult fiction which tells – in the wake of the Cronulla riots – of two sporting teams. One from Punchbowl and one from Cronulla, and them playing against each other and the relationships there. But one moment where one of the characters is working out how to put words together and having some challenges, where do they go in that work of fiction? The Bankstown Poetry Slam.

Some people today have mentioned an interview I gave on Radio National a few weeks ago with some specific reference to just around the corner here – where the Palestinian flag is flying. When I gave that interview it wasn’t the first time that the concept and the concerns about competitive grief had been raised. If anyone hasn’t read Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s novel ‘The Lebs’, read it and get to the scene at Punchbowl Boys High after the 11th of September 2001 and the discussion of the flag. The concept of grief not being acknowledged is something that our artists are already telling people. It is something as a message that is getting through in ways that the political conversation can never reach because the political conversation will always be immediately met with combat. Artists have permission to reach into our souls in a way that commentators don’t, and we need their stories to be told.

I’ve lost my sense of direction – where’s Hoyts from here? Just down that way, I think. Those of you who went to any other cinema a few years ago probably wouldn’t have seen the film Alex & Eve. But Alex Lykos, the director, had written the play and eventually put together a film. It was filmed in suburbs like Lakemba and Belmore. It didn’t make money, but it mattered. It mattered that you could go to Bankstown and you could see a story from your local community on the screen.

I give these examples because some of them are simply about the right of a creator to tell the story. Some of them are about the need for the rest of Australia to accurately understand Western Sydney. Some of it is also just for us to be able to know that our stories are worthy of representation. Of a community where, unlike most of the rest of Australia, if people are having a cup of tea or a cup of coffee in the afternoon they have it in the front yard, not the backyard because the backyard is where the veggies are being grown and the front yard is where the community is.

An area where people who aren’t used to driving around here are still puzzled that sometimes you’ll just stop in a suburban street and wait because the two cars in front have blocked the traffic in either way and it’s because the drivers know each other and they’re having a conversation and they finish the conversation they’ll move, there’s no need to toot your horn, it will all be okay.

There are different protocols in our part of Sydney. The area is different. It’s good and it’s loving and it’s community, and it needs to be told by our artists. We need to make sure that the creation of work happens here.

Further west there was a story which started with an organisation that often works out of Bankstown but has moved around as well called Urban Theatre Projects where they got together four women, who were refugees, with four women actors and worked through their stories. I was there at opening night at Parramatta Riverside. Ultimately the production went to Belvoir as well and came back for a further season.

Some of you, if you didn’t see the show, you would know the person; you would have heard interviews a couple of years ago from Rosemary Kariuki. She was the local hero in the Australian of the Year awards in 2021. But her confidence in telling an audience her story started through an artistic project that matched the fictitious skills and the storytelling skills of actors with an onstage documentary of four refugees. It was one of the highlights of the whole story where she had been told to get from one level to another of the shopping centre. You get on the silver stairs, the escalators, but she had never seen them before in her life and no-one had told her that one was for up and one was for down. She told the story with such good humour and owned an audience and then went on from strength to strength in her own life to the point where she becomes one of the four or five people each year who we single out for national recognition that this is the best of Australia.

You can’t do all of that if you’ve got the structures wrong. You can’t do all of that if you don’t have the funding. You can’t do all of that if you leave things to chance with simply saying – to what was then the Australia Council that’s now Creative Australia – spend the money however you think, without any level of guidance. Cultural policy is established to give that guidance. Cultural policy was established and Creative Australia established under a new name to make clear we need to do things differently. Yes, we need to have iconic productions, and a lot of them will be in the capital cities. We get that. But the suburbs need to be a place for creation. The suburbs need to be a place for the development of workers. The suburbs need to be a place where people can know they have permission, that this is not simply the domain of others, that the creation of art and the viewing of art should always be connected to the value of story, never dependent on the entitlement of privilege.

Those structural changes started on the 1st of July this year. Creative Australia now has an expectation that it will be implementing the cultural policy. They will still use peers to work through individual projects and decisions like that. But they know there is an expectation that across Australia, including the suburbs, there is a place for every story, and we want it told and we want it funded.

They also know that we no longer have a situation where the funded sector is over here, philanthropy is over here, and the commercial sector can look after itself. We’ve now brought all three into the one organisation because it’s the same workforce and it’s the same audience. In doing so we’re now starting to edge our way back to what Gough had done with the arts boards.

We don’t want all funding to go through those different boards the way it did with Gough, because you ended up with some work that crossed between. That didn’t fit the silos or pigeonholes of the different arts boards and, therefore, found itself ineligible for funding. We need to keep some of the changes that were made under Julia Gillard and Simon Crean, but to also make sure that we have some areas that are able to promote those aspects that have traditionally been underfunded.

On the 1st of July we established Music Australia because whether it’s H3Rizon, whether it’s L-Fresh, a series of Western Sydney artists need to know that at the moments of their career where you’ve got an opportunity and the nature of the industry is there’s an overseas festival, someone’s pulled out, you can get on the line-up but you need to be able to get your plane ticket and get over there in the next three days. That’s not really an opportunity where you’re put in your application for peer review funding. We needed to be able to let the music industry function differently for contemporary music. Music Australia will do that.

I was also horrified, as I think we all were, that our storytellers who tell so many stories that are difficult to tell, so many stories of hardship and unfair treatment, were in workplaces experiencing hardship, discrimination and unfair treatment. We now have Creative Workplaces already established, there to start setting standards and businesses that don’t want to meet those standards – which will be higher than the standards otherwise expected in law – you might make that decision, but don’t ever come on the door of my portfolio knocking seeking government funding. Keeping the principles of Creative Workplaces will be essential.

On the 1st of July next year we will start the First Nations body to make sure that there can be planning across all the different areas of workforce for First Nations but also to make sure there can be funding as the production grows. In too many instances a work starts at a community level and as it grows the cultural licence and the cultural ownership starts to dissipate because whoever is the bigger funder starts to be the one making the decisions. The First Nations body will be able to help correct that.

Then the following year after that Writers Australia will be established where writers have, for as long as I know, been the most underfunded area of work by the old Australia Council, now Creative Australia.

With all of that, what does it mean? It means the fact of cultural policy matters in itself. The fact matters to have a government that says we’re not interested in a culture war. This matters, we’re proud that it matters. Here is a national policy, at cabinet level, that affects every portfolio that has been adopted. That of itself is a statement.

What it does across the five pillars is sets the framework and the expectations of what we want to happen. As the different bodies are implemented over the course of the first three of the five years of this policy, we start to see real change and funding and starting to plug the holes as the industry revives.

But that’s all structural. None of that’s the exciting bit. The exciting bit is what then happens. As the minister, as a government, we don’t create any of the art. We provide the blank canvas. We provide the platform. We make sure that the volume will be turned up louder than it otherwise would be. That the spotlight will shine brighter than it otherwise would. That it’s easier to get the words into the hands of the reader than it otherwise would have been.

But the exciting thing is what the creators then do with that. Can I tell you, there were years where disproportionately those creators would have found themselves from the Country Road suburbs. Would have found themselves from the people where everybody knew each other. We are determined to see that change because the title is not simply Revive; there’s a subtitle – a place for every story, a story for every place, and a critical home for Australia’s stories is Western Sydney.