November 4, 2021

Editorial

Commentary

How we sound and look to the world – and ourselves. Part Two: Soft diplomacy and cultural ties

An exclusive three part series by Robyn Archer AO

Robyn Archer is a singer, performer, writer, artistic director and public advocate of the Arts.

Part Two: Soft diplomacy and cultural ties

In part one I talked about how a lack of diplomacy is a liability which creates serious challenges to our reputation and therefore our prospects for a healthy, generous and successful future.

But as it happens, in recent years soft diplomacy had been a catch-phrase in DFAT. Julie Bishop was an overt champion of its efficacy on the word stage. It included a recognition that the arts have an ability to forge closer more nuanced cultural ties with other nations; to create an environment conducive to the pleasant and civil negotiation of more practical projects.

As much as it has offered decades of opportunity for Australian artists to show, perform and collaborate on the international stage, this deployment of the arts is sometimes viewed in the critical light of the way the arts are treated on a daily basis at home.

At no other time has this been so obvious than during the pandemic when the arts were never mentioned in the early lists of those industries adversely affected, even though we were among the first to go. When assistance was late coming, it was biased towards the commercial music industry and the ‘nationally significant’ companies.

It’s no accident that the first announcement of financial relief was made by the PM with Guy Sebastian at his side – great singer, but scarcely representative of the hundreds of thousands of artsworkers in trouble.

And major companies such as Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet obtained exemptions which allowed them at very least to continue to rehearse, even if public performances were shelved. That was a good thing, but such concessions were not available for the small to medium sector or to individual artists, many of whom rehearse at home or in home studios where home visits have been shut down in various states for months on end.

Even now, when the Commonwealth disaster relief payments stand to cease once lockdown is officially over, there is nil understanding that performing artists outside the major frameworks cannot simply leap back onto the stage the minute the doors open again. Crews are dispersed, and security services have vaccination challenges. Many artists have been prevented from rehearsing and that will take time. Venues which have been closed and festivals held over for so long now have such a backlog of postponements that rescheduling means months even years of delay before some artists can start earning again.

Just because pubs and shops can open and serve again, doesn’t signal the end of the pain. The relief payments are drying up, and it’s not clear how affected artsworkers pay rent or feed their families until their gigs are back up again.

One of the postponements, as it happens, is the France-Australia cultural exchange originally planned for 2020, postponed till 2021 and now till 2022. I wonder how that’s going?

It seems that the UK-Australia exchange (also postponed) is definitely going ahead in some form, perhaps partly online, as the French currently is. Part of the UK project’s diplomatic role was certainly connected to taking advantage of Brexit UK’s need for new trade relationships with Australia. It’s the same vocabulary as AUKUS -  new world, old relationships.

Surely consistency would demand that there is as much need to use cultural diplomacy to soften the environment around trade talks with the European Union. But has the ensuing lack of trust in Australia made repair just too hard for the arts to assist in?  

As I continue to write and rewrite my planned oration for this French project - covering the history of Australia’s cultural engagement with France and landing more particularly on Australian women artists and performers in France and the presence of French artists in our festivals - I am reminded of just how long and deep my own connection has been, and am saddened by the current cold shoulder which in more skilled hands could surely have been avoided.

We have often looked to France as a country where the arts seem to be better acknowledged as an integral part of that country’s fabric, and not, as it often feels here, just as the frill on the frock.  This is not just atmospheric, but practical: the decentralisation of the arts is a fact of France’s cultural life, purposely established by Jack Lang, cultural minister in De Gaulle’s government. The major festivals are not in Paris; even small towns sport adventurous celebrations of new art forms. And after working in their field for some period of time, French artists have long been able to claim something like a living wage. This is not as generous or as protected as it used to be, but it still exists in a way that Australian governments have never looked at seriously.

Last year I joined a conversation with the ABC, about their new Arts Plus ideas, around an actual and online table where the CEO and Chair were both present. I suggested that one valuable blow they could strike would be to allot to the arts the same time that sports, finance and weather always get in the TV news bulletins – around 60-80 seconds, as many European countries automatically do.  I suggested that by not doing this, the broadcaster was actually abrogating its national responsibility and delivering, many times a day, a false picture of what Australia really is. The suggestion was pretty much laughed out of the room.

Even though ‘entertainment’ gets coverage in mainstream media, and the commercial end was at the fore of any discussion about arts-related pandemic challenges, the arts are not part of the everyday language of this country no matter how often the Australia Council and the Australian Academy of Humanities prove the economic contribution the arts make to the country; point to the surveys that show more Australians attend arts events than sports; and, evaluate both the jobs they provide and the diverse career pathways that arts and humanities engender in so many people.

This philosophical ignorance around the value of the arts has been matched in practice with the recent hike in fees for humanities courses. At the time of that announcement the government’s own employment website listed fifteen or so skills required for future work, fourteen of which are taught in the humanities. The decision to boost enrolment in STEM and mitigate against the arts/humanities flies directly against the intelligence of their own department.  And as Jacqui Lambie pointed out, it is especially prejudicial to young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Most don’t have either the cash to pay or the confidence to get into debt and they are the very ones who may not know what they want to do right now, but might, through the humanities, discover what that career option is.

Shortsighted bullish decisions do not properly consider consequences or repercussions beyond a few years of jobs growth and innovation cliches. I’m not anti-science. I matriculated with double maths, physics and chem and loved them. I’m all for lowering fees for education. Oh Finland! where education is free, there are even good food subsidies for those that need them, and teaching is one of the most valued and prestigious professions. Here the discrimination against humanities is social engineering at its worst, and the effect won’t be felt for years, as with so many current decisions.