2015 Fraser Lecture with Mark Dreyfus

2015 Fraser Lecture - Mark Dreyfus QC MP 

The Arts - For All Australians 


I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

The Fraser Lecture has a great history, inaugurated by the former member for Fraser, Bob McMullan.

It is excellent that this tradition is being carried on by the present member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh. Andrew is making a very significant contribution to our party as we approach the 2016 election, particularly in the areas of finance and economics. The attendance tonight is an indication of his support in the electorate of Fraser and his work as a local member, and as a key member of Labor’s front bench.

I am honoured to have been asked to deliver the Fraser Lecture this year, and I am very conscious that I am following many illustrious and progressive thinkers and leaders – people like Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, Patrick Dodson, Thomas Keneally, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and Bill Shorten.

I am also honoured to deliver this lecture named in honour of Jim Fraser.

Jim Fraser was the Member for the Australian Capital Territory from 1951 to 1970. He died in office.

At a time prior to self-government for Canberra, Jim Fraser was effectively Canberra’s mayor, senator and ombudsman, as well as its representative in the national people’s house. He was Canberra’s advocate, mediator and spokesman.

Jim and his wife Helen were supporters and patrons of many community groups in Canberra, including arts and cultural bodies. Jim was a plain speaker, and opening an exhibition of paintings in 1958 he said “he did not speak in the language of art.” However the Canberra Times report of the event went on to say that he then gave a comprehensive summary of modern trends in art, and looked forward to the time when Canberra would have a more suitable gallery. Thankfully that time has now come with the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Australia, and many other commercial and community galleries.

I would observe that you do not need to speak in the ‘language of art’ to enjoy and appreciate art and creative endeavour. The arts should be for all Australians, not just a select few. The arts enrich and enliven our modern Australia society.

I see the arts as central to our lives as Australians. Accordingly arts and cultural policy are crucial elements of Labor’s broader policy platform. Gough Whitlam said

In any civilised community the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be seen as something remote from everyday life. Of all the objectives of my Government none had a higher priority than the encouragement of the arts, the preservation and enrichment of our cultural and intellectual heritage. Indeed I would argue that all the other objectives of a Labor Government-social reform, justice and equity in the provision of welfare services and educational opportunities-have as their goal the creation of a society in which the arts and the appreciation of spiritual and intellectual values can flourish. Our other objectives are all means to an end; the enjoyment of the arts is an end in itself. (The Whitlam Government (p553))


Cate Blanchett used this statement in her terrific speech at the memorial service for Gough last year.

That statement was the policy basis, the guiding principle of the Whitlam Labor Government.

I am confident it will also be the guiding principle of the Shorten Labor Government.

The arts are central to our lives as Australians.

The arts define who we are, as a modern, innovative, confident and outward looking society.

The arts are how we express ourselves, how we explain ourselves, how we understand ourselves.

And of course, the arts are also an important part of our economy.  And it is my view that creative industries will play an increasingly important role in our economy in the years and decades ahead.

To give just one illustration of the importance of the arts in our society I will speak of one of our great artistic companies, practising an art form perhaps not always regarded as one of the so-called “high arts” – the art of the circus.

Last weekend, I was delighted to attend their current show, “But wait – there’s more”. It has a strong message for our consumer driven society, but it is also very funny and, as a circus will, includes a breathtaking array of physical performances.

Circus Oz expresses our Australianness, speaks to us about our hopes and ideals, and laughs with us. The performers embody our larrikin sense of humour, our ideals of equality and fairness, and they are brilliant.

Circus Oz has toured its unique style of circus excellence around the world.

It is also committed to performing in every Australian state and territory in a two year cycle.

It has an active philanthropic program of donations to pay for tickets for people, and particularly children, who would otherwise not be able to afford to see their shows.

Circus Oz believes that its art is for all Australians.

I know it could be seen to be invidious to mention only one of many of our excellent performing arts companies.

But I do so because of Circus Oz’s commitment to access to the arts for all Australians, not only to see their performances, but also through its support for young and emerging artists.

Circus Oz understands that its excellence in circus arts does not happen by accident, but that it grows from the training and effort of the training schools and smaller companies. For Circus Oz the Flying Fruit Flies in Albury are particularly important, and so are the many contractors and independent arts who work with them. Circus Oz understands that young and emerging artists represent their future.

There’s another part of the arts community in Australia that I want to briefly talk about, and that is the Australian film industry. Because I think that industry is a great example of what we mean when we talk about ‘creative industries.’ 

Our film industry is important to our nation in so many ways. Australians love Australian films, whether it’s moving historical works such as Breaker Morant and Gallipoli, action epics like the Max Max series, or iconic comedies such as Crocodile Dundee and The Castle.

But the film industry does far more than tell Australian stories that move us, make us laugh, and help to define us as a nation.  The film industry is also a powerhouse of economic activity, with the large US productions that are shot here in particular creating thousands of jobs and tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity. 

A little over a week ago I had the opportunity to visit the set of Pirates of the Caribbean 5 on the Gold Coast.  It is a remarkable thing to see.  In addition to the many actors employed on the shoot, on set there are literally hundreds of technicians employed for many months in the most creative of endeavours, from camera crew to lighting teams to set designers and builders. 

And through their work on one huge production they are developing the industry’s skill base and reputation, ready for the next. And the vast majority of the actors and crew are Australian.

Many of these professional artists and skilled technicians working at Circus Oz, and on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean, have come up through smaller organisations, often with initial training and support from government.

For decades the Australia Council and Screen Australia, and their predecessors, have encouraged and fostered this talent.

And that is why Labor is so concerned by the Abbott Government’s funding cuts in its two budgets to these two crucial cultural support bodies. Nearly $200 million in 2014, and a further $13 million this year.

I particularly want to speak of the Abbott Government’s Budget decision this year to take over $100 million from the Australia Council and to place it in a so-called Program for Excellence under the direct control of Senator George Brandis.

My concern is that Tony Abbott and George Brandis do not understand the importance of freedom of expression in the arts – they believe that arts funding decisions should be made by people like them, people who think like them, people who agree with them.

In contrast, I, and the Labor Party I am proud to be part of, believe that the arts are for all of us.

Through our cultural life we have the right to express ourselves freely, to explore new ideas, to debate policies, to question the actions of government.

In recent months we have seen unprecedented actions by the executive government, the Abbott Government, to restrict our freedom of expression.

There is no doubt that western democratic societies like ours are confronted by great challenges. We must confront and defeat those challenges. But we must not trade away our freedoms to safeguard our way of life which values the protection of those freedoms.

One of our most distinguished defenders of human rights, Professor Gillian Triggs has argued that a bill of rights would provide greater scope for the courts to assess the validity of legislation and challenge the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, but she concedes this is "highly improbable in the current political environment" and argues the best protection of rights in the future would come from education.

"It has become vital that we develop a normative culture that supports liberties, and challenges executive overreach, even though these liberties may not have the full force of legislation," she said.

I believe that the way the Abbott government is implementing its arts policy is one aspect of the way it is diminishing our democratic liberties, our freedom to debate and discuss issues and to be challenged by radical or unpopular ideas, and is undermining our ability to build a diverse and tolerant society.

This Government sees everything through a myopic political lens – to reward its supporters and attack, intimidate and silence those it believes do not share its narrow view of the world.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is one of our great national cultural institutions. For more than 80 years it has produced and broadcast great music, drama, and documentaries. Many actors, musicians, writers, composers, directors, cinematographers, have received their training and got their start at the ABC.

Despite an explicit promise before the last election, the Abbott government has cut its funding.

And now it is under direct attack from the government again.

Part of the immense value of the ABC comes from its independence from government.

Neither occasional criticisms, or indeed political approval – I cite Tony Abbott’s “Thank you ABC!” in Parliament last week, for the ABC’s recent mini-series “The Killing Season” – should be allowed to influence long term policy and funding decisions for the ABC.

But it’s not only the ABC that is suffering from funding cuts. The Abbott Government’s 2015 Budget contained significant further funding cuts to the Australia Council and to the arts budget.

Following last year’s savage cuts to the arts, Arts Minister George Brandis has now cut another $104.7 million from the independent Australia Council and transferred it to his own Department.

This is a bid by the Abbott Government to take direct control of arts funding, ending decades of independent arts funding through the Australia Council. 

In 2013 Senator Brandis, in opposition, tried unsuccessfully to amend the 2013 Australia Council Act to make funding decisions subject to ministerial direction. In government he has now achieved his aim.

This is a Government that likes to say it supports freedom of expression. Yet we have seen time and again that it lashes out, often hysterically, at those who express views with which the Government disagrees. We have seen this Government seek to intimidate Professor Gillian Triggs, the President of the Human Rights Commission, through a reprehensible campaign against her for the purpose of forcing her to resign.

We have seen this Government impose gag clauses on community legal centres, prohibiting them from using Commonwealth money to advocate for legal reform, even though these organisations are often expert in their fields, and have a track record of championing reforms that serve the interests of justice and that save our community money in the long run.

We have seen this Government terminate all funding to Environment Defenders’ Offices across Australia, seeking to silence the only publicly funded lawyers with expertise in the vital work of environmental protection.

My concern is that the redirection of funds from the Australia Council to the control of Senator Brandis is founded on a similarly jaundiced approach to artistic freedom of expression. That is, a view on the part of the Abbott Government that artistic freedom of expression is a freedom that should be constrained.

This arrogant attempt to seize control over arts funding is on top of a further $13.2 million in cuts over 5 years from the arts budget. These unfair cuts will come from arts and cultural programs administered by the Australia Council, Screen Australia and the Attorney General’s Department.

In reducing the Australia Council’s funding the Abbott Government has significantly reduced the Council’s capacity to achieve its objectives. This decision reduces the grant-making facility of the Australia Council and creates an unnecessary parallel process for arts funding in Australia with no apparent benefit to artists or arts organisations.

This all comes on top of significant cuts to the arts in last year’s budget, all of which remain in place. Senator Brandis has totally defunded Labor’s Creative Australia cultural policy, distorted the policy and advisory role of his department and undermined the accountability principles inherent in the peer review decisions conducted by the Australia Council.

Young and emerging artists will bear the brunt of this politically-motivated decision. The Australia Council has announced that it will not proceed with the next round of arts funding grants, scrap programs and suspend funding for some organisations. Those most affected by this disruption are the small to medium-sized arts companies and young artists.

Senator Brandis claims that the transfer of funds to his department will not affect artists. This is false. Artists and smaller arts organisations will have funding delayed, their programs and projects will be disrupted, and jobs will be lost. They are currently in the dark about what criteria will be used by the Minister to make funding decisions. Only the established large arts companies have had their funding quarantined from cuts.

The ArtStart, Creative Communities Partnerships Initiative and Artists in Residence programs will be discontinued. These programs provided assistance to creative arts graduates just starting out in their careers, opportunities for Australians to participate in arts and cultural activities in the places where they live, and the chance for talented artists to gain overseas experience.

The result of these politically motivated and mean-spirited decisions is that Australia creative and cultural life will be greatly diminished. Unfortunately we can expect, as happened in Queensland when the Newman Government came to office, that artists will leave the field and arts bodies will go broke. They will not be able to afford to continue.

These decisions, these arrogant decisions, these ill advised decisions, are not just moving numbers to a different column in the budget papers. They are disastrous for our artistic life, and will have terrible consequences for people now working in the arts.

I am very conscious that a commitment to a career in the arts very often, indeed usually, leads to economic insecurity and sacrifice.

This funding change will disrupt, indeed already has disrupted, very many people’s lives, people who are trying to build a life, with families, rents, mortgages.

Labor is the party for the workers, and the party for jobs. Under the Abbott/Brandis regime for the arts, arts jobs will be lost and workers in the arts will suffer.

Labor will resist these unfair and anti-arts decisions, and will do all we can to oppose them and have them reversed.

Labor has moved to establish a Senate inquiry into Brandis’s arts slush fund. The inquiry is needed to investigate why it is necessary to create a new arts bureaucracy under the control of George Brandis.

Senator Brandis revealed at Senate Estimates that he had not consulted the arts community before announcing plans to establish his new arts fund. The Australia Council was not consulted – it was informed just before the Budget speech was read. This takes an astonishing level of arrogance, and displays  a contempt for the sector that he should championing. 

And I believe it was the same arrogance that led Senator Brandis to refuse to meet with the representatives of over sixty arts organisations who travelled to Canberra last week to express their concerns about the serious impacts the cuts to the Australia Council would have on artists and arts enterprises.

However, while Senator Brandis may feel that he is too important to talk to the arts community he is meant to represent, the inquiry Labor has now established in the Senate will effectively force Senator Brandis to have the public consultation he has tried to avoid.

After two budgets and nearly two years of the Abbott Government we know exactly where it stands in relation to the arts – it stands for cuts. Cuts upon cuts –$200 million in 2014 and a further $13 million in 2015.

It stands for cuts that will seriously damage Australian creative and artistic industries.

And, as I have just outlined, the Abbott Government stands for increased political control over the dwindling level of arts funding that is still available.

What a sorry contrast the past 21 months of Liberal government make with Labor’s longstanding support for the arts.

Labor is committed to the arts for all Australians.

Labor believes in the arts as a central part of our national life.

Labor believes in nurturing and supporting young and emerging artists.

Labor believes in the importance of creative industries in our economy. 

And Labor believes in artistic freedom.

Labor is the party of the arts.

The Whitlam Government gave the Australia Council its legislative status in 1973.

The Keating Government published our first national cultural policy, Creative Nation, in 1994.

The Gillard Government took cultural policy to an entirely new level with Creative Australia in 2013.

We re-commit to Creative Australia’s ideals and vision.

As we approach the next election, in 2016 or earlier, Labor stands by our policies as set out in Creative Australia.


Creative Australia aimed to ensure that the cultural sector – incorporating all aspects of arts, cultural heritage and the creative industries – has the skills, resources, and resilience to play an active role in Australia’s future.

Creative Australia reflected the diversity of modern Australia and outlines a vision for the arts, cultural heritage and creative industries that draws from the past with an ambition for the future.

Creative Australia provided guiding principles for a flexible cultural policy for a changing Australian society, recognising that

  • Our society is changing, presenting opportunities for innovation, creativity and growth
  • The contribution of the arts and creativity to the building of a modern sustainable economy
  • The central importance of the arts in defining who we are as a vibrant, confident and diverse society

We are now revising our policy platform for our national conference in July.

The draft platform includes clearly stated principles of the central role of arts and culture in modern Australian society:

  • Arts and culture contribute to building a more creative and productive nation
  • Cultural policy is not just about supporting the arts, it is about strengthening communities and developing our creative culture
  • Arts and culture drive innovation across the nation and contribute to productivity
  • Our policy encourages and nurtures the arts, creative industries and cultural heritage, in particular our Indigenous cultural heritage


The arts are a public good – they enrich us all. They are not a private market.


But just as with other public goods – like health and education – the Abbott Government is about destroying them.

Labor believes government has a role in assisting, nurturing and encouraging artistic endeavour.

Above all, recent experience of the Abbott Government’s arts policies, such as they are, demonstrates yet again, as in health, as in education, as in assistance to the most disadvantaged in our communities, that Labor are the builders, and our opponents are the wreckers.

Building on the guiding principles I have just outlined, I want to leave you with some of my ideas for initiatives of a future Labor government. These are ideas only and may or may not be included in the arts policy that Labor takes to the next election. Even so, I believe they are worthy of consideration and I am interested in feedback from the arts and wider Australian community about these ideas.

  • Artspace- provision of affordable artist work and exhibition space in capital cities and major regional cities
  • Artbank on tour - Artbank to purchase works and curate exhibitions for touring and loan to regional art galleries
  • Theatre in schools- the major performing arts companies to tour productions to secondary schools in cities and regional areas
  • Music in primary schools –increased participation of students in music education programs
  • Digital and creative industry programs in public libraries
  • Conservation, preservation and digitisation of the national cultural and heritage collections
  • Extension of Public Lending Right to e-books

Australia cannot continue to rely on minerals and low value materials processing for our wealth and prosperity.

In a time of globalisation and rapidly changing technology we must encourage economic activity that builds creativity, new skills and new jobs.

Creative Australia aimed to ensure that the cultural sector – including the arts, heritage and creative industries – has the skills, resources and resilience to build Australia’s future.

Since that worthy aim was written two years ago, it has become increasingly obvious and increasingly important.

Labor in government will help build all our creative industries for the economic and the social good of the nation.

As always, I welcome your opinions and ideas as we approach the next election.   

Thank you.                                                                                         

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