January 25, 2020 05:00:59
If there is one thing that unites the nation on Australia Day, it is clichés. And on Australia Day weekend 2020, we seem to be surpassing our usual ration of clichés about beaches, barbecues, and revelling in our egalitarian ordinariness.
Of course these days we pay at least some respect and recognition to Indigenous Australia, while skirting around the controversy of what they think about the marking of our national day on January 26.
But this year there are more than just the usual clichés about Aussie-ness. We have drought and fire and rain all at once, and on a scale that has made the world sit up and take notice.
We even have what now seems to be another Australian cliché in the form of a sordid political scandal involving a political party breaking every rule to help itself win an election with our money.
Whether or not Bridget McKenzie is made to pay for the Coalition’s use of a $100 million grants to scheme to favour electorates it was targeting in last year’s federal election, the truth is that the entire Government is tarnished by its transparent misuse of taxpayer’s money for partisan purposes.
Political bad behaviour seems an appropriate cliché for what we are, or what we tolerate, these days.
The conversation has been hijacked by culture wars
But Australia Day should be a chance to reflect much more broadly on who we are, and what we value, particularly this year, when so many of us are grieving either personal loss from bushfires, or just grieving for our national loss amid the destruction of millions of hectares of our country, and an estimated one billion animals.
Our national conversation in the past couple of decades has been hijacked by culture wars that have, too often, characterised what should be rational conversations and positions as ideological divides.
Climate change is the most obvious of these.
The current catastrophe has seen the ideological culture war over climate change both here and internationally enter a new phase; one where even the heir to the British throne (and of course our next head of state) feels emboldened enough to publicly plead with world leaders to do something urgently to change the future.
Our Prime Minister may continue to stubbornly hold out, dodge and weave, or even double down on climate change policy, but things have changed.
The Australian summer has made climate change a thing of the present, not the future.
Where do we celebrate excellence these days?
Australia is now seen differently around the world. We are front-page news globally as a stark example of what a frightening future looks like.
The Government throws $76 million at the advertising industry in the hope that it can persuade tourists that there is still something here to see amid the smoking wreck.
But the bushfires have also changed the way we see ourselves. And climate change is not the only front in the culture wars.
Our culture itself in all its forms has been under assault in the mad attempts to paint everything and everyone as a foot soldier of “The Left” or “The Right”.
Think about it. Beyond sport, where do we celebrate excellence these days, or even something that helps define us as a people?
The Monthly is running a piece at the moment about 1983, casting back to a time when the world suddenly looked at Australia as an intriguing, interesting place.
Not only had we won the America’s Cup with some technological ingenuity, our musicians were making a splash on the world stage, our movies were in demand and we were taking big decisions about our economy.
A country that had spent decades valuing culture from anywhere else but home, and which only came to value its great artists and performers if they made it overseas, suddenly had a sense of confidence and self-worth.
Technology is changing how we see ourselves
With the broader cultural establishment now generally consigned to just being “Leftist” loonies or “elites”, our national conversation is deprived of a diversity of views and we don’t celebrate, or even promote, what is new and excellent and Australian.
While we don’t seem to celebrate our achievements in areas like film-making any more, film festivals in the most unlikely places, like one in Marrakech late last year, dedicate themselves to celebrating Australian film-making.
This is all happening at a time when technology is changing what we see, and how we see ourselves, at lightning speed
The advent of platforms like Netflix and Spotify offer us unprecedented access to film, television and music. They are driving an absolute, and welcome, explosion in the commissioning of new work.
Yet evidence to a Senate inquiry last year was that the Australian Netflix catalogue contains very low levels of Australian content estimated most recently at around 1.5 per cent.
This perhaps says more about us than Netflix: the Netflix global catalogue of Australian content is considerably higher.
This isn’t necessarily just an argument for higher local content requirements, though it is notable other countries see this issue as a significant one.
The EU, for example, has just approved a 30 per cent European content quota.
The language has changed
Before we can even have that debate, we need to talk about whether culture actually matters to us.
Recent research has highlighted how the Federal Government’s spend on culture in its broadest forms everything from film and music to museums and local events has fallen in the last decade, and fallen as a share of the total spend by different levels of government.
The Federal Government now contributes 39 per cent of total government spending, down from 45.7 per cent a decade ago, while state and territory governments contribute 34.8 per cent, up from 31.9 per cent, and local governments contribute 26.2 per cent, up from 22.4 per cent.
It’s not that the Federal Government isn’t supporting industries like film production. But the language, and therefore the rationale, around such support has changed.
It seems we don’t mind government support for job subsidies in an industry, but we don’t want to provide government support based on the idea that there may be any intrinsic merit in cultural or artistic output.
It’s not just our natural landscape that’s bleak
It is striking that submissions to last year’s Senate inquiry on the economic and cultural value of Australian content emphasised the impact film sets had on local economies; on how much had been spent at the local Bunnings store, rather than the intrinsic merit of the stories that were being told.
And it isn’t as if the Federal Government isn’t spending money on the stories of who we are.
It’s just that spending half a billion dollars expanding the Australian War Memorial, while cutting the funding of many of our other museums and galleries, suggests a certain lopsidedness in what it is we value remembering these days.
Our natural landscape may have become a vast barren and bleak place this summer.
But we have to ask ourselves whether our cultural landscape has to be that way too.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.