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Launch of Coalition arts statement, 'Cultural frontier'

MONICA ATTARD: The Federal Coalition today launched its direction statement for the arts. Called the 'Cultural frontier', the document sets out to pre-empt the Keating Government's cultural statement to be announced later this month.

Opposition Leader, Alexander Downer, says the Coalition will place heavy emphasis on harnessing the information revolution in Australia and encouraging private sector support for the arts. Jonathan Harley reports that while the statement contains little which is new, it does mean that the arts will be an issue at the next election.

JONATHAN HARLEY: The title, 'Cultural frontier', implies Australia is undergoing a cultural and artistic transition, presumably a reflection of the nation's economic changes. No doubt we are going through economic transition, the question is: how does this translate into the artistic arena and, more importantly, into policy? - because politics is what today's statement is all about. Opposition Leader, Alexander Downer.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: In his speech on the night before the last Federal election, the Prime Minister revealed that, first, the Labor Party takes for granted the votes of the arts community, but he went on to say 'What have we done for them?'. Answer: not much. That's right.

The Labor Party has been in power for over 11 years and they have proved to be .. their government has proved to be unimaginative and certainly its rhetoric has been fine, but its reality as a government has been nothing like as creative and as constructive in terms of the arts as previous Coalition governments were in building so much of the institutional framework that we have for the arts in Australia, today.

JONATHAN HARLEY: At the 1993 election, the Fightback platform included plans to cut ABC funding by approximately $50 million and to review the role of the ABC orchestras, raising concerns about the Coalition's cultural commitment. Today's statement is intended to redress past perceptions and to seize the initiative, to lay the ground for the Opposition to say 'I told you so' when the Government releases its equivalent statement in a fortnight. And as a result, the cultural frontier is not specific, but an observation which may be made about the statement is the stress it places on the relationship between industry and the arts. Private sector funding for the arts has been dropping over the last few years, which the Coalition blames largely on the Keating Government; no mention of the recession and, more importantly, no mention of how the Coalition would encourage a culture of commercial funding for the arts.

But this is a statement of priorities, not policies. There is, of course, one area in which private investment doesn't need any encouragement, and that's in information technology, including the so-called 'information superhighway'. And the message from the cultural frontier is: not only is information technology the frontier of economic growth, it's also the frontier of cultural and artistic growth.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: There is a very strong commitment by us to using technology to enhance access to the arts, generally, and also we believe within the arts as well to their use of technology. And I think one of the, if you like, frontier issues for the arts, as is generally true for Australia as a society, is how we're going to handle the development of new technologies and ensure they work to our advantage.

Now, I am an enthusiast about new technology, but it's got to be properly organised and used to the advantage of all Australians. It shouldn't be used for the benefit of a narrow group in the community. And the relationship between technology and the arts I think is an important issue; it's a frontier issue.

JONATHAN HARLEY: But the cultural frontier raises more questions than it answers, especially for the role of the information revolution. The risk is that access to culture becomes a question of access to technology; the assumption being that if the means of delivery are in place, the quality of content will look after itself. Furthermore, culture becomes a question of consumption rather than participation. What about performing arts? Will our theatres, concert halls and cinemas be empty if everything is on line? Finally, there's the question of Australian culture. If we become a nation of pay TV and electronic mail watchers, will our local products stand up to the flood of overseas material?

But these questions aren't unique to the Coalition's arts statement, and no doubt they'll be raised again when the Government releases its cultural document on 18 October.

MONICA ATTARD: Jonathan Harley reporting.