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Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs
Growing presence of inauthentic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 'style' art and craft products and merchandise for sale across Australia

BYRNE, Mr Andrew, First Assistant Secretary, Soft Power, Communications and Partnerships Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

POLINESS, Ms Barbara, Assistant Director, Soft Power Strategy Section, Soft Power, Communications and Partnerships Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

CHAIR: Welcome. As these proceedings are public, they are being broadcast and recorded by Hansard. If you wish to have evidence heard in private, please let the committee know and we'll consider your request. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I wish to advise you that this hearing is a formal proceeding of the parliament. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of parliament. If you object to answering a question, please state the reasons for your objection and the committee will consider the matter. Would you like to add anything about the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Byrne : I'm responsible for, among other things, our public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy programs.

Ms Poliness : I'm responsible for our cultural diplomacy program within DFAT.

CHAIR: I now invite you to make an opening statement.

Mr Byrne : I have an opening statement prepared, but, in the interests of expediency, with your permission I'll table it and perhaps just run through some of the highlights rather than read a lengthy opening statement.

CHAIR: That's great.

Mr Byrne : We have copies here. DFAT very much welcomes the opportunity to engage with this inquiry. We think it's something that is very important. We can't necessarily make a contribution across all the terms of reference, but we do, I think, have some value to add. To frame the context in which DFAT appears before this inquiry—and, hopefully, you've seen our submission—we, as part of the Australian government, invest very heavily in the promotion and the furtherance of the welfare of Indigenous Australians. We have an Indigenous Peoples Strategy, which was launched in 2015, which encompasses all parts of DFAT's operations, including economic diplomacy, cultural diplomacy and our own internal staffing and resourcing.

There are a couple of things that I really want to highlight today that I think may be relevant for the purposes of this inquiry—a couple of initiatives that we have undertaken over the past few years. The first is our in-house Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement toolkit. This is a document that we've prepared in consultation with key stakeholders, including AIATSIS, who just appeared, Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Australia Council for the Arts and our own Indigenous employees network. It's really a tool to give to our DFAT staff to help them understand and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture. As representatives of Australia all around the world, we were getting feedback that our staff were often not confident in how they engaged on issues around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and how they represented it as non-Indigenous Australians themselves. As someone who's had a number of overseas postings, typically we get a lot of questions from foreign governments and foreign citizens about Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and people, so we need to give our staff the tools to be able to respond with confidence to those sorts of inquiries. It's not intended to be a definitive reference document. It's really just a toolkit with some simple principles that our staff can follow. I'm happy to share a copy of that—we've only printed a limited number of hard copies.

The second initiative is a project we've undertaken in collaboration with Deakin University. I should say that our involvement in this was really triggered by our first ever Indigenous Australian head of mission, Damien Miller, who now is one of the branch heads in my team. Damien was our ambassador in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, he's undertaking a fellowship program at the moment, otherwise he'd be here giving you much better informed evidence than I will today. Damien engineered this partnership with Deakin University, essentially to develop an Indigenous design charter to give designers and graphic designers some simple principles to follow when using Indigenous design or Indigenous motifs in graphic design. Again, it's not intended as a definitive reference document; it's a set of simple principles, and you'll see in the written opening statement a link to the website on which the design charter is set out.

They're just two of the very, I think, relevant initiatives that DFAT's undertaken over the past couple of years. More broadly, we do work very hard to ensure that our staff understand some of the sensitivities and some of the risks around Indigenous art, and that's covered in our engagement toolkit. I'm sure you've visited Australian embassies and high commissions overseas, and you'll see that there's often Indigenous art present in them. We work with Artbank to ensure that we have an organisation that is able to manage those risks and those sensitivities for us, essentially, so that it's not left to our individual embassies and high commissions to navigate those issues. So we essentially rent or hire our art from Artbank. We are happy to answer any questions you may have.

Ms CLAYDON: Was there a particular incident that triggered the partnership with Deakin to develop this toolkit around the more appropriate use of graphic design work?

Ms Poliness : I don't think there was. As far as I know, it was part of the thesis of the person who wrote the charter, Dr Kennedy. He was looking at doing a series of workshops with other Indigenous communities, and I think there might have been a contact already with Damien, who was in Copenhagen, and then it grew from there. That's my understanding.

Mr SNOWDON: I'm very interested in exploring this charter in a bit more detail. Reading the website, I'm just a bit confused as to who it's targeting.

Mr Byrne : Essentially it's targeting graphic designers and people who might be considering using or might want to use Indigenous motifs or Indigenous design patterns in their graphic design, which is something that we do increasingly as an agency for a lot of our own graphic design. For example, on the front page of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement toolkit we've used not quite an Indigenous design but the Indigenous language map of Australia as kind of the basis for a graphic design. So that's who it's aimed at. I should say that the initial project being kind of driven by our embassy in Copenhagen was engaging with Indigenous people in that part of the world initially, so it's not just an Australian project.

Mr SNOWDON: That's interesting in itself. The issue we're trying to confront is inauthentic art. That could be a designer using Aboriginal motifs they've developed themselves. Does this charter address those sorts of issues?

Mr Byrne : I think it sets out some principles to follow: Indigenous led, ensuring that there is Indigenous representation in the design practice; self-determined; community specific—I'm sure you've got them in front of you—and deep listening. So really it is a series of principles to mitigate some of the risks of Indigenous art or Indigenous motifs being misused.

CHAIR: I haven't got one in front of me and I left my iPad back in the office. Is there a prerequisite in there of referring to an Indigenous artist?

Ms Poliness : I'm fairly certain there is. I think that's the first point where it actually says 'Indigenous led'—

Mr Byrne : I'm not sure. In terms of acknowledging a specific individual artist, do you mean?

CHAIR: I'm just thinking of a commercial venture. Where you want to have the marketing edge of having an Indigenous design incorporated into your branding there should be a requirement, not just that you follow the 10 points of the charter, to actually have an Indigenous person do the design that sticks to that and you pay them for that design so that you can then copyright it on their behalf or they can copyright it, so there is commercial confidence there. That would ensure that it is an authentic piece of Indigenous art.

Ms Poliness : I just can't find the right words, but I'm sure that is the basis of the charter.

Mr Byrne : I should say that, although we funded it and we supported Deakin in its development, it's not our charter.

CHAIR: It's not your baby.

Mr Byrne : It's not our baby and we don't pretend to have deep expertise in this. My reading of it is that it is really about engaging Indigenous people in the design process. I read it last night, I must admit, and I don't recall anything about acknowledgement, but I think it's at a slightly deeper level than that. It's about engaging Indigenous people to be part of the design process, being very clear about which community it's come from, how the design might be interpreted and the impact of the design, also considering legal and moral issues around cultural ownership and intellectual property rights and obtaining appropriate permissions where required.

CHAIR: So the artwork that you are referring to is artwork that could be used by a government department for a book cover or something else. It would be advisable to follow that charter. It's not actually for ensuring that it is authentic art.

Mr Byrne : That's right. It's really about graphic design and how you might incorporate Indigenous elements or Indigenous motifs into graphic design in a way that's appropriate and respectful and involves Indigenous people in that process.

CHAIR: That's really interesting.

Mr SNOWDON: This is hosted by Deakin University, presumably?

Mr Byrne : It's run by Deakin University; that's right.

Mr SNOWDON: We should talk to them.

Mr Byrne : Yes, we've got some contact details.

Ms CLAYDON: Yes, I think it's Dr Kennedy. I was just having a look at the document online. Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria, the Design Institute and Deakin University have all collaborated.

Ms Poliness : His contact is in that document.

Mr SNOWDON: We'll see if he wants to talk to us next week. He's presumably in Geelong or Melbourne, is he?

Mr Byrne : I assume so.

Ms Poliness : Yes, he's in Melbourne.

CHAIR: It makes good sense in that regard. I'm just looking at the commercial world, not the administrative world. That is also a protocol that needs to be more stringently adhered to, rather than saying, 'Here's a good design; I'm going to throw this on my packaging and I'm going to gain benefit out of it.'

Mr Byrne : That's right.

Mr SNOWDON: The issue for us, in part, is knock-offs, rip-offs, brought in from overseas. Is there any way we can interfere in that process?

Mr Byrne : In terms of trade?

Ms CLAYDON: There's got to be import restrictions.

Mr Byrne : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: How do we provide the opportunity for people to import forgeries?

Mr Byrne : That gets very tricky. We've spoken to our trade negotiation experts around this, prior to coming to talk to you today, and their advice is essentially: you need to consider it on a case-by-case basis in terms of precisely what policy parameters you might be looking to put in place and then looking at how that might impact on our free trade obligations with a particular exporting country. So it's very hard to give any definitive advice until you have a precise formulation in mind of what it is you're trying to achieve. We can look at the potential impact on our trade obligations and give you some proper advice.

Mr SNOWDON: I think that'd be useful. There are two elements to this, one of which is how we restrict access to the Australian market for inauthentic material. Another might be that internal regulation here in Australia might be seen as an import barrier. There could be a potential conflict between our free trade agreements and what we might set up as a regulation defining what is authentic Aboriginal art, prohibiting the sale of inauthentic Aboriginal art.

Mr Byrne : As I said, it's an issue on which we need to be very specific before we can give you sensible advice, but there are some of our free trade agreements—the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, for example, has provisions in there for member countries to apply some provisions around the protection of cultural assets. But it really depends on exactly what we're trying to do and with which country.

CHAIR: Are you able to come back to us with a descriptor?

Mr Byrne : I can give you that for that particular free trade agreement.


Mr Byrne : In fact, I think we've probably got that here. And it's also in the Peru-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which was signed just a couple of weeks ago. Both contain provisions to make explicit the party's ability to take domestic measures to protect genetic resources and traditional knowledge and to cooperate to enhance understanding. Exactly how that might apply to the specific provision you might want to recommend is hard to say.

Mr SNOWDON: This is going to be quite important because we may end up suggesting there be a regulation which prohibits the sale of inauthentic art in some way, by licensing or whatever. It may not have a direct impact on that particular free trade agreement, but it may have an impact on another free trade agreement, so it would be useful if we could get from the department an overview of the trade agreements and what their provisions are for—

CHAIR: Cultural restrictions.

Mr SNOWDON: intellectual property and the like.

Mr Byrne : Sure.

CHAIR: I'm guessing, just from an overarching perspective, that it's going to be very difficult to put regulations in unless it's a very tied one, like it is with Peru. The other side of the equation, which is to drive our very well-recognised and well-marketed label of authenticity, is most likely to be the lever for people to purchase that item rather than a knock-off. In the end, that market will dry up and become less because the demand won't be there, so there will be less of a supply coming in in its place. It's really tough to stop an item that looks like your item in any market, let alone a cultural market.

Mr Byrne : Yes. That's probably an issue outside our area of expertise—how you would distinguish in the current system. In terms of potential implications for our free trade agreements, it probably has to be something of an iterative process. If the committee has a particular definition, provision or legislative measure that it wants to consider, we could then provide advice on how that might work and what the implications could be under our free trade agreements.

CHAIR: Other than the one we've got with Peru—where they don't want any knock-offs of their artwork either, because it's quite distinct—are there any other nations that have put such a restrictor in their trade agreements?

Mr Byrne : The only other one I'm aware of, as I said, is the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, which is between us, New Zealand and the 10 South-East Asian countries.

Mr SNOWDON: That would be useful because primarily the knock-offs are coming from our north. Knowing what's in that agreement and the Chinese free trade agreement would be useful.

Mr Byrne : Okay.

CHAIR: Indonesia's the biggest source.

Mr SNOWDON: Yes, but that would be covered in the ASEAN agreement.

Mr Byrne : Yes, it would be. We're separately in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with Indonesia. Negotiations are underway.

Mr SNOWDON: It would be useful to know if this is a consideration in those negotiations. If not, perhaps it might be.

Mr Byrne : Yes, we'll see if we can get you an answer.

Ms CLAYDON: I was just contemplating your respective titles—soft power and cultural diplomacy. Being able to establish authenticity of cultural knowledge must be pretty critical to the work that you are doing. As you said, when you're posted overseas, there is high-level interest in Indigenous culture full stop. Do you get involved in the interdepartmental committees? There's one, we discovered, formed on this issue around trying to establish ways forward—whether to enhance protections for authenticity or to go down a regulatory path, or a combination of both. Are you involved in that sort of thing? How do you get to be confident about the relationships that you might form or the networks that you're using to talk to people overseas or in Australia about Indigenous issues?

Mr Byrne : The short answer is we lean very heavily on our counterpart agencies who have that kind of expertise, AIATSIS for example. Artbank, as I mentioned—we rely on them to conduct due diligence on—

Ms CLAYDON: Processes, yes.

Mr Byrne : That's right—the Australia Council, where we need to; the National Museum; and the Department of Communication and the Arts. We do reach out to them when we encounter a potentially tricky issue from time to time. But I suppose our core business is that, frankly, we see Indigenous culture as a soft-power asset for Australia, and it's about projecting that to the world. But we don't pretend to be experts in Indigenous art or Indigenous culture; we draw on expertise of those agencies.

Ms CLAYDON: But it would be critical that you would have confidence in that there would be a system. As we are discovering, there are sets of protocols that various people are using. Some of them look pretty good, but there is not necessarily uniformity of protections there. It would be pretty important, I would have thought, if you are using soft-power diplomacy, that you are confident in the underpinnings. They are all very reputable agencies and departments that you are working with—I am not suggesting otherwise—but we do lack a kind of national framework around how we separate the dodgy operators from the authentic guys. We've got an Indigenous art code that we are looking at. Some people are members; some aren't. There is no one easy repository where you could say, 'Okay, we are confident that everyone is adhering to a defined set of protocols and agreements because we are all signed up to this one project.' Is there some value in having a national framework that people are agreed to and signed up to and in tightening up our regulatory system and our protection system to give you increased confidence?

Mr Byrne : I can conceptually see the attraction to that, but given that it's not really our core business and that we rely on these other agencies, like AIATSIS and the Department of Communications and the Arts, I wouldn't want to pretend that I understand their business better than they do. What I would say is that we are alert to these risks of carpetbaggers and others, and it's quite possible that from time to time some of our overseas missions have come into contact with some of these kinds of less reputable art dealers or whatever. That's why, for us, it's about putting the right process in place and ensuring that our overseas posts and our overseas staff all have access to this toolkit and understand there are some risks to be navigated here and that, if they are in doubt, they contact us, which they do from time to time. Then we'll reach back into these other agencies and other organisations that have really deep expertise and get their advice. I'd put it this way: we discourage freelancing outside that system.

Ms CLAYDON: Good on you for developing the toolkit. I think it's great that you've got an Indigenous ambassador. Regretfully, we couldn't meet him today.

Mr Byrne : No, I'm sorry—I am grateful he's working for me though.

CHAIR: In terms of the embassies and consulates and the reach-out internationally, Australia is not perceived as a large nation. We are seen as a small island somewhere down in the Pacific. Having a national picture of who we are is going to be quite difficult, because we are a nation made of difference. Just going back to the Songlines exhibition, there was the story of Indigenous women, the seven sisters—it couldn't quite be as elaborate as that. This toolkit is for procurement for the embassies, but there's another way of raising the awareness of Indigenous interest and Indigenous culture and country that could be incorporated through the art with a visual explanation which is translated to whatever country they're in that explains some of the complexities of culture and gives them an idea that Australia is not just this little island parked down in the Pacific; it's a nation made up of difference, particularly the Indigenous communities. That would expand their understanding of the richness that we have here. You would need to liaise with the others with that, but I think that that would be a mind-blowing thing for anybody who visited the consular buildings, and it would certainly help your staff because then they're not the font of the knowledge. The knowledge is actually coming from Indigenous community about culture.

Mr Byrne : I think that's right. I don't think there would be any one of our 104 missions around the world that doesn't have some Indigenous art on display, and hopefully all through Artbank. We do see Indigenous art and Indigenous culture as a real serious diplomatic asset for Australia, and it connects with different audiences around the world in different ways. In the Pacific, for example, people will look at Indigenous art and see a bit of a sense of familiarity. It often helps in places like Solomon Islands to feel a bit of connection with Australia and a little bit of a kinship that we're not just this island of alien rich white people. There are some similarities there and a point of connection. In other places, with perhaps a very sophisticated appreciation of culture like Europe and North America and Japan, Indigenous art resonates with people in a very different way and often quite a powerful way, so we do see it and actively use it as a diplomatic tool to project a particular image of Australia, frankly, to help us get what we want in the world through building positive perceptions of Australia and influence.

CHAIR: And the stories that go along with the artworks are fascinating. Sometimes, you don't get that from walking through the embassy.

Mr Byrne : That's right; it can be difficult. But we have a lot of Indigenous performing arts as well that we sponsor to go around the world. Last year, we sent Bangarra to Berlin in October, and this year they're going to India, I think.

Ms Poliness : And Japan.

Mr Byrne : And Japan. We've got the Yidaki exhibition from, I think, the South Australian Museum heading to Japan shortly as well. They're more interactive pieces of art or modalities of art that give people an opportunity to understand—

CHAIR: I've got the Doonooch dancers in my electorate, who were the first ones who went international. They're getting on a bit now; they're just training all the kids in the schools.

Ms Poliness : We're also talking to the National Museum about Songlines and possibly touring Songlines.

CHAIR: Yes. That would be excellent.

Ms CLAYDON: I met with the curator last week or the week before, and we're hoping that that might happen, that there'd be an international audience for it.

CHAIR: That is seriously amazing. It's great news. I think we've covered off everything other than we throw this question to each group that comes in. How do you think we can raise consumer awareness and producer awareness of the importance of authenticity in the art world?

Mr Byrne : As I said, we tend to be more outward focusing, so I'm not sure I can offer any particular insight into that or certainly no better insight than people like Craig Ritchie, but I can understand the two options you're considering of either a brand or a—

CHAIR: As Warren said, this is only our second hearing effectively. You start with a very broad base and then it's starting to come into focus. I don't think we are in focus yet; we're just gathering, which is our job. But we're tossing it out to all of the submitters if they've thought about a way of doing it.

Mr Byrne : As I said, I think, because we tend to rely on others to do that due diligence for us, it's not something we've felt that we've had to invest a lot of time thinking about and worrying about. We pick up the phone to the National Museum or to AIATSIS if we get stuck on this kind of thing. So, as tempting as it is, it's probably best that I don't speculate because we just haven't thought about it enough.

CHAIR: You're relying on their protocols.

Mr Byrne : On their expertise, yes.

CHAIR: Okay.

Mr SNOWDON: Madam Chair, I think we should try and invite Dr Kennedy to come and see us next week while we're in Melbourne.

Ms CLAYDON: And the Deakin University partnership.

CHAIR: To just have a little chat, if that's possible.

Ms CLAYDON: Because it's noted in the remarks that New Zealand's looking at adopting a similar design.

CHAIR: Thank you for your attendance at today's hearing. If you've been asked to provide any additional information or if there is anything else you'd like to provide, please forward this to the secretary by 16 March. You'll be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence to which you may suggest corrections.

Mr SNOWDON: Can I make a suggestion, in the context of the information you want about trade. If it's beyond 16 March, that shouldn't be a problem for us because we're going to be meeting for a couple of months.

CHAIR: Yes, because it might take a little while to pull all that out!

Mr Byrne : We can give you something general about those FTAs. As I said, when it really comes down to nuts and bolts, it'll need to be a much more iterative thing.

CHAIR: Indicative would be good!

Mr SNOWDON: We need to get it in our minds what the capacity is—

Mr Byrne : What are the parameters, yes.

Mr SNOWDON: but we don't need it immediately.

Mr Byrne : Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.