Arts, culture and entertainment tell our stories back to us. They share familiar and unique perspectives; they shape our dreams and imagination; and they affect our wellbeing, our social cohesion, our health, our sense of place, our sense of pride. On the eve of the launch of Australia’s first National Cultural Policy in almost a decade, I rise today to share some small stories of the arts from my electorate—the celebrations, the struggles and the opportunities. And I would like to acknowledge in the chamber today the member for Macquarie, who travelled the country consulting on this very policy. This included the border region that I represent, and I thank her for that.

On a rainy Friday night a few weeks ago I attended the King Valley art show. It was a gala night in Whitfield. This was the triumphant return of a mainstay event of the local cultural scene that was so strong before COVID. I joined over 200 people on that opening night in a tin shed in Whitfield, and I was honoured to meet gala prize winner Jacqueline Macleish, whose painting of the iconic Northo Hotel in Wangaratta won the top gong. There were over 300 artworks displayed illustrating the depth of talent in our community.

In celebrating moments like this I will never forget how tough the last few years were for the arts, and I am sad to say the former government dithered in supporting artists when lockdowns first occurred. Many arts workers were excluded from JobKeeper. They’ve never forgotten it. By the time the former government finally acted, many arts, arts workers and artists had already given up. They left the sector altogether for their own survival and many, sadly, have not returned. So I must say I find it rather rich for a coalition MP to move this motion criticising the last six months after their shameful record of the last decade of arts sabotage, where funding has dwindled or stagnated at a huge cost to our cultural and economic fabric.

Arts and culture sectors don’t exist in a vacuum. In regional Victoria they drive tourism, and it has flow-on benefits to our hospitality and accommodation sectors. In Indi, these sectors employ almost 1,000 people. These are the people who teach our kids to play the piano, who teach them to dance. They’re the bands that perform in local pubs. They’re the artists who perform at the wonderful HotHouse Theatre in Wodonga.

I was fortunate to meet with Regional Arts Victoria last week, the peak body for regional artists and arts organisations. It backs artists and communities across regional Victoria to make, participate in and experience creative work. It made a submission to the National Cultural Policy, which I hope the government has considered. One of the issues their member bodies are grappling with are workforce shortages. Even the smallest production requires a team of skilled professionals to pull it off. During COVID there was an exodus of arts workers to other sectors. There aren’t enough theatre technicians, and there isn’t a training pathway for this highly in demand skill set, particularly in regional areas. So I think we should be considering a skills package to grow our regional arts and culture workforce. There is scope for our TAFE sector to step in and fill this gap. This could explore apprenticeships or subsidised traineeships at local providers. And we need our schools, our careers counsellors and our community leaders to promote the idea locally of having a career in the arts.

Last month I secured an amendment to require the newly established Jobs and Skills Australia to provide advice to the minister in relation to skills and training and workforce needs in regional, rural and remote Australia. Our arts and culture workforce needs this focus, and I would urge Jobs and Skills Australia to start their work right there, in the arts.

We also need investment in our local arts infrastructure. The HotHouse Theatre redevelopment in Wodonga would give new life to one of the region’s key cultural tourism assets. HotHouse has a rich and celebrated history of commissioning, producing, nurturing and presenting new contemporary Australian theatre right there in regional Australia, and they could do so much more with better facilities. Then there’s the Benalla Art Gallery phase 2, the expansion of the gallery space to improve the interface and activities between the gallery, Lake Benalla, the CBD and the magnificent heritage botanical gardens. It’s a jewel in our crown, but it’s lost its sparkle and it needs investment. I thank directors Karla Conway, from HotHouse, and Eric Nash, from Benalla Art Gallery, for their dogged advocacy on behalf of their communities. These are the resources, these are the people, that will transform and safeguard our local arts and cultural centre to be sustainable and vibrant into the future and position rural and regional Australia as a shining light in arts and culture.

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