Federation Chamber, March 7 2023
Dr HAINES (Indi) (17:57): Arts and culture, through theatre, music, film, television, visual art and literature tell our stories back to us. They share familiar and unique perspectives. They shape our dreams and our imagination and improve our wellbeing, our social cohesion, our health, our sense of place and belonging, and our sense of pride. They bring people together, especially in rural and regional Australia.
The Australia Council Amendment (Creative Australia) Bill signals the beginning of a new era for arts and culture in Australia. It amends the Australia Council Act 2013 to allow the Australia Council, the government’s principal arts investment development advisory board, to operate under the new name ‘Creative Australia’.
Creative Australia will, in addition to the Australia Council’s existing functions, establish a Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces, as well as Music Australia, Writers Australia and the First Nations first body. This will provide direct support to these sectors so they can continue to grow. The new Creative Australia is part of the government’s major national cultural and arts policies they’re rolling out, which they’re calling ‘Revive: a place for every story, a story for every place’.
Revive is an apt name for a sector that’s been neglected for far too long. Our arts sector suffered major blows during COVID-19. As theatres, art galleries and music events shut down across the country while the lockdowns were on, many of our arts workers were out of work. Sadly, the previous government hesitated for far too long in including the arts sector in COVID support. As a result many workers felt they were being treated as hobbyists; their value to society was undermined. That’s why it’s heartening to see this government make the largest investment in our arts and culture sector in over a decade. This policy will make artists and workers feel recognised, that their work is meaningful to all Australians, that it’s a job that benefits our nation.
Under the Revive policy, the government is committing additional resources and funding to the arts in regional Australia, recognising that regional Australia benefits socially and economically when the arts sector is given the attention it deserves. Arts and culture sectors don’t exist in a vacuum. In regional Victoria, they drive tourism, and it has flow-on effects, with great benefits to our hospitality and accommodation sectors. In my electorate of Indi, these sectors employ thousands of people. These are the people who teach our kids to play the piano and dance. They’re the bands that perform in local pubs. They’re the artists who perform at our local theatres and exhibit in our local art galleries, both large and small. They’re our sound engineers, our theatre technicians, our roadies, our curators, our editors, our costume designers, our bookings and ticketing officers.
One of the pillars of Revive is to build strong cultural infrastructure. It will provide support across the spectrum of institutions which shape our arts, culture and heritage—galleries, libraries, museums, archives and digital collections—so they are restored, built and maintained. The government has committed $11.8 million for sharing the content of national collections by establishing a program of long-term loans of works from the National Gallery of Australia’s collection to regional cultural institutions, and I welcome that.
The Benalla Art Gallery is the largest art gallery in Indi. It’s a jewel in the crown, but, after long-term funding cuts, it’s lost its sparkle. Benalla has a master plan to realise its potential as a world-class regional gallery, but it needs support to realise that dream. Phase 1 of its plan is due for completion very shortly and will see the construction of a secure off-site facility for the optimal storage of art and cultural artefacts, so much so that they can now welcome collections of the NGA that the government has specifically identified in its policy. But, to finish its plan, the Benalla Art Gallery needs more help, and it’s calling on the Commonwealth for support towards the $7.5 million it needs to expand gallery space, to activate opportunities and to improve the interface and activities between the gallery, Lake Benalla, the central business district and the heritage botanical gardens.
Let me paint you a picture of this local treasure. Housed in an iconic modernist building and set amongst the beautiful botanical gardens, the Benalla Art Gallery has on its flank the magnificent bronze sculpture, by sculptor Louis Laumen, of soldier, surgeon and war hero Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop. Weary was born in Benalla in 1907 and later attended Benalla High School. I’m sure many of you know about Weary. From March 1942 to the end of the Second World War, he was a prisoner of war under Japanese command in Singapore and, from January 1943, in Thailand, where he worked on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway. Unintimidated by the Japanese, he became a legend with the Australian prisoners for his modesty, for his remarkable efforts in scrounging food for the sick and for building makeshift hospitals and operating with handmade instruments.
Every place has a story. Every story has a place. Benalla Art Gallery is the perfect place to deliver the Revive policy’s vision of the very best of our national collection touring the whole country. These artworks are proudly supported and owned by all Australians, and they should be accessed by everyone, no matter where they live. So let’s fund our regional art galleries, like our gallery in Benalla, so that we can actually see this policy come to fruition. This funding would bring people together by giving us the space to share our artworks and celebrate local, national and international works and the stories they bring to us. I want to recognise Eric Nash, the Director of the Benalla Art Gallery, for his dogged advocacy on behalf of his community and the arts sector across our region, and the dedicated committee that supports him, chaired by Barbara Alexander AO.
Investment in our local arts infrastructure is not just our galleries but it’s our theatres. The HotHouse Theatre redevelopment in Wodonga is one of the region’s key cultural tourism assets. HotHouse is the only regionally located producing theatre company in Australia, and it’s with us in Wodonga, on the border, on the Murray River. It has a rich and celebrated history in commissioning, producing, nurturing and presenting new contemporary Australian theatre. The company offers professional creative development opportunities and education through theatre training and drama programs. It engages the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and it has a particular focus on young artists. Now HotHouse needs $1.2 million over the next four years. Imagine what they could do with this investment if it was funded under Revive. I want to acknowledge the work of the HotHouse director, Karla Conway, and her board for all the work they do in continuing to deliver high-quality, original, entertaining theatre to the broader region I proudly represent.
Under the Revive policy, the government will increase regional arts funding by $8.5 million. This fund supports sustainable cultural development in our regional communities. The government also intends to increase funding for regional arts through the Regional Precincts and Partnerships Program. This program could fund arts and cultural precincts that transform a place and benefit communities across regional cities all over rural Australia—precincts such as Benalla, as I’ve described, and the HotHouse, as I’ve described, but also the Wangaratta Creative Precinct, which was recently approved at a council meeting in Wangaratta, and places like the Mount Hotham resort, in Indi. Through a series of art installations, Mount Hotham Alpine Arts is looking to diversify its year-round tourism and give people more reasons to visit the resort at any time of year. This project involves the installation of large, high-impact, permanent sculptural pieces across the resort’s five key precincts which draw from the natural environment, the traditional owner heritage and the ski field history. The alpine resorts need $1.5 million to fund this exciting arts precinct proposal.
Festivals Australia will also continue to be funded by the government under the Revive policy. I call on them to direct some of this to the world-famous Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues. Since 1990 this festival has attracted a diverse, eclectic mix of jazz and blues greats and rising stars from the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and home ground Australia. This festival had a triumphant return in 2022 after a number of missed years. It’s home to Australia’s most prestigious jazz competition; the National Jazz Awards have been a highlight of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues each year since the festival began in 1990. It’s launched many a brilliant career.
Another core principle of Revive is to ensure all Australians, regardless of language, literacy, geography, age or education, have the opportunity to access and participate in arts and culture. Reliable digital infrastructure is key to fulfilling this principle, and this requires the NBN. I feel like I speak about the need to deliver the NBN to regional Australia almost daily in this place; in fact, I stood here yesterday at about the same time talking about it. If we are truly going to deliver to everyone in Australia in accessing the arts, no matter where they live, then we must finish the NBN. We can’t have a streaming service that doesn’t stream to everyone.
The resources delivered under the Revive policy will transform and safeguard our regional arts and cultural sector to be sustainable and vibrant into the future. That’s what the government promises, and that is truly my hope. It will provide new skills and opportunities for our young people and connect people of all ages across our large region, if it’s done well.
According to the Australia Council for the Arts, in 2019 around seven out of 10 people in regional Australia attended arts activities. It’s a funny thing; when I moved to the country after spending a couple of years in the city, my city friends said to me, ‘Oh, how will you get to the theatre?’ I asked them, ‘How often do you go to the theatre?’ To be honest, I went more often than they did! So seven out of 10 regional Australians are just like me; they make the most of arts and culture, if they have the opportunity locally to do so.
A policy that invests in digital and cultural infrastructure, that invests in our festivals and theatres, will continue to foster this participation and all the economic benefits that come with it, if it’s done right.
Once again I wish to use this platform to extend a warm invitation to both our Minister for the Arts and our Special Envoy for the Arts to pencil in a visit to Indi. Perhaps you could come down to the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues in October. Perhaps you’d like to be there for the national jazz awards. We’d love to have you. Come to us and enjoy everything that the Indi artists have to offer.