A Policy for the Arts?


My brief tonight is to speak about how the early discipline of music making and performing contributed to success in my chosen field, and to reveal how my experiences as Midnight Oil’s front man has equipped me to be an advocate for the Arts.

It’s Not Either/Or
I stand here as a person who likes the roar of the crowd at the SCG as much as the smell of greasepaint. I’m not talking about performing at Waveaid. I’m a footy fan and a fan of theatre, music and film. I’ve been shaped by exposure to Mozart, Bob Dylan and Missy Higgins, to Dickens, Dostoevsky and Tim Winton, to Fred Williams and Tracey Moffatt, to Henry Lawson and Peter Carey. And I support the Essendon Bombers AFL team with a great passion.

Too often in politics, there are fallacious ‘either/or’ arguments. Arguments that suggest there is only one acceptable choice.

This has been a feature of the debate around the Arts. There’s a suggestion that people who like the Arts are a different mob to those who like sport. Therefore, it follows, implicitly, that the Arts is for a select mob, and it’s not what the average community is interested in. This sometimes comes from those into the Arts, as much as those who think the Arts are a complete waste of time.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Well, I think you can “ and should “ have both art and sport. I like both, and I think both are very important. And I suspect there are plenty of people out there who agree.

The Arts make a significant contribution to the economy. Recent ABS statistics show the Arts employ around 85,000 people and contribute almost $12 billion per year to the national economy. This is likely to increase as artists use new global mediums of communication and new technologies, such as digitisation.

I see limitless prospects for Australia to harness the creative enterprise, in ways writers like Richard Florida and British academic Ken Robinson have proposed, so long as we fully commit to investing in current and new art forms and ensure that artists have a secure, long-term framework to operate within.

The infamous quote from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) to the effect that life is ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ accurately describes the career prospects for many performing and visual artists. Although my own experience has been with popular music and we were eventually able to build a sustainable career, nothing comes easily in the performing arts.

Many of the features common to establishing a career in music are reproduced across the arts spectrum. Of course there is one big difference, namely that popular music, doesn’t and nor should it, except in specific circumstances, receive government support. There is a vast commercial industry and audience base for that.

But the song remains the same in terms of the obstacles faced by those engaging in any artistic endeavour across the whole sector. This is one of the hardest games in town. For an Australian artist today, the odds of gaining enduring financial success are longer than on a Melbourne Cup outsider.

Don’t Give Up Your Day Job
In most jobs which require training and expertise, if you work hard, over time you could reasonably expect to be well remunerated, to start building up your superannuation and to have a career that lasts decades. That is not the case for the artist/performer, not even in the field of popular music. Of the tens of thousands of hopefuls, few end up making a living out of what they do even fewer a reasonable living. And it is only the exceptional one in a hundred thousand in the music industry who makes a motza.

The best that the majority of contemporary artists can hope for is a paltry, uneven return for their creative effort. For those who work in the major performing companies wage scales are Lilliputian.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Then there’s the career timeline. For a one-hit wonder it can be over in months. But it’s not much better in other domains: for a dancer, once your career is underway your shelf life rarely exceeds ten years; for an author, the period between successful novels may run to decades; if you’re an actor, you can expect to spend extended periods without work in your chosen profession.

A performing arts or visual arts career is not for the faint-hearted. Getting started can take forever, and once you’re going it is never a smooth trajectory more often a series of stops and starts characterised by near poverty, punctuated by intense periods of activity.

It’s a working experience like no other.

The cost of doing the many things necessary for establishing and maintaining a career such as education, ongoing training, purchasing equipment and clothing, or even employing someone to help in this raft of activities is high.

As the title of the 2003 Australia Council report by David Throsby and Virginia Hollister so succinctly put it, Don’t Give Up Your Day Job. Their finding that half of all artists surveyed had incomes from their creative work of less than $7,300 per annum and that up to one third of these artists experience unemployment over a five year period is testament to the tough road the artist travels.

Consequently as a performing artist you need to be stoic, and prepared to take other work to supplement your arts income. You’ll need to be a jack of all trades and master of your chosen craft.

Of course, there are artists who are feted and rewarded for their work but they are a distinct minority. Most people who contribute to the creative wellbeing of Australia are familiar with a bottom line it’s called the poverty line and this has been true for many years.

I’m well aware that this summation does not take into account the other side of the ledger namely, art for arts sake, or the general participation in making and enjoying art that huge numbers of people enjoy in their downtime. That topic is best dealt with separately but I was intrigued by the suggestion made recently by Hugh McKay that we ought to reinvigorate the old School of Arts Halls to facilitate more neighbourly art activity. I played in those halls in the early days (as did many other Australian musicians) so I say amen to that.

The Four Disciplines
Were there disciplines Midnight Oil drew on to make our way in the highly competitive field of popular music? A few come to mind.

The first thing I’d identify is blind faith. Or whatever it is that sees you careering across the country night after night, stuffed into a car or van with four other blokes, playing one-night stands fuelled by adrenaline and junk food and just knowing for sure that one day you’ll have a sustainable career you might even hear your song on the radio although the door has already been slammed in your face time and time again.

The second is co-operation. We were a band that could only do things our way, even if that meant flying in the face of accepted practice, or occasionally shooting ourselves in the foot but you need to co-operate and share the decision making.

Whether we were contemplating cutting costs, at the behest of the promoter, by taking an unscheduled light-aircraft flight across Brazil late at night instead of the standard air trip (we didn’t, by the way); or if, when trying to find extra funds to cover the inevitable overruns during the recording of the latest album, we had the simple choice of borrowing more money or going on tour earlier than anticipated (we did both, in this case); the bottom line was we needed to work and decide together to survive.

The third factor is imagination. This includes, of course, using the power of imagination in crafting songs; but just as importantly, we imagined a band that would be totally focused on music, creating soundscapes with words that resonated with us not with any media-determined notion of what was good or bad, in or out.

Our view had little to do with reaching a pinnacle of commercial success although we were fortunate in that respect we were much more focused on extracting the most out of each song, each performance, each tour.

I’m convinced that total immersion in your art, pushing yourself as far as possible in order to reach your potential as an artist is the crux of the creative process and that the harder you push, the further you get. We are well aware of the numerous artists over the years who’ve lived by this credo, and the many who died paupers.

The essential point is that it isn’t a tragedy when an artist doesn’t get recognition in their life time; that’s a pity. It’s a tragedy when an artist, or anyone for that matter, doesn’t reach their fullest potential, wherever that lies.

The fourth thing we valued was creativity. By creativity I mean a general embrace of the creative: songwriting, set design, film clips, artwork for album covers, photos, planning for special gigs, and so on. I wouldn’t claim that all the constituent parts of our career were particularly notable for creative excellence. But artists always try and chase down the creative spark, light it, stand back and wait around for the explosion.

Most of the time, however, like anyone else, we were just trying to survive. That perennial favourite, AC/DC’s road song ‘Long Way to the Top’, puts it like this:

Hotel, motel,
make you wanna cry.
Lady do the hard sell,
know the reason why.
Getting’ old, getting’ grey,
getting’ ripped off, under-paid.
Getting’ sold, second hand,
that’s how it goes, playin’ in a band.
It’s a long way to the top
if you wanna rock’n’roll.


So you need all of the above, then add a dose of luck, some decent business advice which means developing some business skills to interpret the advice and some good timing, and you may make more than one or two CDs, and build a lasting career.

Flame Trees
There’s a poignant moment in the recent Australian film Little Fish. Cate Blanchett’s character, having escaped a drug-filled past, is unable to raise the loan she needs to purchase a small business and conclude the transition from junkie to functioning adult, because of her criminal record.

Desperate to move her life forward, she contemplates returning to her sordid past by participating in a drug deal to raise the capital. While agonising over this dilemma, she passes a building where a primary school choir made up of kids from most corners of the earth is rehearsing the Cold Chisel song ‘Flame Trees’. Jolted, she steps inside for a moment.

Bear in mind, if you haven’t seen it, this terrific Aussie film deals with heroin addiction in the western suburbs of Sydney and up to this point has been a gritty and dark affair. The lyrics of ‘Flame Trees’ are sung solo by a young primary schoolkid:

Kids out driving Saturday afternoon pass me by.
I’m just savouring familiar sights.
We share some history, this town and I,
And I can’t stop that long forgotten feeling of her.
Try to book a room to stay tonight.

Number one is to find some friends to say, ‘You’re doing well,
After all this time you boys look just the same.’
Number two is the happy hour at one of two hotels:
Settle in to play ‘Do you remember so and so?’
Number three is never say her name.

Now all the kids join in for the chorus:

Oh, the flame trees will blind the weary driver,
And there’s nothing else could set fire to this town.
There’s no change, there’s no pace,
Everything within its place
Just makes it harder to believe that she won’t be around.


It’s a song known and loved by many Australians of a certain age. And that moment in the film as one of our most notable actors gazes at the young promise of the new Australia, while agonising over the direction of her own life this scene, lifts the film out of its narrative path and evokes a host of reflections for the viewer.

In a flash, one thinks of the passing of an Australian era from the plain, simple, country-town life to the multicultural and more complex society of today; of Nolan’s Ned Kelly mask gazing out across a hostile landscape, a character trapped by circumstance and history; of the sweep of north coast country written about by poet Les Murray; of eternal tales of innocence lost; of assorted private journeys.

In other words, this artful, art-filled moment transports us, reconnects us, as I believe art always can, and that is why we need to celebrate and champion this most fundamental of human expressions.

Some argue that the worth of art can’t be measured, that the effect of art is negligible. But such reductionist logic flies in the face of a long-felt experience we have all had, and our forebears have had, of the enriching capacity of art and the never-ceasing desire of people lots of people, across classes and cultures and communities to engage with art.

As Karen Armstrong put it recently, ‘Any powerful work of art invades our being and changes it forever.’

Labor and the Arts
Labor has a proud belief in, and track record of, supporting Australian arts and artists. I want to continue that tradition and am now engaging in a major review of the ALP’s Arts Policy. Comments, recommendations and suggestions are welcome as we build an Arts Policy that can serve Australia, well into the future.

This means, among other things, looking at better funding arrangements for the Arts and the ABC.

This means moving on from the ‘efficiency dividend’ which is now straight-jacketing Arts bodies and making the development of new and innovative work that much harder. The Australia Council has declared the cumulative effect of the efficiency dividend ‘unsustainable’, for both arts companies and the Council itself.

This means looking at better ways of organising taxation arrangements to maximise the amount of private and public investment in film. We are making very few movies at present and our local film industry’s share of box office has declined significantly in the past ten years.

This means reviewing media laws to ensure the presence of Australian stories on our television screen. Compared to most countries with similar economies, we lag woefully behind in having home-grown faces and stories on TV.

This means recognising that the most significant challenge to artists, especially those working successfully in the new digital media and in our burgeoning Indigenous arts community is to safeguard their intellectual property and provide platforms for their work to continue into the long term.

This means placing the highest possible premium on freedom of expression and removing the long arm of government from interfering in the creative process, whether by stacking arts boards with political appointments or leaning on funding organisations that support critical or edgy work.

Finally, this means standing up and saying proudly, as I do today, that art is as important to the life of the country as sport. That I can and do take great solace from surfing and Emily Kngwarreye’s paintings. That each evokes in me what it is to live in, and love this country.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered on 20 October 2005, in Sydney.

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