Australia’s international cultural profile is not something many at home tend to think about. Given the myriad competing demands on the Federal Government’s budget, many would no doubt ask why it’s even worthy of attention. The Federal Government itself attaches some importance to the issue — at least at the level of rhetoric.
The reality on the ground, however, at least in our biggest trading partner China, is that few locals know anything about Australia beyond daishu (kangaroos) and Nicole Kidman — and that’s exclusively through her Hollywood films.
So why does this matter? Australian art consultant Reg Newitt, who has been working in Beijing for over two years has this to say: "You can’t just look at cultural events in isolation from what might be happening in other fields such as business and the economy, because not only are there interrelated elements — there’s also the potential for each to positively reinforce each other."
Shanghai-based Australian stage and screen producer Barry Plews is more blunt, "Promoting our culture internationally demonstrates — and it certainly does need demonstrating — that Australia is an intellectually capable and culturally endowed nation, open to ideas and examination by other nations." This is particularly important in a nation like China, where other aspects of Australian society like sport generate little interest.
One of the difficulties in discussing cultural diplomacy is defining exactly what it means, since those working in the cultural sector tend to see it in broader terms than the Australian Government. A 2007 Senate Inquiry into the conduct of Australia’s public diplomacy — which included the question of culture — defined it as "work or activities undertaken to understand, inform and engage individuals and organisations in other countries in order to shape their perceptions in ways that will promote Australia and Australia’s policy goals internationally." The emphasis on "policy goals" reflects the instrumental approach underlying the current government’s thinking.
"A lot of people [in the bureaucracy]want to see what it means in terms of financial or commercial results, which is really hard to measure in the arts world," say Australian Brian Wallace, who has owned and run Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery — one of the oldest contemporary art galleries on the Chinese mainland — since 1991. "One of my friends who was high up in the embassy for a number of years said all these things are just [seen as]a means of achieving higher trade levels … but you’ve got to think beyond those numbers. The relationships which are forged through all of this exchange are very valuable. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s very effective diplomacy." The focus on narrow policy objectives, Wallace adds, "Makes it harder to put proposals in, and harder for proposals to be considered … You have to jump through a few hoops and it’s pretty easy to be knocked down."
Barry Plews is more damning in his assessment of the federal government’s attitudes. "As far as Australia’s diplomatic service is concerned, being appointed to one of the very few cultural positions within DFAT is very much regarded as a demotion," he claims. "The powers-that-be in governments across Australia believe that cultural engagement is unimportant — a waste of time."
The Australian Embassy’s Counsellor for Public Affairs and Culture in Beijing, Jill Collins, refutes Plews’ comments and says promoting Australian culture abroad is "a high priority for the Government, from the top down". Budgetary figures, however, belie this assertion.
In his submission to the 2007 Senate Inquiry into Australia’s public diplomacy, the former Counsellor for Public Affairs at Australia’s Embassy in Jakarta, Kirk Coningham, claimed that, "Australian public diplomacy has been relegated to a level of importance equivalent to that of Embassy gardens."
In its own submission to the inquiry, the Melbourne-based funding, training and information centre Asialink backed up Coningham’s claim with figures: "Australia spends just 17 cents per capita on cultural diplomacy compared to Germany which spends approximately $3, and the UK which spends an impressive $19 per capita."
These comparative statistics were disputed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), but the fact is, funding for the Australia International Cultural Council — the consultative group within DFAT charged with coordinating Australian cultural diplomacy — has been maintained at $1 million per annum since the council’s founding in 1998. Allowing for inflation, that represents a decline in financial support of more than a third over the past decade.
DFAT’s Public Diplomacy Branch also currently leverages an additional $1 million in cultural funds through bodies such as Screen Australia and the Australia Council for the Arts. Many of these organisations stated during the 2007 Senate Inquiry that their funds were unable to meet existing demands. For example, Jane Cruickshank of the Australian Film Commission (later merged into Screen Australia) informed the Standing Committee that she had a list of requests for assistance to bring Australian films into various territories that the AFC couldn’t meet due to limited resources.
In relation to China, it should also be noted that the money spent on international programs in the Asia region by the Australia Council for the Arts shrank from a high of 35 per cent of their international spend in 1993 to a paltry 23 per cent in 2006.
The final budget of the Howard Government in 2007 went a long way to addressing this lack of funding, massively boosting DFAT’s resources for cultural promotion through the "Australia on the World Stage" initiative. This program earmarked $20.4 million over four years to "showcase Australian arts and our other cultural assets to the world". One of the first moves of the Rudd Government was to axe all unspent funding for this initiative — $19 million — in early 2008.
Limited finances mean Australia is ill-equipped to compete with many other nations in a place like China where the sheer size of the land and population requires a sustained, long-term and widespread series of initiatives to have any impact. Reg Newitt stresses the importance of an ongoing effort over one-off "blockbuster" events: "In terms of big hits, you might be reaching the top levels of business and government, but at the ground level people aren’t experiencing things because they aren’t being given access," he explains. "Rather than any one thing it’s a combination of many, many hits that provides a presence."
The recent Australian Film Festival in Beijing is illustrative in this regard. The festival attracted some significant audiences over two weekends of screenings in early December, but a one-off showcase of eight feature films in a commercial multiplex cannot hope to compete with countries like France and Spain, who maintain year-round screening programs (which are often free) in purpose-built cinemas within cultural centres that also feature cafes, libraries and galleries. Germany similarly stages many screenings in Beijing throughout the year. The UK was involved in multiple film festivals in China during 2009, and also funded several film-related awards. All of these nations have bodies dedicated specifically to cultural promotion abroad in addition to the activities of their embassies. Screen events are only one small part of their programs but the example demonstrates the importance many nations attach to a holistic, sustained approach to their cultural diplomacy.
Without generating the kind of interest a permanent cultural presence provides, few locals in a nation as large and as important as China will go out of their way to find out about a small country like Australia. Without a basic level of awareness, Australia will always be perceived as a poor runner-up to Europe or the US in terms of trade, tourism and a place to seek higher education. A lack of awareness also severely limits our ability to exert influence at all levels of society which can have serious implications when Australians such as Stern Hu are caught up in complex transnational economic and political situations.
Finally, cultural diplomacy is a two-way street. Exchange programs could potentially enhance levels of understanding in Australia which, in the case of China, is sorely needed. In short, our lack of a cultural profile internationally not only does a disservice to our vibrant cultural sector, it also makes our place in the world much smaller than many Australians would like to imagine.
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