Cultural Commerce

Listener 2 September 2000

Keywords: Literature; Social Policy;

This column is written more in sorrow than anger. Hopes were high when the then Leader of the Opposition, Helen Clark, announced that on assuming the premiership she would also take the Arts and Culture ministerial portfolio. The National Government had been squeezing public spending and that, with the appointments it was making, was generating an authoritarian, politically correct, and backward-looking distribution of the limited funds and leadership in the arts and heritage sector. Hopes were exceeded with Clark’s announcement of some $86m funding for the next three years, although much was a catch-up of the deficit arising from the miserliness of the previous government.

Then the HOT (heart of the) Nation report was published. Written by a government appointed group from the cultural sector, its purpose was to give new directions to cultural policy. The government has not adopted the report, and so nothing said in this column about the report reflects on the government (other than, perhaps, the wisdom evidenced by choosing that particular group). What is distressing is what the report says about the state of the leadership of the cultural sector.

One is immediately struck by the report’s language. It defines activities in terms of ‘cultural enterprises’ and ‘cultural industries.’ A large part of the report is devoted to ‘the market’ and ‘investment’. It writes about ‘economic returns’ and ‘value chains’. In places it reads like a business magazine. Sadly the report’s writers have adopted the language and framework of commercialisation.

One had hoped that the Labour prime minister had taken over the portfolio because she wanted to abandon the narrow focus, and the even narrower policy, of treating arts and heritage (and a whole lot of other activities) as if they were businesses, assessed by business performance measures, and run on business principles. The previous government had tried that strategy. It failed. Clark may still be seeking an alternative. If so, her advisers let her down badly. The HOT Nation report is presented in a context of political correctness and some nonsensical economics. Ignore these, and the report is left with a commercialisation framework

It is not simply that one might have hoped for a different leadership from the cultural community, perhaps even generating a framework which could also be applied to other activities where business principles are clearly inadequate and insufficient. More worrying is that the report’s writer has not learned from the experiences of others, almost as though they have not been living in New Zealand over the last two decades. Education, universities and science research went down a similar advocacy path. Previous governments took them at their word and began running the sectors on the commercialist lines that underpinned the advocacy. They are now suffering from constrictive policies which prevent them from doing what they do well and pursuing their fundamental purposes. If the policies which have been imposed on the universities were applied to Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and MIT, they too would have been remorselessly turned into centres of mediocrity and stress.

Other sectors – notably health, broadcasting and the core public service have had business principles forced over them too, and suffered in similar ways. One hoped the prime minister secretly wanted to get the arts and heritage activities properly (and non-commercially) functioning, in order to shed some light on how to treat other activities so they do what is required of them, rather than what business principles said they should.

It is not widely known that in 1984 a government taskforce reviewed economic policy. The outcome was the policies of privatisation et al in the private sector and trying to run the public sector like businesses. The taskforce probably did not have education, arts and heritage in mind (although it almost certainly had science, perhaps because its approach was so anti-scientific and it was eliminating opposition). Arts and education suffered from collateral damage as the commercialisation policies were imposed unthinkingly everywhere.

Most ministers probably do not accept commercialisation as underpinning their approach, but policy advice continues to be dominated by it. What else is there to offer as a comprehensive approach? Alternative viewpoints have long been eliminated from the advice loop. There appears to be no similar taskforce established in 2000 to offer an alternative. We have a recipe for tears, although we do not know whether it will be the government, the advisers, the economy or the electorate who will be crying. (I’d bet at least three out of four.)

The HOT Nation report is a gift to a future right wing ideologically driven government. Strip out the political correctness and the bad economics, and one has a framework justifying commercialisation, accelerating the thin nasty authoritarian unimaginative colonial outcomes which the policies of the 1990s were producing. This is not to ignore some sensible and innovative ideas in the report, but they are overwhelmed by the commercialisation framework, and can be quickly discarded in favour of the application of business principles, to be administered by business leaders.

It seems inappropriate to finish with a literary allusion, so I use a metaphor from another part of our heritage: Cultural Community 0 Commercialisers 1 (own goal).