Comment: Culture under Abbott remains to be seen

When Paul Keating was on the ropes in 1996 he made one of his final pitches for re-election with a seemingly obvious but sobering proposition.


“When the government changes, the country changes,” he said.

It did. And it did. Not just economically. But socially – and culturally.

Two weeks out from election day the Rudd Government is preparing for a shattering loss. Forget celebrity candidates. Forget trying to re-kindle the magical momentum of six years ago by re-contesting the Kevin ’07 election. Voters have long memories. And while much could yet happen, the race callers are all but calling it over.

The Federal Coalition is trying to keep a lid on hubris and corral the mounting controversy over its costings, pinching itself that it may be heading for a House of Representatives majority with a two in front of it. That’s right – think twenty-something seats.

The Labor Government, despite its manifest policy achievements – not least on disability insurance, paid parental leave, carbon pricing, education reforms and world-renowned tobacco plain packaging – has been a shambolic testament to the poison of division.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbott’s Liberals – with their mantra of Stop the Boats, Scrap the Carbon Tax and Mining Tax – have brought new meaning to the political potency of the simple message. It’s not hard to remember what they say they stand for – regardless of whether they’ll actually do any of it should they be elected.

Keating’s unheeded warning was, of course, as much about how the country would see itself – and be seen by others – under a new conservative government. It was a fair question to ask back then. For no sooner had the Howard Government been elected than the so-called culture war was declared.

The war took place on many fronts. But it was hardest fought around and within Australia’s cultural institutions, not least the ABC and the National Museum of Australia.

If a single item could symbolise the culture war as it manifested at the museum, it would be Mistake Creek Massacre – a painting by the Kimberley artists Queenie McKenzie.

Up to eight Aboriginal men, women and children were murdered at Mistake Creek in the eastern Kimblerly in 1915. It has always been hotly contested whether the killing party included white men – or just Aborigines exacting revenge as part of an internecine inter-tribal feud.

But the context is important.

By conservative estimates, at least 20,000 Aborigines and 2000 colonial settlers, troops, police and militia were killed in fighting on the Australian pastoral frontier between 1788 and the last know massacre of indigenous people at Coniston, Western Australia, in 1928.

It is a dark, long, ugly, chapter in Australia’s past – albeit one that is uncomfortably central to our nationhood. It has never been adequately dealt with in formal school curriculums (some of us were blessed to have history teachers who urged us to probe the uncomfortable truths) or by many of our cultural institutions, including the Australian War Memorial.

But the National Museum of Australia, which found a permanent home on a sacred Aboriginal site in Canberra in 2001, has endeavoured – consistent with its mandate to preserve and interpret Australia’s social history – to tell the story through its exhibitions such as Contested Frontier and acquisitions, such as Mistake Creek Massacre.

The museum purchased the painting in 2005. But the museum’s board – stacked with Howard Government appointees that shared the prime minister’s view that Australians should not dwell on a “black armband” interpretation of colonial history – rejected the painting for inclusion into the National Historical Collection.

Diverging accounts of Aboriginal massacres are common. Black trackers as well as white police, soldiers and settler vigilantes were often involved. The prosecutions of white protagonists was rare.

But the fact is that McKenzie’s 1997 painting depicts the massacre at Mistake Creek according to Aboriginal oral history.

In any event, last year – following a review of items in the broader museum collection – the institution’s council unanimously agreed to incorporate Mistake Creek Massacre into the National Historical Collection. While the decision was made without publicity or fanfare, it was lauded by progressive historians, curators and arts administrators as a major, decisive victory.

In March this year the Labor veteran Simon Crean unveiled Creative Australia – the first national arts policy (funded with $235 million) for 20 years.

Labor was imploding at the time. Crean – who was intricately caught up in the leadership intrigue – lost the Arts portfolio and went to the backbench. The policy, embraced by Australia’s artists, was subsumed by Labor turmoil.

Tony Burke has taken Crean’s portfolio. But Burke’s focus has been on his other portfolio, Immigration, and there has been little – if any – substantive debate on arts and broader cultural policy in the election campaign.

The Shadow Arts Minister George Brandis has made some noteworthy noises, however, saying that Labor did not take the arts serious. He declared former Treasurer Wayne Swan to be a Philistine; said former Arts Minister Peter Garrett had narrow interests confined to popular music and Aboriginal art; that the Liberal Party was full of arts patrons; that Tony Abbott was better versed in the “classics” than any MP and that Malcolm Turnbull is “as close to a Medicean figure as any in Australian politics”.

Does this suggest a rather top-down approach to Arts policy? Will a Coalition Government seek to reinforce its own tastes? Will it seek to pick and cultivate winners from within communities and cultural sectors that it favours? Or will it encourage musicians, artists and writers to stay in the field and to tell the stories that reflect the beauty, complexity, natural fortune and yes, the difficult history, of this country?The jury is out, of course, and the election not yet run.

Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne has outlined as a Coalition Government priority the restoration of Anzac Day to its rightful place in the national curriculum – parts of which, he says, presented a “black armband view of history”.

“We think that of course we should recognise the mistakes that have been made in the past. But . . . we don’t want to beat ourselves up every day.”

Fair enough.

Let’s wait and see. And keep an eye on the ABC too.

When the government changes . . .

Paul Daley is the recipient of the Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism and the Paul Lyneham Award for Excellence in Press Gallery Journalism.

The Observer Effect airs Sundays 8.30pm AEST on SBS One.

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