By the waters of Babylon
I heard a Public Works official say:
‘A culture that is truly Babylonian
Has been ordered for delivery today.’
James McAuley (1946)
Any day now — so we are told — the federal government will hand down its masterplan for Australian Culture. It is called the National Cultural Policy. It is the responsibility of Simon Crean, Minister for Regional Australia, who doubles as Minister for the Arts. When questioned, he has always found reasons for postponing publication. For my part I hope that it is never finalised and published or, if it is, that it is quickly shelved and forgotten. We went through all this some 20 years ago with Prime Minister Keating’s infamous ‘Creative Nation’, which shamelessly proposed that subsidised Australian writers and artists celebrate multiculturalism, republicanism and our Asian Destiny. Why not, someone suggested, rename the Australia Council the Ministry of Propaganda? Crean has avoided the Keatingesque imposition of ideology on the arts but his statements have been so jargonised it is hard to know what he is on about. He speaks of ‘a common strategic direction’ for the arts. He wants a ‘cohesion of commitment’ and he wants it ‘on a holistic level’. Above all he wants a ‘forward thrust’. Whatever he’s getting at, it doesn’t sound good.
Even Anna Bligh, former Labor Premier of Queensland, has her doubts. The issue came up the other day when she was launching Leigh Tabrett’s booklet on government and the arts — It’s Culture, Stupid! Reflections of an arts bureaucrat (Currency House) — in the Damien Minton Gallery in Redfern, Sydney. Tabrett had been head of Arts Queensland when Bligh was Minister for the Arts. Discussion inevitably turned to the huge gulf between arts bureaucrats and artists. Bureaucrats live in a world of public finance, accountability, statistics, ‘working teams’, tourism, export drives and whatever. Artists live in darkness and silence, slowly waiting for their presentiments to incandesce into art. There is no common language. Reflecting on her experience in Queensland, Tabrett thinks the problem can be minimised by creating a common language, ‘a language of cultural value’, but she doesn’t say how. She has high hopes for Crean’s long-promised National Cultural Policy. This is where Bligh has her doubts and reservations. Government legislation and national policies, she said, often turn out to be more restrictive than creative. (Cheers from the audience.) You have to allow for ‘a little bit of magic’, for artistic minorities who break the rules and regulations, and work in the cracks and overlaps of policies, or find support in the private sector.
It would help if the often well-meaning arts bureaucrats acknowledged that the greatest artists are indifferent to their policies. Can you imagine the poet Les Murray, the actor/dramatist Barry Humphries or the novelist Patrick White being guided by a National Cultural Policy? The arts bureaucrats can be helpful but they need a certain humility. Tabrett understands the problem. Is there, she asked, a role more subject to criticism and jokes than an arts bureaucrat? One heckler responded: ‘A sports bureaucrat!’
The list of books once banned in Australia, as in most comparable countries at the time, is well known and, to contemporary liberal eyes, extraordinary. It included all sorts of books, from the famous unexpurgated Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Well of Loneliness to the more obscure The Housekeeper’s Daughter. Even Norman Lindsay’s novel Redheap was blacklisted. But what makes the current exhibition in Canberra’s Museum of the National Archives of Australia so remarkable is not the display of once-banned books but the departmental files that are also exhibited. Even more revelatory are some 200 pages of these files made available on the National Archives website as part of the exhibition. They include correspondence about ‘dicey’ books by Comptrollers-General of Customs, Solicitors-General, Ministers for Customs and members of the Book Censorship Advisory Board. All reflect an attempt (doomed, as it turned out) to balance literary freedom with protection of the public from debasing or obscene or blasphemous (not to mention seditious) books. Especially noteworthy are the cautious and often lengthy judgments of the Advisory Board. (‘It may be,’ wrote one Chairman ‘that I am not in tune with the times.’) They are almost always hand-written. The files in the Museum or online are confined to the period from the 1920s, when federal censorship began in earnest, to the 1970s, when the censors gave up a hopeless struggle. This limitation means ignoring important archives from the early 20th century when the federal authorities usually left censorship to private citizens or if necessary the states. But the exhibition revivifies a chapter in Australian social history. The website is: blog.naa.gov.au/banned.
Prisoner X is not the only example of Foreign Minister Bob (‘the right side of history’) Carr being kept in ignorance by his Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. ‘It’s never been raised with me,’ he said of Prisoner X, although Australian officials were informed almost three years ago of Ben Zygier’s arrest. Only last week, on the eve of Carr’s departure for Laos, a Parliamentary committee questioned him about the recent disappearance of the famous Laotian human rights campaigner (and friend of Australia) Sombath Somphone. Carr replied: ‘I haven’t seen advice.’ His department clearly treats the poor fellow as a leading member of the Parliamentary Mushroom Club — to be kept in the dark and fed appropriately.