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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

free trade & national culture « Previous | |Next »
November 26, 2003

Free trade and culture. Is it a public policy issue? Should the liberal state be concerned with protecting its national culture when cutting bilateral and regional trade deals. Some think so. Others do not.

The argument for the state's concern with, and shaping of national culture is given by George Miller, the name behind the "Mad Max" and "Babe" films. He says we are:

"...witnessing nothing less than the spiritual death of Australian storytelling on screen... we exported all our top actors and directors but none of our stories.. sleepwalking Australia had slipped back into a comfortable habit of complacency.. our filmmakers no longer had anything new to say - the boys were making Tarantino movies and the girls relationship movies - and had no different ways in which to say it. We had neutered film culture by slashing the AFI..."

In his comments on this statement David Tiley over at Barsita says that the old system, which had nurtured directors such as Peter Weir, Fred Schepsi, Gillian Armstrong, Jocelyn Morehouse, PJ Hogan, Phil Noyce, Bruce Beresford, Michael Jenkins, has disappeared. Commercials have been deregulated, the tax systems has been replaced by the cheaper FFC, Film Australia has been cut, and the ABC has been slashed. David says that all this:

"... has happened in a decade in which the digital revolution has brought huge capital costs, the Americans have developed their formidable production machine, our best people keep leaving, the rest of the world has learnt how to do quirky, the audiences are declining, budgets in television are devised by vampires, and we have become addicted to spectacle."

He says that his fear that globalisation is destructive since the whole world is dreaming Tarantino whilst a generation focused on consumerism, on competition, on spectator sports, is losing its heritage. The net result is that we are left with an impoverished public culture reduced to strange ideas about Gallipoli, mates and the evils of independence.

The conclusion of the cultural nationalist argument is that the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US will result in Australia becoming a media colony of the US.

Boilermaker Bill, a columnist over at, will have none of this. Commenting on the recent AFI Awards shown on ABC he says:

"....If they said it once, they said it a hundred times. A Free Trade Agreement was going to deny Aussie kiddies Australian stories in Australian accents. For what's supposed to be the cream of our creative and cultural communities, the seemingly endless parade of poseurs parroting the same anti-free trade mantra showed a distinct lack of creativity."

Bill's argument? Well he takes exception to the style of the visual literati. He says that for an awards ceremony that was supposed to attract viewers at home:

"... the speeches showed either arrogance or an indifference to the audience. For all their passion and purity of purpose, they lacked persuasion. I wonder if any of them in the cold hard light of day would realise that their display on Friday evening reflects what's wrong with contemporary Australian film, and to a lesser extent, television - and what's wrong with their campaign against the Free Trade Agreement. They were telling rather than showing. And they were either preaching to the converted, which was arrogant, or they had no idea what would communicate their message, which is an indictment on their so called story telling skills."

Fair enough. But why shouldn't the state step in and subsidise this culture industry? Bill does concede some points to the cultural nationalists:

"... Of course I want to see Australian stories - but I want them well told. And yet far too many Australian films come to the cinema undercooked and undernourished. More often than not the acting and production values are high quality, but they're let down by a story and script that's patronising, slap happy, or just lacking the verisimilitude of contemporary life in Australia. I look at the theatre pages of the New Yorker every week with envy: the sheer variety of stories is amazing."

Australia is not the US. If we want quality product full of diversity then we Australians have to nurture it. Boilermaker Bill acknowledges this:

"So, instead of trying to keep the competition out, how about lifting the quality of Australian story telling. Far too many scripts smack of the writer thinking they know it all after attending a Robert McKee workshop, and reading the Cliff Notes of Joseph Campbell's Hero of a Thousand Faces. For a start, how about we invest in scriptwriting workshops, and make leading writers available to mentor up and coming screenwriters? How about we co-opt cinema and television reviewers - who make their lives from watching and critiquing our films and shows - to work with writers? I'm even in favour of tax breaks for film and television - after all everyone else does it."

Is Boilermaker Bill a closet cultural nationalist after all? Nope. In the end culture does not matterfor him:

"What worries me most is that the luvvies will distract us from what's really important in the FTA negotiations: such as preserving our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, maintaining our labour and environmental standards, and getting a fair shake of the American markets. That's the story I want to hear - and I don't give a bugger what accent I hear it in."

In the end Boilermaker Bill does not really care about our national culture. It is not an important public policy issue. As Boilermaker Bll says:

"The US FTA does raise a number of important public policy issues requiring careful consideration. What's going to happen to the Wheat Board's export monopoly, or the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme? How will the FTA affect our car industry? Will it be good or bad for the global trading system? Some of these issues could have real consequences for ordinary Australians. But the impact of the FTA on Australian culture is not one of them."

Boilermaker Bill's focus on 'accent' displaces the culture industry as an industry. What disappears into the background with 'accent' is media producers, cross media projects, investments, employment , exports and profit. Boilermaker Bill has yet to wake up to the existence of the information economy.

Since it means nothing our future cultural industries can be sacrificed for gaining access to US markets for agricultural producers. That is John Howard's position as he moves to cut a deal with the US over free trade.

We should remind ourselves that is in a context of a looming international trade war that is being driven by a protectionist USA, which is closing off more and more of its domestic market to exports from China, Japan and other Asian nations. It is okay for the US to be protectionist but not Australia in a globalized world.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:36 AM | | Comments (7) | TrackBacks (1)

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Now Gary what you have to imagine for a moment is a bunch of neocons taking over our publicly funded arts and film boards as well as the ABC. Now one of their flunkies, a particularly obnoxious little right wing death beast, decides to warm up the art world with his creativity. This artwork involves a copy of the Victorian EOC's pet Act, a Koran and a liberal qanyity of juicy pig manure. He naturally receives a generous grant to let his creative juices flow, with a view to photographing it for the next Adelaide Arts Festival promo poster. As well he manages to get the ABC to fund a doco on the trials and tribulations of the young artist getting the artistic juices really flowing. Get the picture?

As a taxpayer you might just have the odd small objection to some of these goings on. Similarly with some taxpayers and the last lot of Arts Festival posters(I think it was JC dressed up as Hitler and the Virgin Mary getting urinated on as I recall) Whatever, some folk may have a few objections to funding what they see as an appalling display of bad manners, whatever their cultural or religious background.

This is why some of us believe you should fund the education of film-makers rather than the films themselves. Likewise with subsidising the training of fitters and toolmakers rather than subsidising the production of Holdens(or Leyland P76s)

Some of us who have struggled and grappled with pushing our own little barrow in the market-place with modest success, are of course somewhat bemused by the wailings of film-makers. It's a familiar cry of the less successful- IF ONLY people would buy MY wares at MY prices and quantities, then all OUR problems would be solved. Thank goodness wiser heads like John Button didn't listen to the car unions,etc when they uttered it. Now they work three shifts around the clock to sell Monaros to Americans among others. Of course there are probably a few Leyland P76 devotees who long for the good old days.

as a taxpayer i wonder what my tax dollar gets me these days. apart from another consultancy report that is ;-)

What's wrong with being a US media colony anyway?

it means being on a Hollywood drip feed.

That drip is not good for our cultural health--a lot of the product is violent trash.

The drip is also run by bully boys and thugs.

As we do not live in a borderless world but in nationa states American stories are not Australian stories.

public subsidy of the arts is a different issue to free trade. Even the free market Americans subsidize the arts.

Even the free market American protect some of their industries.

Without some form of protection Australia is in danger of becoming a backlot of US production.

The car example that you mention is an American company in Australia.Cars are different from culture in that a national culture is about telling our own stories in our own way.

re: film/tv = culture.. i don't necessarily disagree with the crux of your argument, but i think how i formulate it is somewhat different..

i'm reminded of people who use the term 'music industry' as if somehow they're contributing something more meaningful than (for eg.) two dollar shop merchandise..

the term culture doesn't refer to objects, it refers to activities, interpretations and perspectives.. film and tv can document a culture, and a FTA might reduce documentation of australian culture, but tv programs and films shouldn't themselves be considered culture - they're commercial products.. do we consider societies without tv/film as lacking culture?

You say:

The net result is that we are left with an impoverished public culture reduced to strange ideas about Gallipoli, mates and the evils of independence.
This statement itself tries to restrict the interpretation of events at Gallipoli, and assumes that we don't already have strange ideas about mateship, which i'm certain we do..

so the strength of a culture is demonstrated by the diversity of it's activities, interpretations and perspective - not a "quality product full of diversity" - whatever that is..

for mine, the biggest threat to culture is greed.. the belief that:

- profit is the highest ideal,
- individuals have the god-given-right to pursue wealth and
- anything not engaged in the pursuit of profit is anathema to 'progress' and an infringement on the said god-given-right of individuals to profit

..restricts the possibility for and tolerance of diverse activities, perspectives and interpretations..

Subsidising the telling of our own stories in our own way is OK, but some people who capture the public subsidy market, have to be careful they don't piss off the subsidiser, by telling their own story in their own way. This is the problem when you stray too far from market acceptance. In this respect, some of us have noticed that there appears to be a direct proportionality between singing for your supper and not offending your consumer. (Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse spring to mind here) On the other hand market-places where people bark or whine for their supper seem to often produce the inverse relationship with their clients.(Try JC dressed up as Hitler or the VM being urinated upon here)

This is not to say that the private subsidy of art or culture is always blameless. As I recall Alan Bond through his Bond Corporation was a sponsor of some fine art-works. The small investors were also a little jacked off to find out that they were actually the subsidiser of someone elses tastes, with their hard-earned.

My point is really that the piper should not stray too far in offending those who pay for a tune. On the other hand if the piper plays for free, then feel free.