Childers Group submission into the National Inquiry into Canberra’s National Cultural Institutions

8 May 2018

Committee Secretary
Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
PO Box 6021
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Phone: +61 2 6277 4355
Fax: +61 2 6277 4863


National Inquiry into Canberra’s National Cultural Institutions

Childers Group Submission


The Australian Government’s major cultural institutions have clearly defined roles and responsibilities set out in their guiding legislation. They play significant leadership roles beyond collecting and exhibiting material – roles that are often not clearly understood. They have very specific requirements to enable effective and innovative operation, including a body of highly specialised staff with long-established national and international professional networks that contribute to the successful implementation of programs addressing each of the issues contained in the terms of reference.

These highly specialised institutions are very different from government departments, which have much more room to adjust to major funding cuts, and especially to the application of ‘efficiency dividends’. The issues identified in the Terms of Reference are ones with which they have been grappling for the last two decades. However, in the strategic and funding context in which they have been operating, including the mounting impacts of a cumulative ‘efficiency dividend’, such efforts have only partially reduced an ongoing decline in services.

The Childers Group* makes the following observations under each of the Terms of Reference.

1. Creating a strong brand and online presence:

Digital demands and the knowledge economy: These responsibilities have been expanded by the changing demands of the digital world and the public expectations of ever-broader access to their collections, knowledge and expertise. As custodians of significant reservoirs of publicly owned content, they also have an important role to play in the new clean and clever industries of the future that comprise the growing knowledge economy.

 The national cultural institutions have been leaders in recognising the future in this changing economic climate by clever branding and promotion of their online presence. All have demonstrated innovation and world-leading initiatives in digitising and presenting their collections, providing scholarly insights into those collections, and in making their precious heritage accessible to all Australians.

The potential for growth in the knowledge economy was detailed in an early report from 2003 by the then Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. The report, Economic benefits from cultural assets, was one phase of the three-part Creative Industries Cluster Study, and it outlined the significant economic potential the vast collections of cultural institutions offered for development of high quality digital content. It also highlighted the barriers to this potential being unlocked, including the ongoing need for large-scale digitisation of collections. We recommend that the review panel takes account of these recommendations when considering the future of the national cultural institutions and their ability to meet these expectations.

 2. Experimenting with new forms of public engagement and audience participation:

It is essential that the cultural institutions do their job as well as possible with whatever resources they have, and that their job is seen as a broad one, relevant to the widest possible range of Australians. A pertinent example is the work being undertaken by organisations such as the National Library of Australia, in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages organisations, to identify languages material amongst their records. It is likely that they will keep on doing what they do as best they can. At some point though, we will start to see the long-term effects of ongoing funding cuts on important programs such as this.

Soft diplomacy: In the increasingly interconnected international environment, the role of the major cultural institutions in soft diplomacy – recognised so clearly by Asian governments like China, with their grasp of the long term role of cultural bodies – has expanded, not diminished.

 As in so many other areas, such as Australia’s support for intangible cultural heritage both here and in the Pacific and Asian regions, the major cultural institutions pick up the slack and carry the torch for Australia, often in the absence of others in this space occupied by the government.

3. Conducting outreach outside Canberra:

Outreach and presence in the ACT: It is a given that the national cultural institutions’ focus is a national one, but one of our concerns is that this includes a role in engaging with Canberra – the ACT is just one of many states and territories that needs to be equitably engaged with.

Because of the physical location of most of these institutions, there are opportunities for them to leverage off the local arts and cultural environment that can both benefit Canberra but also enhance the effectiveness of the institutions nationally. For example, visitors to large blockbuster exhibitions are much more able to augment their visitor experience when a wide-ranging, dynamic cultural milieu exists locally, so their visit is a richer and more stimulating one. This increases the likelihood of longer and repeat visits to Canberra, which is both the national capital and also an important regional and local centre, stretching well into western and southern NSW.

It is a symbiotic relationship, because in some ways the institutions provide enhanced services to the ACT simply by being here, but the local community in turn provides a base of support and patronage – a critical mass – that enhances the national role of these institutions.

4 & 5. Cultivating private sector support and developing other income streams:

The compounding effect of continuous budget cuts:  In Budgets over many years there have been a suite of cuts which, combined and continued over a sustained period, are having a compounding effect far more damaging than first appears. These include cuts to government agencies, practised also by previous governments, such as ‘efficiency dividends’ and a pause to indexation of program funding, freezing funding so it no longer increases to reflect inflation.

These cuts, having an impact that has been steadily ramping uphave been exacerbated by the outcomes in Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlooks. To put this in perspective, institutions had been struggling with the base rate 1% annual ‘efficiency dividend’ but various ‘temporary’ increases at different times have just exacerbated and magnified the problem.

The reality of what might look like small percentage increases is that they are cumulative, like a reverse form of compound interest. Each percentage cut is a percentage cut on a cut, which is a cut on every cut before it. If individuals tried this exercise with their savings they would quickly see how rapidly they evaporate.

The whole notion of an ‘efficiency dividend’ for these bodies is highly questionable. As noted above, cultural institutions inevitably find their responsibilities, their collections and their programs growing as they expand their outreach and consolidate their roles. They rely on finding their efficiency savings to fund these expanded roles, not to siphon them back to consolidated revenue.

It is clear that the national cultural institutions have not been responsible for the blowout of the budget – they are collateral damage. They’ve been living within their means, even though these means have been cut back again and again under governments of both major parties. It appears from the wording of the Terms of Reference that there is an expectation by the government that none of these cuts will ever be reversed, even when the budget is back in surplus. If this is so, this damage will be permanent and ongoing, leaving the national cultural institutions without the means to meet any of the expectations outlined in the Terms of Reference.

6. Ensuring the appropriateness of governance structures

Lack of strategic policy framework: When there is no clear cultural policy framework or set of strategic principles guiding budget cuts to these institutions, we see continual cutting with no clear rationale. Flexibility is an excellent thing. The problem is that ad hoc policy on the run is no substitute for carefully thought through changes, so that even genuine attempts to find savings or increase efficiencies don’t really ever succeed.

This is part of the problem identified in November 2015 by former Treasury heads, Ken Henry and Martin Parkinson. In their view, decades of Government outsourcing and waves of redundancies have left much of the nation’s public service unable to provide proper and effective advice to politicians and voters, with growing doubts about the ability of government to solve national problems. In a damning assessment of the state of the public service after years of political turmoil in Canberra they warned that the abilities of the bureaucracy have been dangerously degraded. As Ken Henry commented, ‘I seriously doubt there is any serious policy development going on in most government departments’.

In this context, the national cultural institutions have managed well, and have put in place stringent and appropriate governance structures, evidenced by their leadership roles in innovative outreach programs, digitisation of collections and scholarly research. However, while low funding levels and ‘efficiency dividends’ continue to threaten their stability and their ability to live up to the expectations of governments and the public, governments risk undermining our country’s most precious cultural heritage, a cultural heritage that belongs to all of us, not just to governments.

Undervaluing role of government and public service:

We have a climate in which one of our greatest national resources – the public service, and in particular the national cultural institutions – are increasingly undervalued, and in which public servants are not encouraged to think strategically or in policy terms. This is particularly the case when there are influential views within Government strongly opposed to any significant role for government in many areas. This results in a decline in any kind of rational, systematic support for our national cultural institutions, particularly in a time of cost-cutting. The practical implications are that serious mistakes are made by government – and they are unlikely to be able to be undone.

The long-term impact of these cumulative mistakes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. In three years, six years, nine years, Australians will ask where valued and important programs have gone and how critical institutions have managed to diminish to the point where return will not be possible. The risk is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history.

We know that the issues identified in the Terms of Reference are important priorities for the national cultural institutions, but it is unfortunate that they are having to function by compensating for reduced resources, when adequate resourcing would so dramatically achieve magnified reach and impact. Moreover, for these important areas of activity to be continued, let alone expanded, they will need significant resourcing in their own right.
Stephen Cassidy, on behalf of the Childers Group


*The Childers Group is an independent arts forum established in 2011. Our advocacy is based on the principles of:

  • independence;
  • objectivity;
  • valuing the arts;
  • pride in Australia’s national capital city and the surrounding region.
  • Emphasising the importance of research and evaluation in demonstrating the broad value of the arts.


We work closely with other arts and culture organisations around Australia to make the case for the value of arts and culture.









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