300 Million Backward Steps: Trump, Turnbull And The Global War On The Arts
Australians have been among the first to criticise the controversial policies of Donald Trump's administration, including the new President's threat to decimate funding to the arts and creative industries.
However, it's time we looked in our own backyard, where the Coalition government has already enacted these policies. JOSEPH EARP reports.
Part One: The Lights Are Going Out In America
“[My father] had a very simple sort of morality which I think, well I’m sure, I inherited. Rather an old-fashioned concept of honour and manliness and principle. It can make you a bit unbending. One thing he believed was that you should never take a backward step.” – Malcolm Turnbull, 1993
“It is not my job as Prime Minister of Australia to run a commentary on the domestic policies of other countries.” – Malcolm Turnbull, 2017
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump’s prospective cuts to the arts arrived first in the form of rumour. Given the new American normal is misinformation and speculation, it was perhaps to be expected. On Thursday January 19, amid the flurries of fear and paranoia that are now as expected from the Trump regime as the beatific speeches that defined the Obama presidency, a source told The Hill that Trump was planning to slash funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and completely privatise the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The real-world repercussions of such a move would be immediate. The Endowment supports public access cultural endeavours like NPR, a beloved US radio station, but also provides ground-level support for a range of different artistic outlets. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), home to such lauded TV shows as Mercy Street and Victoria, would be under fire, but so too would smaller enterprises that profit from NEH grants.
Ultimately, Trump’s plan would cut a staggering US$10.5 trillion from various arts programs over the space of ten years. The Hill, regarded for its cool-headed reportage, described the move as “dramatic”. A better word might be ‘catastrophic’.
The news caused an immediate outpouring of anxiety. The paranoia haemorrhaged, fast, and before long a wide range of publications began the complicated process of second-guessing their predictably unpredictable President. How true were the rumours? When would his attack on the media and the arts stop? And, as ever when it comes to Trump, how far was he actually prepared to go?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Republicans were rejoicing. Conservatism has always flirted with philistinism, and the great heroes of the international right wing – politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, pundits like William Buckley, Jr. – have long prided themselves on a ‘no nonsense’ attitude to governmental arts spending.
After all, Trump is not the first Republican President to suggest such cuts: Richard Nixon first proposed a very similar set of purse-string-tightening measures back in 1969, a move that prompted children’s TV host and the legendarily well-spoken Fred Rogers to deliver a moving speech to a US Senate hearing, defending public broadcasting’s role as an advocate for great social change. “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health,” he said, his voice as soft and insistent as a light rain.
But such arguments have largely been ignored by conservatives. It’s no matter to the right wing that in terms of federal spending, arts funding represents a drop in the ocean – that, according to Vanity Fair, the total reported cost of the programs Trump aims to cut represents “a measly .016 per cent of the total US budget, which is $4.6 trillion”. For Republicans, privatising the arts is as much a philosophical endgame as it is a practical one; a fulfilling of what they consider one of their core tenets.
In response to the proposed policy, a reasonable and measured case for the arts was made by a range of publications, most notably Fortune, which quoted a striking Bureau of Economic Analysis report measuring the financial benefit of backing cultural programs. “[The bureau] found that arts and cultural production contributed more than $704 billion to the US economy,” wrote Grace Donnelly. “This accounts for 4.2 per cent of the United States GDP and is greater than the contributions of the construction ($586.7 billion), transportation and warehousing ($464.1 billion) industries.”
But when have figures or facts ever stopped Donald Trump? No amount of statistics or reports regarding the arts’ status as a mass employer seemed to put anyone at ease. The mood for the day of the announcement, and indeed many days after, was one of hysteria, as a potent mix of rage and anxiety gripped creatives and arts audiences alike.
It was a bleak week in an already bleak young year. Not only was Trump enacting on a range of terrifying campaign promises, he was going further; doing more. Somehow, a nation’s year of bad dreams had proved prophetic, as America’s worries transformed into dark, stone-hard truths.
Australia is on constant Trump watch now, so the news about the prospective cuts was reported in real time Down Under. Outlets like The Guardian spread the story quickly, and, as ever, the overwhelming emphasis remained on the new President’s status as a loud-mouthed braggart.
“Culture is interesting to Trump to the extent that it reflects his status as a rich man,” Marla Stone, a professor of the arts, told The Guardian in a particularly scathing soundbite. “In his mind, his garish architectural style represents money and power and palaces and masculinity, which are all elements of authoritarian culture.”
Yet one thing proved curiously absent from such wall-to-wall coverage in our country: a single shred of self-awareness. Indeed, a lack of irony has long defined Australia’s reporting on the Trump presidency. There is nationwide outrage whenever America’s new leader suggests the extreme vetting of immigrants; a vocal, furious response when he suggests policies that are openly and inherently racist; and yes, shocked disbelief when he threatens to slash arts budgets.
But such policies are fundamentally Australian; as central to our culture as Trump’s New York accent is to his. There is a reason our Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison highlighted Trump’s executive order on immigration – the so-called ‘Muslim ban’ that left families stranded and refugees in danger – as a sign that “the world is catching up to Australia”. There is a reason that Trump’s fierce brand of white nationalism is being touted as forward-thinking by Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party.
Most pressingly, there is a reason Turnbull and his government have remained silent on the most conservative, most cruel elements of Trump’s policies. A slashing of arts spending would send America back 50 years, but it would also neatly mirror Turnbull’s own policies, and his own blatant disregard for Australia’s cultural life.
Ultimately, Trump’s proposal represents a bleak future for America, but a future staggeringly similar to Australia’s present. Trump wants to cut funding? The Coalition already has, taking $300 million away from federal arts programs. Trump wants to declare financial war on public broadcasting services? Prime Minister Turnbull already has, laying waste to the ABC’s already thin lifelines.
In so many ways, Australia is Trump’s goal; we are what he hopes to achieve. It doesn’t matter that Trump reveals his brutally unsupportive arts policies through so much mud-slinging, and Turnbull does so via tepid press conferences. Either way, the ultimate outcome is the same. The tumour is malignant, no matter how politely the doctor diagnoses it.
“You see, every person who has ultimately changed the course of history has started off being unpopular.” – Malcolm Turnbull, 1986
Part Two: The Two Turnbulls
While he gets to work enacting the policy that directly puts Australia’s cultural life at risk, Malcolm Turnbull sits beneath a surreal painting of a rabbit. The artwork, an image from Charles Blackman’s Rabbit Tea Party series, hangs above his desk in the prime ministerial suite at The Lodge, glaring down at him as he shuffles through the bureaucratic hurdles and hoops that punctuate his prime ministership.
The painting serves as a nice little window into his tastes. Turnbull has always favoured the sensibly garish, and his eye tends to be drawn gently back and forth between vulgarity and veneer. While the businessman in him has long been a man of rigid, rich tastes – of flashy Apple watches and snappy, GQ-cover-style suits – there is an author and art patron in him too. This Turnbull is a kitsch-loving leisure and pleasure seeker, hungrily groping after subversive art, tart wines and the eggy, spice-laden foods he is famous for wolfing down at quiet restaurants like Kingston Foreshore’s Morks, away from the public eye.
It is worth remembering that Turnbull is much less conservative in his tastes than, say, Tony Abbott, or even the majority of his own party. While Abbott likes crooning along to Elvis Presley, Turnbull is a long-time Mental As Anything fan (‘If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?’ is his favourite song). While the ever dry and dull Scott Morrison sings the praises of William Dalrymple’s From The Holy Mountain – a decades-old non-fiction study of the international travels of a monk – Turnbull is busy telling interviewers his favourite book is The Fatal Shore, a renegade account of Australia’s origins written by the acerbic critic and historian (and the uncle to Turnbull’s wife Lucy) Robert Hughes.
It may be remiss to describe the arts as being in Turnbull’s blood, but certainly he comes from a creative family. Even though his mother, Coral Lansbury, an author and critic, walked out on Turnbull and his father when he was nine, she has remained an important influence on his life, her admirable work ethic and career highs impacting him in a range of subtle ways.
Though Lansbury’s output was extensive and multi-disciplinarian – she wrote for television and film in addition to her work as an author – she is best remembered for The Reasonable Man: Trollope’s Legal Fiction. The dense 1981 study received a host of glowing reviews, with one of the most positive write-ups appearing in The Bulletin.
“It is refreshing, if not surprising, to find someone who maintains that that most pellucid of novelists, Anthony Trollope, owed his literary style to the law,” wrote the young critic – a columnist named Malcolm Turnbull, who never once revealed in his painterly review that the ‘someone’ in question was his mother. “The book provides a fresh insight into the novels of Trollope and to an explanation for his style.”
So it is within him, then; the creative urge. Turnbull wrote his own book, The Spycatcher Trial, in 1988 – a non-fiction account of a legal case in which he defended former MI5 agent and author Peter Wright’s inalienable right to publish a memoir dealing with life in the secret service. And he tried and failed to finish a novel named Opium, a dense piece of fiction that his mother began work on before she died of cancer at the age of 61.
Turnbull knows what it means to be creative. He understands. And indeed, that understanding accounts for the careful yet distinct tone of optimism present in the articles that followed Turnbull’s overthrow of Tony Abbott on Monday September 14, 2015, and his assumption of the highest office in the land.
Abbott was a boor, a right-wing battler cut from iron and ancient history. Turnbull was something different. Turnbull had the air of culture and class that led Mamamia to publish an article titled ‘9 Reasons To Love Malcolm Turnbull’. Turnbull, people hoped, would be different. Turnbull, people hoped, was an economic conservative but a cultural forward-thinker, a man who would try everything in his power to protect Australia’s arts communities.
The let-downs came gradually, but before long, all the anticipated softening of Abbott’s war on the arts was revealed to be nothing but well-wishing, while true change was consistently being pushed further and further away from the forefront of parliament.
Turnbull’s character alteration was a slow one, as subtle as the gradual weathering of the face of a statue. Facing a thousand daily frictions provided by an unruly party that had long considered him a narcissistic outsider, Turnbull slowly but subtly shifted the man he once was.
He stayed silent on so much, offered to alter so little, and through his desperate attempts to control the right wing of his party, became defined by a middling approach to just about everything. The maligned 2015 budget – an organised, jutting elbow to the face of Australia’s cultural life that cut $3.6 million from Screen Australia – remained indicative of the government’s overriding policy, one that treated the arts as an economic cross the Coalition and Turnbull were unwilling to bear.
Even the few ways in which the new Prime Minister did shake things up quickly rang hollow. Two months after assuming power, Turnbull dissolved the despised and criticised National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), a so-called “slush fund” overseen by George Brandis, Abbott’s Minister for the Arts, and a disastrous misuse of funds that siphoned away resources from the Australia Council.
In the NPEA’s stead, amid a furore of buzzwords and paper-thin sentiments, Turnbull unveiled Catalyst, a startlingly similar institution that nonetheless promised to depoliticise the handing out of grants and return some of the cash that had been sucked out of the Australia Council. Senator Mitch Fifield, Turnbull’s new Arts Minister, told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time: “Catalyst aims to support innovative ideas from arts and cultural organisations that may find it difficult to access funding for such projects from other sources.”
Optimistic observers described the move as a sign of good things to come. Joanna Mendelssohn, an Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales, wrote in an article for The Conversation: “It is fairly clear that the changes in funding are all a part of [Turnbull’s] larger purpose of moving government policies away from the impetuous extremism of the Abbott years, towards the effective centralism of Hamer, Menzies and Turnbull’s long-time mentor, Neville Wran.”
But not everyone was so certain, and the move had its strident detractors. To the cynical, Turnbull’s actions represented a pragmatic, last-ditch attempt to save face. The problems with Catalyst, critics argued, were the problems that had blighted the NPEA, and many were concerned that the body still put a range of independent cultural funds at risk, all while remaining a dangerously politicised source of economic support.
“If Catalyst works, it will be duplicating the role of the Australia Council,” wrote Julian Meyrick, Professor of the Creative Arts at Flinders University and a particularly savvy commentator. “If it doesn’t, it will be undermining it.”
For those on the ground level of Australia’s cultural hierarchy, Catalyst’s unveiling didn’t coincide with the trickled-down change they had long been promised. Things, it seemed, were frustratingly the same. “[The] Catalyst Fund pretends to remedy the basic problems of George Brandis’ proposed NPEA, but really just sweeps up the mess into a slightly neater pile,” wrote Stuart Glover, the University of Queensland’s senior creative writing lecturer, for The Conversation.
The dissolution of an Abbott institution and its replacement with Turnbull’s empty platitudes wasn’t a case of the new PM rooting out the errors that had made so clear his predecessor’s cultural ignorance. It was simply Turnbull giving new names to old troubles, slapping a fresh layer of paint on a wall succumbing to canker.
And here’s the kicker: Turnbull isn’t culturally ignorant, not in the way Abbott was. He has no air of philistinism to hide behind, no excuse that he is simply an old-school conservative with a limited personal connection to the arts. Turnbull’s history of engaging with the cultural life of this country is there, plain for all to see – as plain as the paintings hanging on his office walls.
Worse still, his NPEA/Catalyst move proved emblematic of all his policymaking decisions to follow. His guiding principles rely on surface-level change; on an upholding of the status quo that he disguises via an artificial obsession with all things cutting-edge.
Nothing really changes under Turnbull. Nobody in the world of the arts truly wins. The same sources of pressure exert the same pressure, and the same tiny, bureaucratic horrors hurt the same marginalised, suffering people. Each day, in every single way he impacts Australia’s cultural life, Turnbull is just that statue, the features of his face gradually washing away.
“I think my problem is I have succeeded in making myself unacceptable to all parties.”
– Malcolm Turnbull, 1993
Part Three: Australia’s Cultural Desert
The phrase “Overton window” was coined in the mid-1990s, designed by its namesake Joseph P. Overton to denote the range of ideas and theories that the general public will accept. Simply put, whatever falls outside of the Overton window seems ridiculous and far-fetched; whatever falls within it seems practical and worth debating.
As a Prime Minister defined by a full-scale assault on the arts, Turnbull has put all his skills into shifting the Overton window. Time and again he has made the funding of cultural programs seem insane – inconsequential even, beneficial to no one – and time and again he has made budgetary cuts seem like the only feasible way to reduce Australia’s debt.
“A ‘loan’ to a mining giant is [seen as] encouraging jobs and growth and exports, but a touring grant or writing fellowship is lazy artists sponging off the public for their arcane, unpopular, elitist self-indulgence,” Andrew P. Street, columnist and author of The Curious Story Of Malcolm Turnbull, The Incredible Shrinking Man In The Top Hat, tells the BRAG.
“[That’s] despite the fact that … mining and the arts employ almost identical numbers of people in Australia (about 230,000 people directly and indirectly), and that arts provides a better return on investment – not least in that Australian artists tend to make and spend their money in Australia while almost all mining profits go overseas.”
The arts sector remains a perfect example of the “jobs and growth” Turnbull endlessly bleats on about, but it seems not to matter to him or his government. He has aggressively recast the role of cultural institutions in Australia, transforming them from places of work into places of frivolity, using the perceived slur favoured by conservatives – ‘elitist’ – to do so.
“We’ve had years of painting the arts as something of less value – economically and otherwise – than ‘proper’ work,” Street says. “It’s easy as hell to score some populist points by sneeringly pointing at some niche-sounding thing like a literary journal or a theatre collective, and say, ‘Why should the public be paying for this elitist rubbish when there are people going hungry/schools in need of computers?’, et cetera.”
As a result, Turnbull’s targets have largely been those he can decry as out of touch, and his crosshairs have fallen on cultural programs the right wing has historically tried to slander as niche. Just take the Force Majeure dance company – a celebrated troupe formed 15 years ago – that was defunded as a result of the 2016 budget.
By reserving a mere $28 million of the $470 billion federal budget for the Australia Council, Turnbull and his government laid to waste a host of struggling cultural programs, including Force Majeure. “Malcolm Turnbull has seriously let down the arts community,” Michael Lynch, the former head of the Australia Council, told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. “I am incredibly disappointed.”
That remains the key phrase that Turnbull’s detractors use against him: disappointing. To the hopeful public who believed he would be a breath of fresh air circulating about the stuffy Liberal Party headquarters, he is almost aggressively disappointing. He has a systematic approach to gutting the systems that keep Australia’s cultural life ticking over, and his actions have hurt almost every kind of creative discipline in this country.
Turnbull has hit out against the literary community, voicing support for the removal of import restrictions on books in a move that would see the work of Australian authors greatly devalued. “It would be a sorry epitaph for Turnbull if he were to be remembered as the man who turned Australia’s most successful cultural industry into a desert,” author Richard Flanagan said of the news.
And he has threatened the worlds of film and television, too. By repeatedly cutting funds for Screen Australia, the ABC and SBS, Turnbull has removed a series of important first steps that once helped those trying to get a start in the industry.
“The problem lies in how fiercely competitive [grants are] becoming, as fewer are renewed each year,” says Samuel Leighton-Dore, a young Sydney-based filmmaker and journalist.
“For instance, Metro Screen’s closure last year removed a vital rung to the emerging filmmaker’s ladder, adding immense pressure on the likes of Screen Australia to create further opportunities.”
Others put it more simply. “[Governmental cuts] hit the arts life cycle at the hatchling phase – the hazy area post tertiary study where, without support, artists are left floundering,” says Yvette Hamilton, a visual artist and lecturer who has witnessed first-hand the impact of Turnbull’s policies. “The abandonment of the ArtStart grant is a good example of this.”
These are the effects of policy: the casualties and crimes often ignored by politicians and mainstream media channels. And these are the people who have no sympathy for a Prime Minister who has spent his tenure treating passion like an impediment, and culture like a dusty, useless artefact of the past. “To be honest, the best way that this government could support the arts and artists in Australia would be to lose the next election,” Hamilton says.
In mid-2016, Turnbull appeared on the popular panel show Q&A. Dressed in a sensible suit rather than the iconic leather jacket he once wore on the program – back when he spat out crackling, Keating-esque takedowns of his peers and enemies alike – he fielded questions from the audience.
He struggled with almost all of them. He seemed to be battling a cold – his voice was thicker than usual, caked in resignation, and his trademark pronounced consonants fell blunt from his lips. But there was a kind of generalised exhaustion about him too; an all-consuming fragility that made him seem as though he was going to crumple in on himself at any minute.
And crumple he did. It was a question from the musician Katie Noonan that did him in, a fiery line of inquiry that took him to task for his failure to support real independent arts funding in Australia. “With your government stating that ‘creativity is the key to innovation’,” Noonan spat, utterly failing to keep the contempt from warping her voice, “will you as our leader commit to funding a strong, completely independent Australia Council for the Arts?”
Turnbull waffled his way through an answer filled with non-responses, his hand limply pinching at the air in the way it does now, every time he has to face the media and deliver the kind of speeches the Turnbull of the past would take any other politician to task for making. But Noonan was unforgiving – she kept at him, asking more of his half-answer. “OK Katie,” Turnbull said, lagging. “If you’d just let me finish … I’ll, I’ll complete the answer.”
There was a pause. It’s an old trick politicians use, uttering their interrogator’s name aloud under the pretence of calming things down and in order to buy themselves a little time. But Turnbull didn’t seem to be buying himself any time. He seemed to be searching for strength – staring off and out into space, as though there was something out there. He did “complete the answer” eventually, spitting out a staccato series of facts and names. But that pause ultimately answered Noonan’s inquiry.
It doesn’t matter whether Malcolm Turnbull is a tragic hero – a good man broken on the wheel of democracy and bureaucracy – or a Machiavellian schemer who has sacrificed his morals for personal gain. Either way, he is a man who decides each and every day to condemn and deny Australia’s cultural life. And all that he needs is a moment’s silence – a brief, scraped together pause – in order to collect the strength to do it. ◼︎