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Upton-on-line : Hot Nation on the Ice

Upton-on-line July 20th

Hot Nation on the Ice

Special Edition: Why did Hamish Keith’s Report Cause Ministerial Meltdown?

This week, upton-on-line examines the heart of the nation – a cultural strategy for aotearoa new zealand (sic – lower case fashionably intended as in upton-on-line).

The report was commissioned by Helen Clark and her general factotum, Judith Tizard. It was supposed to provide a strategic blueprint for the cultural sector as part of the Government’s plan to take the high ground in shaping a cool/hot new identity to underpin a new sort of economy and society.

Being a complex and mercurial sort of subject, it required a talented and eclectic team – to wit, Hamish Keith, Paddy Austin, Rob Garrett, David Gascoigne, Miranda Harcourt, Tim Hazeldine, Witi Ihimaera, Gordon McLauchlan, Hirini Moko Mead and Susan Paterson. How close to the pen these good folk ever got is not known but the number of graphics protecting the copyright of McDermott Miller Ltd, suggests Richard Miller (of the same firm) had a large hand in it as did the perennial Michael Volkerling from Victoria University.

The report has been shrouded in controversy on account of the Associate Minister’s handling of it. Delivered to the Minister in early June, there was a silence. Then a statement that the report hadn’t measured up to expectations. It wasn’t going to be released – it was the Government’s property. The Minister was going to get a reference group together to review it and come up with what she wanted. The Minister claimed Keith’s team hadn’t strayed from their terms of reference. The ensuing fuss led to a back down – the report was released, but still disowned as failing to fulfil the government’s mandate.

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Upton-on-line has some ideas on what has gone wrong. But first: what does the report say and is it such a disaster that it should have occasioned full-blown ministerial embarrassment?

The short answer is no. Given only eight weeks to sketch the cultural sector’s Next Supper, the team have produced a remarkably comprehensive document. There’s plenty to debate in it (but who’s scared of that?) and a large amount of useful information. People should read this report. So should the Minister who has tried to distance herself from it. It’s worth careful consideration – and a proper national debate. We don’t need another review group to interpret it for us.

Rather than attempt a blow by blow account, upton-on-line provides a flavour of the report under several headings: the jargonistic, the pretentious, the useful, the contentious and the brave. [Readers not wildly interested in the detail should flick straight to the bit about the brave, below.]

The Jargonistic

Somewhere or other consultants and/or Treasury officials got their hands on the terms of reference. The Minister can’t seriously claim that the team went beyond their brief – it was almost indigestibly riddled with the usual hierarchy of visions, goals, objectives, and actions which provide a justification for just about anything. It would have been difficult not to have stayed within the terms of reference.

Unfortunately, much of this verbal and conceptual baggage survived into the final report. Try this for a 'vision': “To give form and substance to the creative community as a national ideal.” A national ideal? What do they mean? Or try this for a word jam masquerading as an 'objective': “To maximise creative potential through education training and strategic creative individual development customised to the needs of cultural enterprises”. Strategic creative individual development? Whatever is that?

The good thing is that a lot of this consultancy-speak can be deleted leaving the substance of the report completely untouched.

The Pretentious

The review team’s undoubted erudition is worn on both sleeves rolled down. Upton-on-line does not scoff at the extensive reconnaissance that has obviously been conducted in the rarefied atmosphere of the artistic Hindu Kush. He just questions whether the report needed to record so many arcane map references. For example:

“…we are always multiple and contradictory subjects, inhabitants of a diversity of communities (as many really as the social relations in which we participate and the subject positions they define)…” (Mouffe, 1988:44)

Or how about this:

“…the globalisation of politics, economics and daily consumption have weakened traditional systems of identity-manifestation: customs and legends, royal rituals and local saints no longer have the persuasive force they once had to transmit identity. It appears that cultural policies have been given the task … to fill the void thus created.” (Eduard Delgado, Council of Europe)

It is good to know that we have read Mouffe and Delgado – and Bhaba and Blum and Gulbenkian and Csikszentmihalyi. They’re household names (on Kelburn Parade at least). But however fruitful the 'asynchronies' of this intellectual ferment (p 91), upton-on-line felt that ordinary readers like ministers and opposition spokespersons (not to mention the consuming public) risked being intimidated for no obvious gain. There were moments (thankfully not too many) when the authors were communicating with a remote priesthood.

The Useful

Without a doubt, the report has pulled together a large amount of valuable information about a large – but radically under-described – segment of the economy and society. This is the substance of the greater part of the report – Part I: The Situation, pp 4-74.

There’s a wealth of information about where the jobs in the sector are, the contribution of the sector to GDP, its intersection with the tourist and knowledge-based sectors, and the impact of demographic change on likely consumer demand. The domestic and international markets are described in some detail. There are all sorts of morsels with which to shock and entertain. Like the fact that there were 10 times as many attendances at live pub music at a pub than the ballet in the last year (I’m amazed ballet holds up so well); or that surveyed levels of 'interest' in different activities put classical music well ahead of vehicle maintenance and gardening ahead of every leisure activity except reading and rugby. (Rugby league is well behind on a par with home decorating).

International tourists seem more cultivated than we are. Visiting galleries, for them, is twice as popular as jet boating and historic buildings are almost as popular as casinos.

There is some particularly fascinating material on segmentation within the leisure market. The jealously copyright-conscious McDermott Miller boffins present their four socio-economic quadrants – success, aspiration, anxious security and constrained. Surprise, surprise, the first two groups have either the money or the leisure or both to indulge themselves with greater frequency than the latter two.

Cultural sector growth prospects look brightest with these tertiary educated, free-spending folk who have either made it or are on the way there. The report holds out strong hopes that these are the people who will underwrite a vibrant, growing cultural sector.

It’s all delightfully ironic that these are the very same people the Government’s high tax policies are likely to drive to Sydney and beyond. Perhaps our creative people will be encouraged to follow them there… ?

The Contentious

Just about every concrete recommendation will be contentious. That’s because so much of what is recommended is structural and involves upsetting apple carts. That, despite the solemn declaration by the team that “it is an essential principle of most strategic planning that structure follows strategy”. The report then proceeds to announce that “The first step in our strategy is therefore concerned with structural change” (see p 110). This disarmingly frank contradiction doesn’t evaporate on further reading. It’s all a bit of a mystery.

Upton-on-line identified at least six new proposed entities not to mention a new cabinet committee and all sorts of new partnerships, empowerments and strategic overviews. There are complicated wire diagrams to prove that it all works. At the heart of it all is a new quango called the Creative Industries Development Agency. It would be a talent recruiter, partnership broker, market developer and sectoral portfolio manager. It has all the hallmarks of Jim Anderton’s Industry New Zealand and is the sort of plaything dirigiste political operatives on the Left just love. It would be busily managing, developing and co-ordinating the following segments of the industry:

 Heritage
 Music
 Literature
 Urban Design & Architecture
 Design
 Visual Arts
 Performing Arts
 Digital Interactive Media
 Film
 Broadcasting

CIDA would sit above the Film Commission, the Broadcasting Commission, the new Music Commission and a proposed Heritage Commission.

Building from the Team’s (accurate) analysis that after a decade of constructing large edifices we need a decade focussed on creative people being creative in them, they then propose a Creative Resources Foundation. This truly wondrous entity would be a honey pot for advice, career development, grants, fellowships, tax advice for forgetful
Craftsmen who can’t remember where the money all came from (the famous tenor syndrome) and job creation schemes for artists (improbably developed with WINZ).

To round things out there is a (very sensible) proposal to fully digitise the documentary heritage; and (inevitably from a task force stuffed with academics and consultants) a proposal for something called a Cultural Management and Research Centre where members of the review team or even upton-on-line might one day be able to retire!

There’s only one casualty - Creative New Zealand - which just doesn’t fit the more proactive, industry development model being espoused here

Now it would be churlish to dismiss all of this. There are one or two sensible proposals and even where the proposed solution is questionable, there are real issues being highlighted (such as training and career development) that should be discussed.

For upton-on-line’s taste there is far too much faith in government agencies and quangos as creators of wealth and dynamism. His experience of quango-land is that it is almost unavoidably self-perpetuating. This system would spend far more money on middle men and administrators than Creative New Zealand does. But there’s no reason to believe the present system is perfect either.

The Brave

Finally, there’s the genuinely brave element of the report. I think everyone should read section 6.4 entitled Our Neglected Identities. It will inevitably entail controversy in its attempt to address the vexed issue of national identity, bi-culturalism and multi-culturalism. These debates are so often politically correct and mealy-mouthed. This one, I think, is better. It admits that beneath the slogans there is a good degree of incoherence. More importantly, it questions whether we can move forward if we are trapped by a notion of bi-culturalism that thinks of cultures as hermetically sealed, self-contained units. Here’s the key paragraph:

“However, we also believe that a danger of current understandings of both bicultural and multicultural policies is their backward-looking focus on 'the reproductive processes of culture' (Anthias, 1995:298). We believe there is equal value in developing policy perspectives that are forward-looking and are concerned with the 'removal of barriers to the legitimacy of different ways of being'; embrace 'diversity, cultural penetration and hibridity'; and focus on 'the transformative' (Anthias, 1995:298). There is a need to find common meeting points and to work together whenever possible. It should also be recognised for policy purposes, that 'cultures can no longer be examined as if they were islands in an archipelago' (UNESCO,1998:16).”

There is something very sound here. “Diversity, cultural penetration and hibridity” are the reality of the communications saturated, global community of which we’re part. Taking pleasure and pride in the unique and distinct things about our heritages is important. But so is an appreciation that visions of cultural identity that demand a pure and undefiled separatism are ultimately inward-looking, sterile and divisive.

I think the team has said something really important here. There will be those who question, then, their proposal for a separate Ministry of Maori Arts, Culture & Heritage. It certainly needs careful debate. But it is not necessarily contradictory of their call for common meeting points. The fact is that we do spend money for the purpose of maintaining elements of our heritage from which we seek to draw future inspiration. If it’s good enough to devolve health delivery directly to iwi (as upton-on-line's health reforms did) it’s good enough to let Maori direct the public funds allotted to Maori arts, crafts, language and broadcasting. Since taxpayers provide the funds, Maori have to be accountable for the expenditure like anyone else. But the funds don’t have to be administered by a monolithic central bureaucracy.

My hunch is that the review team took the view that they could only advance the argument for a converging and hybridising future if they advocated a separation of the core, traditional funding channels. Maori are rightly suspicious of 'assimilationist' policies. If a separation of purely Maori cultural funding is the price we pay for a frank admission that future has to be an open-ended, creative one rather than a closed, culturally sealed one, then it may be worth paying.

At the end of the day, both Maori and Europeans suffer from peripherality. Maori are a tiny enclave in the global commons. Europeans have fluency with a culture of truly global reach. But they live in an isolated appendage and draw on a tiny pool of skills. We haven’t been part of a metropolitan economic and political culture for nearly half a century. Battening down the hatches and treating our cultural identities like our threatened wildlife will not work. We have to be open to hybridisation and transformation.

So Why the Panic?

Having now read the report carefully, upton-on-line finds the reception given it by ministers hard to fathom. All sorts of conspiracy theories have been suggested to him, but long experience of this sort of thing leads him to nominate truly incompetent management as the prime culprit.

In the first place, the Government should not have announced an $86 million arts funding bonanza before it had even received the report – especially when the terms of reference had cautioned against mapping out a future that implied large increases in expenditure.

The appropriate course would have been to announce funding for those institutions that needed to be baled out (like Te Papa, the NZSO and so on). Any other money could have been parked as a fund that could be drawn on once the strategic plan was finalised and the Government was on board. (This is what was done with some of the Closing the Gaps money). By doing what she did, the Prime Minister left the clear impression that she knew what her priorities were regardless of anything the review team might recommend.

Secondly, ministers should have worked very closely with Hamish Keith and his team to see that it didn’t generate a report that, in the Government’s view, was wide of the terms of reference. Upton-on-line has had quite a bit of experience in commissioning reviews and rule number one is that you keep in very close touch with your reviewers. (You also give them terms of reference that don’t look as though they’ve tripped off the State Services Commission’s word processor). Upton-on-line wonders whether Judith Tizard ever spent any real time with the team once it had completed its consultations and started to form a view.

Thirdly, ministers should have resolved to release the report at the outset. They could have made it quite clear that its conclusions would be without prejudice to any decisions the Government might take. It should have welcomed public comment on it – this is scarcely the sort of stuff in which votes are at stake. For Judith Tizard to think she could sit on it and invent another process to one side is a reversion to the sort of politics that prevailed before the Official Information Act was passed.

Finally, ministers need to do some hard work sorting their own thinking out. Throughout 1999 Labour in Opposition promised reviews as a way of avoiding firm policy positions. It’s a time-honoured formula. It’s time, now, for Helen Clark and Judith Tizard to get beyond a 'feel good' identification with one of its target audiences. It has to do some hard thinking and take some decisions. Setting up another reference group is a way of avoiding doing so – and a bit of an insult to Hamish Keith and his team. If they’re so wide of the mark (and I can’t see that they were) ask them to re-cast some of the material.

Or is this all a bit of an anti-climax? Was the Government really only interested in the adulation of a spend up? Does the hard graft look unattractive in comparison? After nine years in opposition, I would have expected a much clearer sense of policy direction from this government.

Helen Clark did an inspired thing in taking the Arts Portfolio for herself. It’s time that she briefed Tizard clearly about her expectations or, better still, took control and spent some time with the review team to get things back on the rails. Otherwise, we risk $200,000 worth of analysis – some of it very good – gathering dust.

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