Thinking about Policy Utility: Some Aspects of Australian Cultural Policy Development in a South African Context (1)

By O'Regan, Tom | Critical Arts, January-December 1998 | Go to article overview

Thinking about Policy Utility: Some Aspects of Australian Cultural Policy Development in a South African Context (1)


O'Regan, Tom, Critical Arts


IN THE PUBLIC discussion of South African policy making it is quite common to see Australia cited as a comparable country whose policies, approaches and strategies could be usefully appropriated in the South African context. The sites of applicability are varied--from cultural diversity policy development to access and equity programs; from the internationalisation of the economy to cultural tourism; from the stock exchange to film and broadcasting policy; and from community development strategies to indigenous communication initiatives. More specifically, there have also been calls for the strategic adoption and renovation of Australian cultural policy studies in a South African context (Tomaselli & Shepperson, 1996). Australian policy makers, bureaucrats, educationalists and policy study academics have all been involved at various levels in policy development, administrative restructuring, proffering expert advice, curricula redevelopment and so on.

Why this interest?

The South African transition to membership of the international community meant that it joined that cultural policy club which embraces the English language countries of Canada, the United States of America (USA), the United Kingdom (UK), Australia and New Zealand. This club might not produce the best cultural policy but its models are available and generally willing to be shared. So, it seems natural that in restructuring the national public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), regard should be given to similar changes in public broadcasting in Australia, Canada and Britain.

`Cultural policy' in Australia is a broader and more inclusive term than it is in the US where it mainly refers to arts policies (Schuster, 1996: 116). For the Australian government it refers to arts, heritage (museums, the built environment, sites of cultural significance etc.), broadcasting, film, new media, music (pop, classical and folk), design and libraries (Department of Communication and the Arts, 1994). For cultural policy studies in Australia, it is even more inclusive with the addition of education, tourism, copyright, language policy, gambling, sport, cultural planning and community development. (2) This broader definition of cultural policy seems useful in the South African context where cultural policy must stress community development.

Australia is not a former imperial power, nor a world superpower. It is a medium-sized country which competes against South Africa in many areas--gold, coal, agriculture, wine, offshore film production and long-haul tourism. In addition, the international problems Australia faced in the 1980s and beyond are those South Africa now faces. Both are peripheral countries. Both are located away from their major trading partners, of limited significance to the world's symbolic economy and off the world's main trading routes: Each has to work hard at being internationally connected as too do their various industries.

Australia provides a useful example of structural adjustment achieved through consensus by a Labor government (1983-1995) with close links to the trade union movement. This was not adjustment through Thatcher-style divisiveness--although the current Liberal Party-National Party coalition government is pursuing more confrontational policies. By the early 1980s the need for structural adjustment in the Australian economy had become critical--just as it has in the 1990s in South Africa. During the 1980s a Labor government sought to make this adjustment by attempting to dampen public expectations, reduce real wages, secure changes in the structure and conduct of the trade union movement, facilitate technological uptake, reduce tariff barriers and by other forms of industry protection in a comprehensive, though unevenly applied, microeconomic reform agenda. To accomplish these ends, it tried to bring the people with it by focussing attention on the nature of the economy and on the nature of Australian failings. …

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