Janet McAllister on the arts
Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Ironies in acres of arts policy white space

Paula Bennett believes journalists, film editors and advertising creatives are 'turning down available work to follow an artistic dream'. Photo / APN
Paula Bennett believes journalists, film editors and advertising creatives are 'turning down available work to follow an artistic dream'. Photo / APN

This election-special column was originally going to sum up all parties' arts policies, but it turned out that one of these things was not like the others.

John Key has spent more time thinking about that respected thespian and swimsuit model Liz Hurley than the National Party spends thinking about the arts, judging by their nearly empty policy document. Still, they've strewn a few amusing ironies over the acres of nicely-designed white space.

For example, the policy acknowledges that "cultural industries contribute over $8 billion to the New Zealand economy" and 7 per cent of the workforce is employed in the arts sector. Yet, as I wrote in February, National has seriously shrunk the successful Pathways to Arts and Cultural Employment (Pace) scheme which gives vital business skills to unemployed creative industry workers.

The Minister for Social Development, Paula Bennett, believes Pace participants - including journalists, film editors and advertising creatives - are "turning down available work to follow an artistic dream".

So it's an artistic dream to want to join an $8 billion industry, huh? National often still treats the arts as if they were merely decorative fripperies, even when their own numbers tell them otherwise.

Even more ironic is National's policy pledge to explore the roll-out of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's excellent Sistema Aotearoa pilot programme. Sistema teaches the violin and other stringed instruments to about 100 kids at the Otara Music Arts Centre in a collective orchestra setting, for free.

National's support is pleasing; Sistema deserves it. In other countries, the programme has been credited with a drop in youth crime and truancy rates. These benefits are unsurprising; study after study show that quality music education enhances overall student success.

But the silly part is that National has axed targeted support for music and art education in primary schools. The government rubric is an emphasis on literacy and numeracy; the reality is funding cuts for other vital components of a quality education. Sistema will never be available to all children and so it should be a valued addition to embedded quality music education, rather than an extremely piecemeal substitution for it.

What else has this government done for the arts? They are scrapping TVNZ7, which carries a number of "non-commercial" local arts programmes. They cut adult community education funding, dismissing arts classes as "hobby" courses. And they weakened legal protection for film workers, at the request of a foreign corporation, with the "Hobbit Law". In practice, fewer workers are now entitled to paid sick leave and holidays - I'm unconvinced that oppressing the workshop elves was necessary to keep The Hobbit in New Zealand.

A snip here, a snip there; it all adds up. National's policies reduce people's opportunities to appreciate art, to make art and to sell their artistic skills for what they're worth.

As for the other parties, New Zealand First and Act haven't published arts policies. Labour has a comprehensive set, with a theme of shaping national identity. The Greens want the arts sector to become a "significant, non-agricultural export industry", and they combine a lot of wordy waffle with several sensible policies. The Maori Party's gambling harm reduction bill would help to wean the arts sector off its demeaning and damaging addiction to pokies profits.

These last three parties demonstrate that they know commitment to the arts is not synonymous with conducting reviews of arts funding bodies. The same cannot be said for National.

- NZ Herald

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