Election 2023 has provided a chance for political parties to launch an exciting new arts policy that would provide a welcome boost to New Zealand writing. But the opportunity has withered on the vine. A lobby group with firm resolve but only a vague sense of purpose was formed pre-election to challenge parties on their arts policies. In fact only one political party has anything resembling an arts policy at the 2023 election: the Greens.

Even their package pales in comparison to the amazing initiative announced earlier this year in Australia, when Prime Minister Anthony Albanese launched the federal government’s $300m national cultural policy Revive. Albanese said it was directed at all Australians, “from the gallery, to the mosh pit, to your favourite reading chair”. The radical overhaul included a dedicated body to fund and support development of writers through the newly formed Writers Australia.

Albanese’s commitment to elevate the place of literature in Australian culture was welcomed by the Australian Society of Authors. “It shows the government has listened to the writing community,” said chief executive Olivia Lanchester. “It is gratifying to see writers recognised as fundamentally important in cultural policy.”

No one says anything of the sort about government support of literature and the arts in New Zealand.

A lobby group – actually it’s more accurate to describe them as an informal gathering of people in the arts, such as Sir Roger Hall, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Roger Horrocks – has been issuing the occasional press release during the current election campaign. I think one or two releases got picked up by The Big Idea and maybe Scoop. You could say their message has somewhat lacked cut-through. A shame, because they raise good points.

On the Revive initiative in Australia: “This year, many members of the arts community have gazed enviously at the situation in Australia where the government has done extensive planning and policy-making and provided new funding to develop the arts. When the Hon. Carmel Sepuloni, Labour’s Arts Minister, was asked by Stuff for her view of what the Australians had done, she replied that she did not think it was time for New Zealand to attempt ‘any visionary roadmap’ of that kind. But will that time ever come?”

No, it will not, or at least no time soon. “New Zealand’s political parties do not have a long-term policy for strengthening our arts culture,” wrote Horrocks and co.

The group identified a number of key issues facing the New Zealand arts sector. They asked questions. “Could our tax system become more supportive of the arts?” And: “Why does Te Papa continue to receive such a large percentage of public arts funding?” On the subject of Creative New Zealand, and in a direct reference to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s ridiculous decision to fund an illiterate arts body $500,000, they wrote, ”There is strong feeling in the community that our arts and cultural funding bodies are not working well and need to be reviewed. The need for a review is highlighted by the many recent public controversies over CNZ and MCH decisions.”

The group took to the email machine. “As the election approached, we began sending out joint emails because we were frustrated to see how little attention the party campaigns were devoting to the cultural sector, despite the major problems currently experienced by its members.

“It is hard to find any experienced artist who does not view the situation for the arts in our country as gruelling and frequently discouraging … There is huge public interest and involvement in the arts, yet somehow that does not get translated into media coverage or political support. The absence of arts policies by the major parties is once again conspicuous by its absence.”

And so they fired off their emails, and the only credible reply came from the Green Party, although the group acknowledged that Te Pāti Māori and NZ First (!) had some adjacent ideas. NZ First’s policies included “funding specialist curriculum leaders to support schools to deliver on the arts curriculum,” and requiring international pay television streaming services to include New Zealand content. The group commented on Te Pāti Māori, “All the policies of Te Pāti Māori focus primarily on Māori creative activity rather than on the arts in general.”

Huzzah, then, the Green Party. Sort of.

“The Greens propose some striking initiatives, such as a guaranteed level of income for every New Zealander. They also promise ‘adequately resourcing work in the arts,’ though they have not yet provided details. 

“The Greens also call for a general review of arts funding policy, and for the government to provide direct support for the arts instead of relying on income from gambling. They also speak of the need for an arts education strategy.”

What about Labour and National? Horrocks and cohort sigh, “At a time when so many areas of the arts in Aotearoa are under threat, it is very depressing that neither of the main political parties has taken an interest by offering some clear policies or promises at election time.”

They add, perhaps humorously, “Of course it is still possible that Labour and National will surprise us with last-minute announcements.”

Jokes aside, “As matters stand, we expect the cultural community will once again be struck by how restricted appears to be the support or understanding of the arts among our mainstream politicians and media. In that situation, it is not surprising that so many areas of our cultural infrastructure remain fragile, able to continue functioning only through the slog and dedication of the arts community.”

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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