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November 23, 2022

Tony Burke keynote address: “You are creators, you are workers. Your work matters.”

In a powerful keynote address to an audience of authors, illustrators, publishers and industry professionals on Tuesday 15 November, the Minister for the Arts, the Hon Tony Burke MP, affirmed the Government’s commitment to delivering what has been missing for a decade – a National Cultural Policy which recognises the work of authors and illustrators.

The Minister did not make any substantive announcements ahead of the formal announcement of the National Cultural Policy so we continue to look forward to seeing the detail as it relates to literature. Commencing with an outline of the five pillars of the National Cultural Policy, the Minister stressed the importance of ensuring that First Nations are first, saying, ‘It is the oldest continuous living culture and that needs to be the starting point, the foundation, the first principle of everything that follows.’

Speaking of the need to consider authors and illustrators, not only as creatives, but as workers, throughout his address, the Minister reiterated the enormous impact of Australian authors and their work upon cultural life in Australia drawing particular attention to: the poetry of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Tara June Winch’s The Yield, Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius, Tom Keneally’s Two Old Men Dying, Robert Adamson’s Reaching Light collection, Clare Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom, Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, Richard Flanagan’s The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Tania Blanchard’s The Girl from Munich, Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe, Jane Harper’s The Dry, Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut, Patrick White’s Voss, Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights, Sarah Ayoub’s Hate is Such a Strong Word, Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs, the work of Bronwyn Bancroft, Mem Fox, Jackie French and more. Australian authors, the Minister said, provide an incredible gift: ‘the pathway for Australians to know themselves, for us to know each other, and for the world to know us.’  

The Minister reflected on the powerful impression made by the many author submissions to the National Cultural Policy, which spoke of the difficulty of making a living as a writer, and the life-changing impact of Government investment. In particular, Burke was moved by Helen Garner’s submission, which outlined the opportunity that initial investment from the Government provided her to create work and establish herself as an author. 

‘The Literature Board was actually established by Alfred Deakin in 1908, which led Helen to be able to say that she could be a writer who might have something useful and interesting to say to, and for, my fellow citizens,’ the Minister said.  ‘I worry about how many great artists we missed because they never had that moment where the wonder of enjoying art was transferred into being told, “You can create it too. You’re worthy. It’s possible.”’

The Minister pointed out previous policy failures, noting the absence of Digital Lending Rights represented a ‘missed opportunity’ for book creators, saying, ‘If you look at the lockdown period of the pandemic, we had an incredible opportunity for authors. Book sales went up, people wanted to use the time to read. Public lending rights mean when someone borrowed a physical book from the library, authors would receive an income. But, of course, by that stage libraries had started to shift to ebooks. In 2020 alone between March and May, there was a 300% increase in the borrowing by ebooks. So what increase did that mean in terms of income for authors? Nothing. Because if a physical book is borrowed public lending rights are there. If an e-book is borrowed, the policy has not yet caught up.’

‘One of the reasons,’ the Minister said, ‘that I wanted to get a cultural policy established early in the term, even though it is the worst possible time to be asking for money within government, was because I wanted to change the trajectory, and have cultural policy in place for long enough that it couldn’t be removed. I never want to see again what happened with the Book Council, where it was established in 2014, entirely defunded by cuts to the Australia Council, and by 2015, was just gone. [A cultural policy] will provide something that has been missing for a decade which is, quite simply, a government that says you matter. A government that says your work matters.’

The Government is widely expected to announce its National Cultural Policy before the end of the year, following extensive consultation with artists and creators across Australia.

The ASA has joined other arts peak bodies to urge the Prime Minister to adopt a whole of government approach to the National Cultural Policy. In our submission to Government we called for:

  1. A national plan and funding framework for literature, embedding direct investment in authors and support for the literary ecosystem 
  2. A funded expansion of Lending Rights to include digital formats
  3. Legislative (including tax) reform which supports creators
  4. A minimum threshold of Australian authored content in schools

We’d like to warmly thank everyone who joined us for the 2022 Colin Simpson Memorial Keynote, and, in particular, Sarah Ayoub and Omar Sakr, who set the tone for the evening with moving readings of their work. Ayoub read an excerpt from her essay, Pride, Prejudice and Pining, from Arab, Australian, Other: Stories on Race and Identity, edited by Randa Abdel-Fattah and Sara Saleh, published by Pan Macmillan. Sakr performed a reading of his poem, Diary of a Non-Essential Worker, which you can read below.

Diary of a Non-Essential Worker – Omar Sakr

Did you know violins can shake the earth? Such sweet vessels, tiny planetary throats. I was sent an orchestra. They made music, a sorrow, a soaring, that shivered the dirt. I followed the notes to a barbarism. The composer said he created the beautiful hour as a space to think about war, and I heard my mother’s name, a dark cascade of her, I saw again the clamour behind her manner, her harrowed glamour; I am claiming all of it now not as a violence, but as an inevitability, always justifiable. I guess I don’t want to lose her, no matter the bruises. I haven’t seen her in weeks, a memory of cherries, a perishable delight. I stay home, she stays home, and with this distance we become old battlefields, able to appreciate our damages without adding to them. How lucky we are to have homes. How likely it is we will lose them. Months ago we couldn’t breathe and smoky miracles pulverised the sky, our fussy lungs. Everything is a miracle when you are alive. I am learning that against my will. Today I was sent a pink dwarf kingfisher, a bird thought extinct for over a century, and still, it was someone’s job to look for her, someone waited, camera in hand, for a glimpse of a glorious beak. Outside, I hear the camaraderie of ordinary wings, the chatter of birds we call pests. They don’t seem to mind the lockdown. I dare say they are having fun, a lark. I call my landlord, ask for a reprieve, and hear only birdsong. He’s having fun. I walk out into the park, where, months ago, a man was stabbed near to death; I sit on the bench close to the stain his blood left and receive a text reminding me to care about Kashmir, and Gaza, and our Uyghur brothers and sisters, who I never stopped caring about, and for whom my care did nothing. Forgive me, I sometimes mistake grief for care. The orchestra follows me under the foliage, the violins unrelenting, the world shaken to their curvature, their high-strung demands, as I sift through the scattered lyric of my shattered life to find a way to love a woman, and the birds weave and whirl in the green, laughing at this non-essential work.