Australia/ 2. General objectives and principles of cultural policy  

2.1 Main features of the current cultural policy model

The department of state, most recently the Ministry for the Arts, Attorney-General’s Department, provides an overarching monitoring and coordination role in relation to the arts and cultural agencies of the federal portfolio, including the Australia Council and the major collecting institutions.  (Public broadcasting is currently the responsibility of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.)

Australia’s major cultural institutions are nearly all statutory authorities, established by Act of Parliament and with their own boards.  The boards are responsible for the agency, under the terms of their enabling legislation and of the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997 which governs the corporate governance, financial management and reporting of Commonwealth authorities.  The chairs of the agencies normally have a direct relationship with the minister while the chief executives report to their boards.  The agencies provide two governance reports per year to the Department, which has general oversight of the agencies on behalf of the minister. 

The Office for the Arts describes its current roles as follows:

  • Developing policy, research and statistics
  • Administering legislation and funding
  • Supporting elite national arts training institutions
  • Managing the National Portrait Gallery and Artbank
  • Working with portfolio agencies to achieve the Australian Government’s cultural and Indigenous objectives
  • Overseeing the National Network to deliver national Indigenous art, culture, languages and broadcasting programs.

For further information on the Office for the Arts see

 When it comes to the development and implementation of arts policy, and the funding of arts projects, the lines can be somewhat blurred.  While theoretically it might be assumed that the role of the Department/Office[1] is the creation of policy, together with the establishment of a regulatory framework for the portfolio, and that of the Australia Council the delivery of that policy, the model has in practice been much more fluid.  Thus, both organisations have a policy development role, and both have a service delivery role, although this role has waxed and waned in significance for the Department, depending on the government or minister of the day. At this point in time Australia Council has an advocacy role and provides the evidence base but Ministry for the Arts is responsible for policy development.

The primacy of the Australia Council’s role in the arts component of Australia’s cultural policy model has also waxed and waned over the years.  At different times the Council, through its chair and/or chief executive, has worked closely and directly with the minister and ministerial officers, while at others the Department has been the principal conduit of information and advice flow.  The Australia Council Act 1975 contained clauses that provided a degree of ‘arm’s length’ relationship with the minister and government of the day, modelled on the contemporary British system.  Thus, Section 6B of the Act specified, under the heading ‘Directions by Minister’:

             (1) Where the Minister is satisfied that it is desirable in the public interest to do so, the Minister may, by notice in writing to the Chairperson, give directions to the Council with respect to the performance of its functions or the exercise of its powers.

             (2) The Council must comply with a direction under subsection (1).

             (3) The Minister must cause a copy of each direction to be laid before each House of the Parliament within 21 sitting days of the House after the direction is given.

             (4) Nothing in this section authorises the Minister to give a direction to the Council in relation to the making of a decision by the Council in a particular case, being a decision relating to the making of a grant, the lending of money or the provision of a scholarship or other benefit.  

The original enabling Act established (s.20) that the minister ‘shall, by notice published in the Gazette, establish such number of Boards, and assign to them such designations, as he thinks fit…’.  The first council was established with seven art form boards some of which, as mentioned in section 2.1 above, were new iterations of pre-existing boards or committees. 

The original boards were:

  • Aboriginal Arts Board
  • Craft Board
  • Film & Television Board (transferred to the Australian Film Commission in September 1976 as described in 4.3.4)
  • Literature Board
  • Music Board
  • Theatre Board
  • Visual Arts Board.

The Indigenous Board is the only body in Australian government where Indigenous people hold delegated decision making powers. At different times there were additions or deletions of new boards, most frequently around the issues of craft, community arts or community cultural development, or in relation to new media or interdisciplinary practice.  In 2010 the boards of the Australia Council comprised:

  • Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Arts
  • Dance
  • Literature
  • Major Performing Arts
  • Music
  • Theatre
  • Visual Arts

In 2011-2 the Commonwealth government commissioned a review of the operations of the Australia Council, including the appropriateness of the governance model.  The review was wide ranging, speaking to a large group of interested parties, and soliciting further information through an on-line survey. The review report, released in May 2012, confirmed the two key principles that underpin the function of the Australia Council: operation at arm’s length from government, and decision-making on funding based on the assessment of artistic merit by a panel of peers. The review found universal support for the view that the Council should primarily support work of artistic ‘excellence’. In March 2013 a new national cultural policy, Creative Australia, was released. Creative Australia includes the Australian Government response to the review and supported the majority of the proposed reforms. The Government accepted the review team’s recommendations that the Council’s functions be updated and that the original governance structure, whereby the chairs of the artform boards sat on the governing council, should be abandoned and a more conventional skills-based governing board structure established to replace the quasi-representative model.  Furthermore, the Government accepted the review team’s recommendation that the boards themselves be disestablished and that their primary roles of assessing and recommending funding applications from individual artists and organisations be assumed by specialist Peer Assessment Panels..

The Australia Council Act 2013 commenced on 1 July 2013. The new Australia Council Act updates the functions, powers and governance structure of the Australia Council; gives Council the flexibility to establish committees, including for the purpose of awarding grants based on peer assessment; and provides for strategic planning and annual reporting requirements.

The revised functions of the Council, under the new Bill, are as follows. Those marked (ba) to (bd) below were added to the list of functions after the First Reading of the Bill, after community feedback.  Functions that are new or significantly different to those of the original Act of 1975 have been italicized by the author:

                            (a)   to support Australian arts practice that is recognised for excellence;

                            (b)   to foster excellence in Australian arts practice by supporting a diverse range of activities;

                         (ba)   to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts practice;

                         (bb)   to support Australian arts practice that reflects the diversity of Australia;

                          (bc)   to uphold and promote freedom of expression in the arts;

                         (bd)   to promote community participation in the arts;

                             (c)   to recognise and reward significant contributions made by artists and other persons to the arts in Australia;

                            (d)   to promote the appreciation, knowledge and understanding of the arts;

                            (e)   to support and promote the development of markets and audiences for the arts;

                             (f)   to provide information and advice to the Commonwealth Government on matters connected with the arts or the performance of the Council’s functions;

                            (g)   to conduct and commission research into, and publish information about, the arts;

                            (h)   to evaluate, and publish information about, the impact of the support the Council provides;

                              (i)   to undertake any other function conferred on it by this Act or any other law of the Commonwealth;

                             (j)   to do anything incidental or conducive to the performance of any of the above functions.


The amendments to the original Act, as may be seen from the above, reflect a broadening of perspective on the composition of the Australian community on the one hand, and an increased emphasis upon marketing, audience development, and information, on the other.

At the time of writing, Australia is some weeks away from a Federal election and at this point in time it is difficult to ascertain which of the two major parties will assume government.  It may be of significance, then, that amendments moved by the Opposition in the Upper House, the Senate, would have returned the Council’s functions to their original state, had they been successful.

Beyond the change in Functions, and the structural changes disestablishing the artform boards, there is another significant change in the updated Bill, and that is in the powers of Ministerial Direction.  The requirement for the Minister to table in Parliament any direction, as noted earlier in this section, has been removed. The only area in which the Minister cannot give a direction is in relation to financial support provided by the Council.  There has been some concern expressed that the reduced provisions of the new Act have diluted the “arm’s length” relationship between Minister and Council. However the Act does confirm that the Council’s decisions on arts funding are made at arm’s length from government, as the Minister must not give a direction in relation to the making of a decision by the Council, in a particular case, relating to the provision of support.

For further information on the changes to the Australia Council Act, see

The new Act perpetuates the former role of the governing body in setting overall strategic directions for the Australia Council, and overseeing the appropriate distribution of the annual funding allocation from the Commonwealth government to the arts.  Individual artists and organisations continue to apply to the Council for funding for projects, the outcomes of which will be determined by the Peer Assessment Panels.  Some organisations are given triennial funding, while others receive their funding through competitive grant rounds.  Applications are received from all over Australia and well in excess of the number of grants that the Council can afford to fund.

For further information on the Australia Council see

Unsurprisingly, given its role in allocating grants to the arts on behalf of the Commonwealth government, the Australia Council has received its fair share of criticism over the years on a range of issues, which are given a succinct summary in the Background Note. Commonwealth arts policy and administration prepared by Dr John Gardiner-Garden of the Parliamentary Library and available at

Despite criticisms and reviews of the mechanics of the arm’s length process in terms of decision-making over grants, the Australia Council has maintained, with government support, this key feature of its make-up.  However, within the states and territories, the concept of an arm’s length agency has largely disappeared, and a department, or a component of a larger department, fulfils the roles that both the Australia Council and the Department fulfil at the federal level.  These are much more tied to ministerial and political objectives. The state cultural institutions tend, like their federal counterparts, to be statutory agencies. In some states, the role of the department has increased to the extent that it has become the employer and finance manager for all cultural institutions, with a much-reduced role for the boards.  Such changes have frequently resulted from whole-of-government reviews of the role of statutory authorities within the public sector, with an increasing appetite for reducing the number of such authorities and enhancing the power of the related departments.

While federal and state cultural policies operate quite independently from one another, there is a significant degree of co-funding of a range of major organisations, particularly the performing arts companies and also some key visual arts organisations, by the two levels of government.  Funding agreements in such instances tend to be worked through by officers from both constituencies so that they are compatible and do not impose conflicting obligations on the recipient organisations.  In the case of other smaller companies, these might also receive funding from both levels of government but the arrangements around such funding are somewhat looser, although there are normally good degrees of consultation should one or other government agency be contemplating cutting the funding of the recipient organisations.  Most commonly, this situation would arise should the Australia Council decide not to continue funding a particular organisation.  The relevant state/territory department would be advised and, usually, their opinion sought on possibly outcomes for the organisation.  Occasionally the two levels of government will disagree on such a move, and at such points the relevant ministers sometimes become involved in seeking an agreed outcome. The Australia Council and state funding bodies also regularly consult and exchange information on co-funding arrangements in smaller funding programs for one-off and short-term projects.

Local government also plays a role in cultural policy in Australia, at a localised level.  Local government is not as overtly political as it is, for example, in the United Kingdom.  Individuals running for election to their local council do not always do so under the banner of a political party.  There is an overarching Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), which is the national voice of some 670 councils across the country, but it does not have a directive role in areas like culture.  ALGA does formulate research and policy papers on various issues, including cultural diversity, but the implementation of cultural policy is a much-devolved process and is undertaken somewhat unevenly in local councils across the country.  It is notable, for example, that ALGA’s website specifies its strategic priorities which do not of themselves include arts and culture. 

  • Strengthening local government finances
  • Sustaining local roads, transport and other infrastructure
  • Improving natural and built environmental outcomes
  • Enhancing regional equity and regional development
  • Building capacity and sustainability in local communities
  • Connecting member associations and the Local Government sector
  • Engaging effectively in Australian Government processes

However, the absence of reference to cultural planning amongst its strategic priorities belies the fact that many local councils have, in fact, well developed cultural plans, and some have culture divisions or staff who are charged with implementing those plans.  These have sometimes been developed with support or facilitation from state government arts and culture departments.  In recognition of the increasingly significant role local government plays in cultural development, the first meeting of the National Local Government Cultural Forum took place in 2013 to coincide with the Australian Local Government Association’s General Assembly.  The meeting was attended by representatives from the seven state and territory local government associations and the eight Australian capital cities, plus the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), the Australia Council for the Arts, the Office for the Arts, Global Cities Research Institute (RMIT University) and the Cultural Development Network (CDN).

The aim of this first meeting was to explore the national role of local government in arts and cultural development and to reach consensus on the medium to long-term objectives for the Forum.  Key discussion points going forward for the Forum will be: 

  • Response to the National Arts and Culture Accord
  • Extent of current local government cultural data and indicators
  • Infrastructure development and ‘spaces’
  • Local government and national peak arts organisations
  • Collecting and utilising case studies.

This is a significant development for culture in local communities in Australia.

[1] The term ‘Department’ will be used subsequently in this discussion to embrace the Arts Division in the former Department(s) while ‘OFTA’ will be used to for discussions of matters post the 2010 election, when the Office for the Arts came into being.

Chapter published: 26-12-2013