The 2020 experience ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The 2020 experience

Yesterday, I felt like Wil E. Coyote after he's been thumped by a giant hammer. That little flattened concertina shape was Ms TN, just back from the 2020 Summit. On Friday afternoon, I registered as an official 2020 Summiteer, put on the blue-ribboned lanyard of the Creative Australia stream (for "best in show", as poet Peter Goldsworthy remarked), and entered a surreal parallel universe.

It was a world of corridors and party rooms and the Lego gigantism of Parliament House. It was instant media feedback via huge screens in the Great Hall, in which events I had witnessed live that morning were rendered in the afternoon as image and symbol, already swollen into myth. It was a thousand conversations. It was an exhilarating, bruisingly exhausting experience, and I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

The 2020 Summit was at once exciting, frustrating and disappointing. It was, above all, a startling expression of collective goodwill, a fascinating and – for all its faults – inspiring experiment in open government. The weekend ran the whole gamut, from the genuinely moving opening event to the bizarre disconnection of Sky Channel vox pop interviews which seemed to have nothing to do with anything under discussion.

I spent most of the weekend on a steep learning curve, attempting to understand some new and strange vocabularies. The first was the language of “facilitation”. This process, run by volunteers from private corporations, involves industrial quantities of butcher paper, textas and white boards, and is supposedly designed to permit the rapid transmission and synthesis of ideas.

The second was the language of politics, the massaging of message into digestible chunks. Or, as many Creative Australia delegates complained on Sunday after they heard the presentation of the interim 2020 report, into pap. Nobody felt that what was presented on Sunday was a fair representation of what had emerged from our collective labour. (A rather less hurriedly put together report has since emerged).

There were 102 Creative Australia delegates (or Creatives, as we were inevitably tagged). The mix was diverse and by no means predictable. It included, as has been dutifully noted by the press, a fair proportion of glamour, and this rather obscured the collective intellectual weight, which included economists, commentators, producers, curators of museums and galleries, broadcasters, artists, bureaucrats and philantropists.

This weight was evident in the discussions that ensued, and equally in Cate Blanchett's accomplished handling of proceedings. Her co-chairs were media academic Julianne Schultz and Arts Minister Peter Garrett. They, and the increasingly grey-faced facilitator Andy Schollum, always faced a difficult task: it was, as Blanchett remarked, a question of "herding cats".

Creative Australia represented a dizzying range of interests, and it was always going to be a challenge to shape all these voices into coherent policy suggestions. But it happened. It's just going to be a few weeks before the full breadth of the thought that happened that weekend is clear. What will be even more interesting will be the continuing conversation that has been invited by the government.

Evident from the beginning was a palpable pragmatism. Contrary to popular belief, arts workers tend to be very practical. And they’re also used to collaborating and negotiating difference, so the individual discussions were notably free of conflict or grandstanding.

Everyone expected the Creatives to ask for more money. The Creatives were more concerned that the rest of Australia understood what they had to give. Among the benefits discussed were social and individual health, cultural intelligence, economic stimulus and international status.

And, for all the multiple interests, there were clear areas of common concern.

As it was across many streams, education was a big issue. It was seen as a means of ensuring cultural literacy and fostering a community open to new ideas, and of demonstrating in the only way that counts - in the fabric of people’s day-to-day lives – what the arts and creativity have to offer.

Education was connected with the need to strongly address the issue of inclusion. There was a broad awareness that too many Australians feel disenfranchised from culture, either because of social issues (ticket prices are too high, or it’s only for perceived “elites”) or geographical isolation.

Another area of major concern was that, while the creative economy supports many jobs, from arts managers to ushers, the artists whose work underpins this economy still find it difficult to scrape a living. Yet another was to place Indigenous identity at the centre of Australian identity, as is the case in New Zealand. Probably the major understanding underpinning discussion was the need to seek resources outside governmental support.

Even in the few hours allotted on Saturday, the stream came up with a wide range of ideas, though on Saturday night many people felt dissatisfied. More than a few felt they had been hijacked by a pre-set agenda, and that they hadn’t been able to speak to their areas of expertise.

On Sunday morning, when they presented the document that supposedly summed up the previous day’s work, the co-chairs and facilitators faced a minor revolt. Overnight, the plethora of ideas that the delegates had produced had been presented to the Prime Minister and then boiled down by the facilitators into “Priority Themes” and “Top Ideas”. And it seemed to many delegates that some major concerns had been lost in translation.

It was here that we hit the central conflict in the notion of the 2020 Summit. On the one hand, we were being encouraged to boldly imagine a new Australia. On the other, the message was clear: whatever we came up with had to meld with ALP policy if it had to have a chance of being implemented. And a key phrase was “cost neutral”.

Politics, remarked Otto von Bismarck, is the art of the possible. Grasping that nettle, the delegates hijacked the agenda back to their own concerns, and got down to some serious work outlining specific policy ideas. However, that work was barely visible in the plenary session report, which left a number of Creatives stunned and disappointed. (“There were,” said one delegate dryly, “issues of collation”.)

Some points seemed disappear completely in the process: among them, a strong call for rethinking public broadcasting and the issue of responsibility towards climate change. Others surprisingly appeared: when Mr Rudd mentioned summer schools, the entire Creative stream went blank ("summer schools? who said summer schools?") More generally, some concerns never quite made it to the whiteboards: a major oversight in the general debate was the digital gaming design industry, supposedly an area slated for discussion.

It was clear from the beginning that the issue of the income of individual artists was a hot potato. Even a low-cost, low administration and effective scheme like the creation income tax exemption, which has been a successful arm of Irish arts policy for 36 years, was too much like giving money to artists. Which demonstrates how much public discourse is still conditioned by the culture wars of the past decade. Not to mention upcoming economic gloom.

For all the criticisms, the general mood was upbeat, excited and hopeful. Nobody present felt the 2020 Summit was a cynical exercise in public relations. Far from it: it was an inspiring invitation to a participatory democracy, and it resulted in some valuable and stimulating discussions and ideas. If even a few ideas are adopted, it will change things. And the placing of the arts and creativity so prominently in the centre of a new identity for Australia signals a radical shift.

Delegates were continually assured that the missing issues will be noted in the full 2020 report, which will be available in a few weeks, and will each be considered by the government. And Mr Rudd – and the Creative Co-Chairs – have been at pains to emphasise that this is the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it.

They can be sure that delegates will take them at their word. Perhaps the most interesting part of this Summit will be watching what happens now.

A shorter version of this report appears in today's Australian. Picture: the "best in show" lanyards.

Summiteer Julian Meyrick's report in today's Age
Summit observations from music lawyer Adam Simpson


david santos said...

Hello, Alison!
I loved this post and this blog.
Have a nice week.

Margo Neale said...

Hi Alison

Great piece - it reflects the range of emotions that I am sure many felt, and are feeling, inherent in such an ambitious process.

It is strong, informative and truthful without being negative. It is refreshing, as some of the post-summit comments appear to be written for an 'audience' they do not want to upset rather than from the heart (or brain, more relevantly) - thinly veiled saccharine stuff. But maybe I am wrong!

I think we have 3 main jobs to do now:
1.Keep talking
2.Feed into the report we want to see submitted to government. (ie correct errors, misrepresentations and ommissions and add more clarity)
3.Learn from the process for improvements in the next summit or mini-summit. Constructive feedback. Autopsies are good learning exercises; they do not have to be destructive.

Leticia said...

Hi Alison,

Leticia here. I sat next to you on Sunday morning through that rather uncomfortable interview with expats... Just wanted to say, loved this report. Thanks for summarising so aptly the pros and cons of the event. I have already met with some rather disappointing cynicism, and am trying to hang on to what mattered most: the collective voicing of a healthy, intelligent and committed arts community, proudly devoted to enriching the cultural life of this country, at all costs.
I agree with Margo on the three main points of action. We have a responsibility I think as “the chosen ones” to keep talking and lobbying.
Warm regards,

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Leticia and Margo - yes, cynicism is an easy default position. And whatever its failures, this was not a cynical exercise. Among the most valuable aspects was the cross fertilisation, not only in our stream where we met so many people outside our specific fields, but across the whole spectrum. I had an inspiring conversation with a woman in geriatric nursing, for instance, who in the space of two minutes mentioned three works of art (a book, a film and a photographic exhibition) that she said were essential to her work in teaching ethics in dealing with dementia, and which gave her resources she could get nowhere else. The whole experience confirmed for me that people think that the arts (and, as the buzz word was, creativity) matter in profound ways in their lives.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Alison, thanks so much for posting this. I've seen an appalling amount of noisy, negative, ill-informed dick-waving about 2020 in the blogosphere over the last few weeks, so it's lovely to read something (a) positive by (b) a woman who was (c) actually there and therefore knows what she's talking about.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Kerryn - the general level of cynicism in the commentary, if partially warranted by the lacklustre final presentation, is a little disheartening. For all my criticisms, and a certain scepticism, I still think it was an amazing exercise of goodwill. And I suspect the implications of this event will resonate in unexpected ways through Australia for years to come. Policy change might be the least of it.

Nazid said...

Hi, good report.
Yes its only the beginning, but what a beginning! That the whole thing took place at all seems a minor miracle. I watched on and off throughout and kept asking myself, "Is this the same country?". I think where we were some months was bleak. Now we have a government at least trying to modernise itself..a 21st century style of government..I feel a little more optimistic...

Jarrett said...

Yes, an excellent and helpful report.

As a theatre-trained American living in Sydney and still learning your discourse, I'm curious about the following sentence:

Yet another was to place Indigenous identity at the centre of Australian identity, as is the case in New Zealand.

This sounds wonderful, but I wonder what it means. How would one evaluate whether such a goal has been achieved or not? What exactly goes on in NZ but not in Aus that manifests the centrality of indigenous culture to national identity? Are we talking about NZ's official bilingualism, the iwi system, and other such legal recognitions of Maori identity? Or are those legalities even relevant to the status of Maori identity within a larger kiwi identity?

Doesn't the whole propositional metaphor "central to" invite a grim and pointless struggle over an illusory spot? True centres are singular places by definition, unsuited to expressing multiple identities.

NZ has always struck me as a country that doesn't have a centre nor especially want one. Perhaps the agrarian and decidedly non-urban self-image of NZ is its own kind of centre, an idea that European and Maori can both participate in. But (as befits a country made of two islands) the real centre is still and always a gap, an emptiness, not a goal or destination.

Just musing about this. Thanks!

Michael Moore said...

Comparing the NZ Maoris with Australia's aboriginal community is an exercise in futility. I too am an American living in Australia, and if Cairns is any example there is NO WAY to get the aboriginal community to act in a unified, cohesive way. Surely no way compared to the Maoris.

There is no leadership in Australia's aboriginal and Torres Strait groups, and sadly no hope of any. The differences between the many aboriginal tribes (and dare I say racism between the different groups) precludes and unified message.

Any form of "recognition" of this mess as central to the arts, government, or a new constitution is doomed to failure. There is no way to get any consensus from these people.

Alex D said...

Oh please! This event was a huge waste of both time and resources. The government weren't trying to be 'goodwilled' and to think so would just be naive. It was very obviously a political stunt.

What's more however, the ideas that came out of this 2020 summit, of Australia's 'best and brightest' were ridiculous. An embarassment.

And I don't even need to add, that they were all Rudd-glorifying losers, chosen because of their Leftist agenda.

Though, you're allowed to have liked it, allowed to enjoy futility and allowed to continue to be swayed by symbolic but essentially meaningless political bureacracy.

Alison Croggon said...

Whose time and whose resources, Alex D? The whole thing was run and attended by volunteers. I suppose you've bothered to check out the final report of several hundred pages, in order to back up your generalisations? The same way of course that you smear every attendee without, clearly, having a clue who they are. Abuse is no substitute for argument.

Alex D said...

Whose money? I wonder... how about the taxpayers who paid for the 2020 website to be both designed and established. How about the money wasted paying the salaries of those public servants in attendance who could have being doing much more useful things.

Love your books Mrs Croggon, your Pellinor series is actually my favourite of all time. :) In regards to the 2020 Summit though, I'm afraid we're never going to see eye to eye.

Alison Croggon said...

To my knowledge, the public servants put in their time voluntarily. Glad you like my books, though.

Alex D said...

LOVE your books actually. :)