Holding to True North
Promoting Positive Change in Australia
Kenneth Myer Lecture
Kim Williams AM presents the 2016 Kenneth Myer Lecture Holding To True North: The Promotion of Positive Change in Australia.
Transcript of 2016 Kenneth Myer Lecture ‘Holding To True North: The Promotion of Positive Change in Australia’
Speakers: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (AMS), Kim Williams (KW)
Location: National Library of Australia
AMS: Distinguished guests and dear friends, good evening and welcome to the National Library of Australia and to this, the 27th Kenneth Myer Lecture. I’m Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, the Director General of the National Library.
As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.
This lecture which began in 1990 as a major annual event was named in honour of Kenneth Baillieu Myer AC, Chairman of the National Library Council from 1972 to 1982 and an ardent and influential advocate for the Library. Ken Myer was a visionary Australian philanthropist and businessman. He contributed to an extensive range of institutions and causes through significant personal donations, enthusiastic participation on boards and his involvement in the Sydney Myer Fund and the Myer Foundation. A long-time friend and generous supporter of the National Library Ken Myer was a founding member of the National Library Council in 1961, later serving as its Chairman for a decade as I’ve said.
Amongst the many, many honours and awards he received we are proud that in 1989 the Australian Library and Information Association recognised his immense service to libraries with its Redmond Barry Award. Now the prescription for this annual lecture is simple and it is based on the views of Ken Myer.
As a businessman and philanthropist with wide cultural and social commitments he saw the lecture as an opportunity for an eminent Australian to make a significant statement on a broad subject of particular interest to them. The Lecture has been presented by remarkable and eminent Australians, the Honourable Gough Whitlam, Sir Gustav Nossal, the Honourable Fred Chaney, Harry Seidler, the Honourable Tim Costello, Professor Fiona Stanley, Professor Brian Schmidt and Professor Mick Dodson to name but a few. We are indebted to the Myer family for supporting the Kenneth Myer Lecture for over a quarter of a century and now we are thrilled that the Lecture has been given a new lease of life thanks to the support of the Myer Foundation.
On behalf of the Library’s Council and all of my colleagues may I tell you that we are also thrilled to have Martyn and Louise Myer with us this evening and thank them and the Directors of the Myer Foundation for committing to support the Kenneth Myer Lecture.
This year we are enormously privileged to have Kim Williams present the Kenneth Myer Lecture. Kim Williams is a businessman, philanthropist and cultural leader whose career began composing music and studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He has served as Chief Executive at News Corp Australia, Foxtel, Fox Studios Australia, the Australian Film Commission, Southern Star Entertainment and Musica Viva Australia.
His memoir, Rules of Engagement, which we commend to you as any good library would, is a very personal account of his experience of power politics and the media. He was the founder and Chairman of the Australian Film Finance Corporation and has served on a wide variety of arts boards over the last three decades including as the Chairman of the Sydney Opera House Trust. The boards on which he serves now include chairing the Copyright Agency Limited and the State Library of New South Wales Foundation and membership of the boards of the Sydney Symphony, the University of Western Sydney Foundation, the Myer Foundation and the Australian Football League. He was appointed a Member in the Order of Australia in 2006 for his services to the arts and for public policy formulation in the film and television industries.
While inspiring others to support the arts Kim is also a generous supporter of many of Australia's cultural institutions as well as commissioning new works by Australian composers and playwrights. As a lifelong champion of the arts he has led by example through his distinguished career in the arts and entertainment industry, his generosity and his advocacy to governments and the corporate sector. I would ask you to please welcome Kim Williams to deliver the 2016 Kenneth Myer Lecture on the subject Promoting Positive Change in Australia. Welcome, Kim.
KW: Director General Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, Sue Ebury – Ken Myer’s biographer, my friends Martyn and Louise Myer, fellow readers and supporters of this Library – welcome.
We are gathered today on the ancestral lands of the Ngunnawal people and I would like to acknowledge them as the traditional owners. I pay my respects to Elders past and present and to the Elders of other indigenous communities in Australia. I also take this moment to acknowledge the diverse peoples and cultures who have made our nation. Finally I recognise our shared freedoms and responsibilities, inherited from Magna Carta and on through the common law. These three elements shape modern Australia and its possibilities.
As an Australian I value the opportunity to acknowledge country as a simple act of reconciliation. I also increasingly feel compelled to recognise the many peoples, ethnicities and faiths which comprise our nation, given the never ending assault on difference which too often permeates modern society. The common rights we all enjoy at law need to be recalled and defended relentlessly in providing bedrock to our future. In recent years there have been too many attempted and real legislative actions which have challenged hard won rights.
History matters. Symbols matter. Our social memory matters. Especially in a speech in the National Library, named in honour of that devoted past chairman, Kenneth Baillieu Myer AC.
It is for me a great privilege to give the Myer lecture. Ken Myer was a truly great Australian who loved this library dearly across almost a quarter century of service, from its early beginnings with his appointment to the Interim Council in 1960.
I stand in honoured company having known many of the previous speakers including my late father-in-law, Edward Gough Whitlam AC who on the 5th April, 1990 gave the first lecture.
It was a real pleasure for me recently to read that first lecture given 26 years ago. I imagined Ken and the audience hearing Gough expound and digress, as only he could, in making some keen points about Ken and his cultural importance with a recital of Ken’s many achievements.
Gough continued in his speech to make some wonderful, at times unsurprisingly colourful, observations about national leadership and our national institutions and their history; highlighting the overwhelming obligation of politicians to observe their duty of care to knowledge and its protection as being central to the national future. These priorities followed from the oration’s title - ‘National Collecting Institutions’.
My lecture is entitled ‘Holding to True North - The promotion of positive change in Australia’. I think it is a title which would have appealed to Gough and Ken equally. They shared a commitment to what I might term for their era, modern views. They wanted an internationally connected Australia centred in Asia. And they strove for a positive focus, which valued matters of intellect, creativity, beauty and equality.
Ken was a rare original having visited China and Japan as early as 1945 and 1946 respectively. He well preceded Gough’s much commented on visit to China in 1972 and his many Japanese tours. They were men with much in common in an era that changed Australia forever. Change achieved because of a focus on positive improvement in attitudes, actions and a confident outlook as to that which is possible.
One doesn’t dare contemplate what might have happened if Ken had accepted Gough’s approach to consider an appointment as Governor General. It is one of the great ‘what if’ moments in our history that will bind them both in the national memory, forever.
Ken Myer’s period of chairmanship of this library was axiomatic to the firmament of the Library as a great national institution and to the growth in confidence and maturity of Canberra as the national capital. That growth was seen also in Ken’s membership of the Australian National Capital Planning Commission from1971 through 1982.
As many of you would know Ken served as a member of the first constituted Library Council from 1961 and then as Chair from 1973 until the end of 1982. He was way ahead of his time in many things dealing with modern knowledge management and information systems.
He was truly innovative, even establishing in 1975 a trust fund which he regularly provisioned for the Director General of the Library – wanting it to be known as the Director-General’s Fund to be used for good purposes determined by the DG in that person’s sole and absolute discretion, outside governmental constraints. His commitment to the Library and so many other things provided a shining example of positive leadership and enthusiastic philanthropy. Ken Myer embraced leadership approaches which were central to modernisation of our society and connection with international strands in thinking about culture, philanthropy, knowledge, science and technology.
I knew Ken Myer from his all-important time as guiding chair for the construction and delivery of the Victorian Arts Centre and subsequently when he was the chair of the newly incorporated Australian Broadcasting Corporation for three years from 1983. I well remember his frustrations in that role particularly, where there was much bureaucratic resistance to modernisation. He was a marvellous man with a restless energy and idiosyncratic personality that was indelibly memorable.
Whenever I read about Ken I realise what a special person he was and what a central position he and his siblings Neilma, ‘Bails’ and Marigold had to a refashioned view of modern Australia through philanthropic commitment inherited from their father Sidney and mother Merlyn. Through a range of public activities, private commitments and diverse passions they have invigorated a generation and more of Australians. That spirit has been transmitted through their offspring, and their offspring also. It is a precious example of sustained value for community across four generations, and has radiated across Australian endeavour in many varied arenas.
Tonight we are in one of Ken’s most esteemed institutions – The National Library - which like its sister memory institutions in Australia, stands as a centrally important repository of the broad landscape of humanity; of its intellect, artistic expression, discovery and character through documentation, publication, and exhibition of a vast collection including books, publications, manuscripts, maps, objects, photographs, paintings, ephemera and really valuable oral history recordings. It defines for us the physical presence and hopes of those who came before us. Above all the Library is a vital resource in examining and understanding the growth and development of Australia as an independent nation in its region and the wider world enabling us to follow the extraordinary evolution of our society.
The Library represents centrally important concepts of respect for intellect and creative possibility on the part of so many but in particular of Australia, its citizens and all else that makes up this land.
The National Library is part of the institutional cultural fabric of Australia in the Commonwealth and the States. A fabric which hopefully, weaves firm ramparts of knowledge and wisdom into maintaining a curious, transparent and informed, just and civil, intellectually alert society.
A society one hopes, which has an ever more valued, strong creative heart, imbued with a commitment to honest memory and bold ambition equally. A nation which draws on its creativity, knowledge and examined experience to offer opportunity, original solutions and affirmative aspirations for all our citizens. Goodness knows it is sorely needed, now more than ever with all the turbulence we see around us.
I view institutions like this, and their good health, as providing the ‘true north’ foundation for Australia. They are pivotal to informing and protecting the knowledge and recorded experience base from which continuing learning and positive national change can follow.
Where does one start in charting that ‘true north’ and the promotion of positive national change?
A nation’s personality, its identity and how that manifests itself, is really quite complex. Describing it is riven with the danger of persistent recourse to empty generalisation.
What it is to be an Australian and that which defines us is at the heart of our national being. However the definition of what it actually is, to be an Australian; what characterises and differentiates us, is remarkably elusive. Indeed, it would fill many contradictory offerings in the collection and the recorded oral histories here at the Library, let alone the claimed assertions that populate daily commentary, in often irritating profusion.
Most definitions of Australian character offer several consistent themes. We self-describe (something about which we are increasingly less than bashful) as having a unique form of resilience. A special ‘Australian’ resilience. This is seen by many of us and sometimes from others, as comprising our sense of self-reliance with inventive resourcefulness and natural imagination. These characteristics are reinforced in our self-judgement with quirky, ironic humour matched with a projection of an uncanny optimism - each of which I would describe as core to the national imagination of our personality, across genders and ethnicities.
We also invoke a sense of egalitarian idealism which is close to the heart of the Australian learnt sense of self, and at least in principle, of aspiration. Many of these themes of resilience, cleverness, quirkiness and egalitarianism are reflected in much of the literature, art, theatre, film and television output of Australian creators.
As, I might add, is its opposite, a growing modern phenomenon: - an anxiety as to the fragility of that which is certain. This often reflects a yearning for solid values and decency which are seen as having been betrayed by public and private institutions and by citizens in an increasing descent into cynicism and, in public life, short term thinking and idle populism. This fragility derives in part in my view, from a move away from the self-same characteristics which are invoked as core to the national personality. There are strong perceptions and data which describe Australian society as becoming less fair, less equal, less resilient and resourceful and as lacking the innate cleverness and egalitarian qualities we have often highlighted as core to that elusive thing – Australianness.
I believe a central national uneasiness derives from the absence of effective national reconciliation with indigenous Australians.
A decade ago I had the honour to give the Australia Day address and on reading the previous ten speakers and their addresses at the time, I noted that indigenous reconciliation was invoked as a consistent concern. It stood almost as a unifying mantra from their previous eloquent presentations.
Personally I think reconciliation by way of acknowledgment of the First Australians with the elimination of discriminatory provisions in our constitution followed by an appropriate negotiated settlement, is wholly central to a positive national future. Until that is achieved there will be a continuing cognitive dissonance in our society which is incapable of resolution.
There can be no perception of Australia as a land, as the national anthem says, which is ‘young and free’ without recognition of, and reconciliation with, the First Australians. It is a gaping hole in our national heart demanding durable repair which must be achieved in this generation; truthfully, within this decade. Continued delay cannot be tolerated as the values central to its resolution must be held close as essential to a national ethos of what it is to be a modern Australian. An affirmative agenda for positive change depends on its resolution.
It won’t surprise you all therefore, that constitutional recognition and reconciliation with the First Australians is at the centre of my ‘true north’ guiding lights in the promotion of positive change in Australia. It is core to positive renewal in national direction and genuine maturity.
I would offer the personal observation that recasting Australia and its independence as a Republic is almost as important. At some stage we have to stand as a confident independent nation, which is simply not possible when our ultimate head of state is shared with the United Kingdom and a number of her former colonies.
That the role is hereditary stands in stark contradistinction with attractive Australian values as to merit and egalitarianism. We all understand the history and the reasons for the current settings but the practical effect of that construction diminishes Australia in the eyes of the world. Much more importantly it is harmful to our own sense of self.
We will remain half formed, with colonial relics haunting the nation and its people until this too, is resolved. Those relics are ones which are wholly irrelevant to modern needs and directions, let alone having regard to indigenous Australians and the many other diverse peoples, ethnicities and creeds which comprise the modern nation where frankly a realistic sense of connection with a constitutional monarchy is limited, to say the least.
However, indigenous reconciliation is altogether more urgent than the inevitable division and difficulty of managing the pathway to the eventual, inevitable Australian Republic. It is in the ‘just too-hard’ basket presently. Time for reflection no doubt, but I leave it aside having confidence in the good sense of the next generation.
There are numerous other connected pillars to a positive change agenda. I will concentrate on education and renewal in our grand public institutions. Reconciliation, education reform and institutional renewal provide the settings for ‘holding to true north’. Action on each front is axiomatically positive and provide the altogether necessary foundations.
Before addressing those matters directly let me say that if we are to secure that primary necessity for indigenous reconciliation then we must see the values which underpin it extending into a broader restoration in our sense of community. A sense of personal responsibility for the quality of community and its direction in policy and as importantly, civility, is incumbent on everyone.
Refreshed leadership is called for – one which embraces calm, caring, responsive behaviours to national concerns and which offers informed, persuasive advocacy built on real substance in response to the emotional avalanche which describes so much digitally enabled exchange. We need policy substance which provides ideas and clear objectives which encapsulate more than a sentence or clever epithet. Substantial concepts and all important plans need to be set out, which reflect sustained thinking and can withstand solid scrutiny.
I am one for making an impassioned plea for reengagement with the sense of personal discipline and commitment demanded by devotion to a mutual responsibility for the quality of our community. Communities if you prefer – although I am an adherent to the old fashioned and lovely word which describes our nation and which so reflects this sense of binding community – our commonwealth. Much depends on our sense of shared adventure and responsibility equally.
Clearly there is an increasingly evident sense of fragility to the core keystones of Australian society and its values. Often this expression is frustratingly imprecise and is driven by widely divergent assumptions and priorities from different proponents. That fragility is seen consistently not only in Australia, but also in any number of international environments.
This sense of fragility in Australian settings and their direction provides a theme verging on obsession with some. On the right and left. From politics through artists, commentators and through any number of social forums and media avenues, there is a sense of breakdown. It must be repaired, a positive future depends on it.
At times polarities are severe, deeply unattractive and destructive in tonality and direction, reflecting a general fear. That fear applies to the future, matched with a hankering for a romantic notion of past imagined lives – often rich with what can only be described as entirely unhelpful fantasy overlays, drawn from inaccurate recollection of an if not practically perfect past, then one which was very much rosier and more homogeneously ‘pleasant’.
On the other hand the tensions which arise from the fragility in social cohesion reflect growing divisions in the community from a variety of sensitive touchpoints – economic, ethnic, religious and political.
We will get nowhere if we collectively enable this sense of fragility to compound where tensions erupt in aggressive social division from which it will be ever harder to rebound. If we are to unite and forge workable solutions which have mutual respect and sensible common purpose at their heart, then we must confront such divisions directly, restoring stronger community connections.
It is evident that cultural leadership in a digital era has many very real continuing tests. The rise of distributed opinion often disregarding facts and analysis with an almost triumphal shift, focused on the self to the detriment of community, is pronounced. Evidence from various studies reveals really substantial increases in personal assertiveness and self-importance. Even rampant narcissism. There seems to be an insidious torpor affecting the world; one where the populace is either ‘tuning out’ or ‘dialling up’ in emotional responsiveness. Anger rules too much of modern exchange. These are aspects of for want of a better word, discourse, which demand change.
Our politicians often indulge in this charged ‘smash-em-up’ style of exchange governed by absurd emotional exaggeration. They are rarely held to effective account because of all too frequent emotional hyperbole, or national memory failure and focus on ‘the moment’, another less appetising aspect of modern exchange. Slogans rule and acronyms are the lingua franca of discourse. In large measure it derives from the dramatic impact of digital technologies, especially where social media drives opinion into clusters of likeness – discrete echo chambers - where debate ceases and passionate assertion is refuelled. This results in the phenomenon I have termed in other speeches as the ‘unwavering march of the general ignorance’. A full frontal blunt knowledge attack is required.
This is most certainly an era rich with almost endless conundrums. It is often said that volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the bywords for the current day. The Economist has in the inevitable way of things, provided a new acronym for it - VUCA - in the excellent short monograph, Frugal Innovation.
The central challenge in this age of digital disruption seems to me to repose in how we address these problems to restore leadership authority through thoughtful, informed policy formulation and the necessary debate attaching to it, matched with knowledgeable, confident program execution for the real world.
For a long time I have thought that a nation of 24 million which speaks English, is either profoundly advantaged, or potentially disabled, as a result almost entirely of its public policy settings. The ambition those settings reflect, and the quality of the outcomes achieved from them, are core to the national future.
If we are to recall those characteristics which I described earlier as being part of our imagining of our Australian selves, then I would offer the simple observation that we are on the precipice of a scary mediocrity in our approaches which are far too focused on processes and not enough on the quality of outcomes. We have an urgent demand for fresh responses aimed at the delivery of durable solutions.
I take it as a given that the dimension of the agenda requiring attention has expanded and the quality of the output in work, funding and policy has waned. We need policy settings which recognise the centrality of intellectual and creative life to the national future and to a revitalised approach in the sense of real purpose in society and its institutions. There are strong allied obligations for those in public life and for citizens generally.
At the heart of these settings is a much needed less partisan policy approach to education. It is only through a well-positioned, informed, connected and resourced education system that we will equip the nation with the knowledge, values and skills needed to engage with the world and the challenges of modern life, in all its digital complexity.
The critical sequence from early childhood, through school education and on to tertiary delivery in universities and vocational training needs reimagining. Most settings are hopelessly mired in mid-twentieth century thinking and a mindless view that it is all about money. Of course money is important but thinking is very much more important. To shine light on the glaringly obvious great education is dependent essentially on great teaching.
We must see change in the value we attach to the role of teachers in society with responsive allied training. At its best, teaching is priceless, and yet we see how undervalued the profession is today; not only as to vocational appeal, but also in selection, training, remuneration and resourcing. Many societies manage these things in a mature supportive fashion. They evince a commitment to the status of teaching and training for a healthy, skilled society.
Yet when all agree there is such clear, evident need, there is a growing gap in terms of disadvantage and lead agendas. This is clearly seen in conflicting national and state policies; divisions between the arms of government; and disunity in priorities and positions from advocates. This must be positively addressed if we are to change the direction of our society. Each education sector is in need of caring policy review and improved national commitment.
Early childhood is virtually ignored in education policy; treated more often than not as social policy rather than as integral to educational development. Schools still need the policy renewal arising from the issues examined in the ‘Gonski Report’ from December, 2011. Our tertiary system in universities and vocational training, has many issues delivering unacceptable wildly divergent outcomes, mostly created from deficient policy delivery.
Fine school education depends on regularly refreshed, validated curricula; great teachers (with allied training); and excellent assessment. Public education, on which our nation depends for its future citizens and workforces given that is where the majority of the population still goes to school, needs improved thoughtful support.
We have witnessed exceptionally high growth in Australian private education, indeed the highest levels in the world. Thirty four per cent of all school students in Australia attend private schools whereas most of the OECD has less than ten per cent.
Our system is unusually flexible where parents have real options in choosing what they deem to be right for their children. It doesn’t, however, guarantee evenness in standards, nor a focus on consistent improvement; in many instances quite the contrary.
In some ways this appears to me to be almost perverse. It is all too often glossed over in the dysfunctional debates about education funding that rage through our land, polarising discussion. The debate founders on ideological crevasses that work against objective appraisal and debate aimed at progressively building consensus from facts, analysis and careful determination of the best pathway for future generations in the tri-partite system that is our reality; public, private and what I might term parish schools.
If high standards, objective appraisal and a devotion to fairness in resource allocations from public funding are not central to that process we will have increasingly serious difficulty in arriving at sustainable solutions and good social and educational outcomes.
The way in which school populations divide by socioeconomic status was presented plainly in the ‘Gonski’ Report. It was a remarkable report which revealed a strong relative benefit from the clustering of students who were advantaged socioeconomically and described corresponding stark disadvantage for clusters which were not. The report spoke to the growth in these dual phenomena drawing on comprehensive research.
The notion of ‘clustered advantage’ is central in reviewing the landscape of education fairly. It is central to the assessment of inputs and normative performance outputs across the training of the core resource of this nation - today’s and tomorrow’s children; our next generation. Many of the Gonski recommendations, the key being needs based public funding, have now been set aside in a way that, for any dispassionate reviewer, can only be confusing and disappointing.
The report undertook an orderly comprehensive evidence based review and concluded that over the last decade the performance of Australian students has declined. Significantly this is seen at all levels of achievement and most surprisingly, at the top end in particular. Something rarely noted. The consistent decline has seen Australia’s relative position steadily fall internationally. The Productivity Commission issued a report only yesterday which spoke to similar evident failure in our approaches.
The earlier Gonski report drew attention to the large gap between our highest and lowest performing students and provided analysis that this was far greater in Australia than in many other OECD countries, particularly those with high-performing schooling systems.
Our lowest-performing students, it said, are not meeting minimum standards of achievement, moreover there is an incontrovertible and in the committee’s view quite unacceptable link between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage - most particularly among students from low socioeconomic and indigenous backgrounds.
The report offered twenty one findings and a set of forty one impressively argued recommendations. It said that funding for schooling must not be seen simply as a financial matter but, rather, as an investment to strengthen and secure Australia’s future.
The Gonski committee observed that the highest performing education systems are those that combine equity with quality and that failure imposes high costs. Not only where poorly educated people limit any economy’s capacity to produce, grow and innovate; but also in terms of the price of failure in poor social cohesion and mobility and costly long term widespread consequences.
We need all students to have equality of opportunity, after all it is part of our self-description as to fairness in the best egalitarian sense. It is unacceptable that individual pupils who, through no fault of their own, can’t go to the best-resourced and advantaged schools. They are then condemned, without any opportunity to put up their hand and say ‘No’.
This has nothing to do with the ballot box. We need better coordination across the political divides to arrive at workable solutions. We all have skin in this game. Surely the central issue with all education is that it is a responsibility that has to transcend political divides for the sake of our people and their future?
There is little evidence of that approach leading behaviours in our parliamentary policy forums currently. Surely concerns should repose around reliable high standards while addressing disadvantage?
For positive change to occur it is overdue that we honour our duty of intergenerational care and embrace the need for ground up change in our approach to education policy focussed on performance and that means primary focus on teaching.
As an English speaking nation it is only from the development of our people that we will triumph – otherwise we will drift off into a diaspora of irrelevance seen in many other post-colonial societies who have not observed their intergenerational responsibilities. The time for action on early childhood and school education is now.
Our tertiary sector is a somewhat more complicated beast with many performance strands. It clearly has become the proverbial football; research policy is all over the place; enrolments are at unusually high levels and tensions abound as to sustaining reliable standards and policy principles. It needs refreshed logical policy focussed on needs and outcomes.
In that process I offer a fresh performance mantra for consideration, one which I think in a globally competitive world for fine minds and fresh talents is strikingly necessary. One which I suggest is relevant not only for a globally connected Australia in this century, but is also consistent with that sense of originality and inventiveness valued by Australians.
Do Not Be Bland! Make a difference! Banish the bland! It has been too prominent in our past and should have no place in our future. We need tertiary institutions to redefine themselves by backing bold actions.
Our great tertiary institutions must strive for a voice that renews the reasons to celebrate creativity and intellectual courage. Reasons to win national respect and political commitment. Reasons to revitalise curiosity, creative originality and drive invention fearlessly. We need to back, defend and promote that which is about fresh Australian creative adventure.
Since the 1970s Australians have taken to the world stage as never before. Yet we are on the precipice of what seems to comprise an overwhelming magnetism for the pedestrian or worse.
No doubt these are confronting times but almost all successful creative work has a mainspring from originality and is rooted in a nation’s stories – things of enduring value. They are the products of real risk taking – nothing good ever eventuates from creative caution. There is no point in the 21st century as this small population that speaks English, at the “bottom of the planet” across a digitally literate world, in being bland.
One of the best avenues for policy rejuvenation which informs an invigorated approach to education, will only follow from nationally refreshed commitment to artists, scientists and our great teaching, research, performing, collecting, thought and memory institutions.
From collecting and memory institutions like this National Library through to the wide reach of our universities, performing arts companies and on to the CSIRO and the national broadcasters, we need fresh approaches which rekindle a sense of wonder in the depth and breadth of what the world provides and what humanity has achieved though exploration, discovery and creativity. We need to recall all that has been produced here and to follow the contemporary creative work of Australians to reinvent the notion of that which is possible.
How we martial the amazing resources of the institutions and collections of the nation – individually and generally – to ensure that they provide solid underpinnings of stability, confidence, simplicity and clarity in sharing knowledge, creativity and the power of informed thought and learning is critical to promoting a positive national agenda. Only from that action will we enable the vigorous debate central to a positive future creating the cultural milieu which enables free thinking, imagination and invention.
This needs support from what I describe as the ‘public academy’ comprising the grand institutions and the extension from them through society at large. It has a vital role as never before and must respond to the radical challenges of the digital era and from challenged leadership seen across the modern world.
Only through that extended public academy will we provide an effective response to that VUCA phenomenon described so well by The Economist in its pithy summary of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity seen in the digitally driven world.
Our institutions have very real obligations to perform in this regard and it means we need governance frameworks and leadership which speaks out in a informed, persistent and unapologetic way taking a side which believes in the primacy of thought, debate and reason. Above all the institutions need to show courage and determination in that process.
If we care about history and love our collections and the people who make or made the documents, paintings, books, sculptures, maps, manuscripts, objects, stories, studies, science and tools that inform them; then we owe them the continuing honour of rethinking the challenge of sustained community connection. The same applies to the performing arts and the great canon of theatre and music and the quality of renewal in its audience connection.
This applies even more forcefully to the central public institutions of government – our parliaments and courts. Each has a continuing heavy obligation to maintain or even reinvent, their connection with the community. They need to ensure understanding of determinative processes and how they manage policy, planning and execution with refreshed public accountability.
If we are to address this pervasive sense of fragility and confront the potential of expanding social division then we simply have to start enabling our public administrators and decision makers to create a better culture for thinking and invention. We must enable risk taking.
Perhaps we see some nascent aspects of this reflected in this last 2016 election outcome. Even though we see division rising and assertive opinion triumphing; perhaps, given the very blunt nature of the ballot box as a determinant, this is an example of the community screaming out for better listening, evident responsiveness to concerns and performance delivery which is not idle and facile. Perhaps.
What is clear it seems to me is that the promotion of positive change requires a set of objectives which befit our nation and its very real vulnerabilities on the one hand, matched with a dedication to the development of resilient, responsive skills driven from respect for knowledge, thinking and creativity on the other. In today’s charged landscape we have to apply creativity and flair to conceptualise how we grow the opportunities, improve political and community connections and develop a better sense of trust and affiliation with major public institutions.
I offer the not particularly original view that whilst the advocacy to government must never cease, on all available evidence, no matter how strongly we may all feel about it, the flow of funds to creative endeavour from government is unlikely to grow well or reliably.
The political rejectionist recital is long and on public display often – health, education, transport, national security and social welfare with an ‘insert new issue here’ approach - are offered as defences against increased public commitment to fresh policy aspiration. I think the priorities embraced with these arguments are often dysfunctional and misconceived however, they have sway across the political divide presently. If we are to avert their inevitable impact on excellence, talent and aspiration, then action is required.
The world in which we live today is often asynchronous and disconnected from thought pillars. We all need to do something about it. And one of many solutions is revitalised cultural policy with, I think, greater allowance for recourse to substantial philanthropy incentives.
We need old fashioned direct connection to creative work and the many outcomes which follow from it because our world cries out for public commitments on the things we care about – like knowledge based debate, the primacy of truth, beauty, creativity and the centrality of intellect, imaginative thought and deep reflection to a good society and its future.
I mean philanthropy in a broad sense – for example, we need to generate real involvement in the provision of support from volunteering. Volunteering in society is diminishing and needs huge refashioning given over to endeavours about which we care. Such commitment then extends to the need for more committed public advocacy and resilient connection and debate offered from the community itself and vigorously so, to politicians, commentators and all the touch points which move public opinion and devotion.
Vitally, we need to up the ante on the provision of old fashioned cash. Direct cash investment and improved bequests on a substantially enlarged scale are essential. The signs in this regard are good where there is much to be admired in many crowd funding activities seen, especially with younger Australians today. These forms of commitment not only have huge value but provide a stronger sense of purpose and community connection.
As I said at the outset, I see a primary agenda for positive change being about community renewal and public responsibility through a redefined approach to social leadership and the rekindling of a relationship with and responsibility for the quality of our community as core to the national ethos.
Reconciliation with indigenous Australians stands most importantly as the first order priority to national maturity, providing a reset to a better, more confident national future.
Further positive change requires clarity of purpose as to curricula, resources and equality of opportunity in education delivery underpinned by policy with real substance that can withstand sustained scrutiny and is driven from a tough solutions focus on performance.
We need to match our education focus with invigorated respect for and celebration of intellectual and creative life with renewal in our great national institutions as core elements to the quality of Australia’s future. Energised philanthropy is a central tool to connecting with and enabling positive change. We have to step up for that which we care about.
The key skill sets necessary to achieve better directions and durable outcomes require changed priorities and approaches. We need to see a flip where collective focus is on performance and outcome not on process as an end in itself. Australia’s often empty modern obsession with process has never been more damaging to positive change. As is our reluctance to accept risk on the part of public initiatives.
We need better assertion of plain, clear articulated standards for performance with a relentless focus on the quality in delivered outcomes with adjustment and correction as needed. We need restoration of respectful debate, with spirited exchanges by all means, but ones which are informed and willing to take risks.
I have spent my working life since the early 1970s in work having to do with creative life in music, film, television and the media. I have done so from a variety of positions as a leader, investor, customer, teacher, benefactor, advocate, even as cheerleader. As a natural optimist I regret to say that presently we are not on a good trajectory.
Too often throughout a long working life I have felt as if I am in a time warp with a creeping sequence of déjà vu moments. Again and again the same attacks against the arts and creative life are made with a recital of unevenly rehearsed defences, following. It has happened repeatedly with a sense that the arts community is seen as being ‘ungrateful, ungracious and even as untalented’ by many in power. God only knows from where the confidence is sourced to offer such stern opinions.
I cannot emphasise sufficiently that the crucible of our future is in the intellectual and creative capacity of our people. All said and done we have comparative competitive advantage in few things – for example only in aspects of agriculture, mining technology, some areas of discrete medical and other technology invention (which sadly hardly any of us know about) and finally in lifestyle! It is not enough.
We need more than that. And we have more than that to give. It needs to be nourished, confidently. Positive change with fresh directions will only come from a more vigorous, sophisticated commitment from government supported from real attitudinal change consistent with those values as to what constitute being Australian. Whilst a never ending work in progress, it needs to reflect that egalitarian idealism which is close to the heart of the Australian learnt sense of self and aspiration. Those themes of resilience, cleverness, quirkiness and self-reliance provide good building blocks to a positive future.
Creativity is something in our country which is always under a cloud for a variety of reasons, not least of which is an almost magnetic attraction from many commentators and decision-makers to rank philistinism high. They oppose positive change, dismissing too many of those in our intellectual landscape from superficial personal preferences and/ or prejudices. We must confront them with a fresh narrative.
Narratives matter in nation building. Story telling is central to the growth and development of nations, as is a sense of security of place and our position in it. Creative narratives make society hold together as reflected in the quality of confidence and content in directions within a mature, considered society.
Reconciliation is core to the future story of a progressive, positive Australia. A nation confidently driven from a well-educated, tolerant, creatively strong and intellectually resilient people.
We need to be utterly realistic, recognising that the changes that arise from digital forces and global connectivity, mean that standing still, changing little and managing institutions in the same way is not an option. Embracing and managing these potent forces which drive reconfiguration in public mindsets is not easy. Fresh thinking is needed in defining priorities and skillsets for leadership, governance and execution if we are to drive unity in public engagement, holding course to ‘true north’ and positive change which follows from it.
The need for reform has not dissipated. It is a challenge with which I believe an Australian elder of the experience and vision of Ken Myer would have readily and enthusiastically connected. He was an exemplar and we need to back a new generation like him with the courage to drive relentlessly for positive settings for a modern Australia.
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