Illustration: Robin Cowcher.
AMONG the carry-on of adversarial politics, the arts supposedly enjoys bipartisan support. But it is no longer central to national consciousness shaping.
The government hands out money; comparatively, a lot of money. But merely giving away money is not leadership.
(It's odd that what interests the media fails to interest politicians. From mainstream to niche media, the arts attracts attention and receives good coverage. In a paradoxical way, we've reached the apogee of a government funding model: arm's length, as politicians remain remote.)
The maxim that ''there are no votes in the arts'' is probably true. But political sectarian self-interest doesn't entirely explain - or excuse - the absence of visionary leadership on cultural matters.
There is little in the way of government policy or rhetoric that gives expression to an ever-mutable Australia and the perception others might have of us. And it's within this context that the arts might shape a domestic and international profile.
The federal government's national cultural policy discussion paper is floating around but its early promise of a new direction and conviction has wilted with its delayed release.
It's a document of breathless grandeur. Change a few nouns here and there and it's just as relevant to other countries, and what many are already doing.
Aboriginal culture is a box that's ticked; so, too, are emerging technologies. It wants to be socially democratic and market-competitive (and there's an underlying tone of Australia's obsession with winners and losers).
To be blunt, it's embarrassing in its encapsulation of the bleeding obvious and its headmasterish approval of achievements undertaken in the absence of a policy-led endeavour. And its expression is awful: cultural policy should never read as if it has been wrung from the dirty sponge of HR linguistics.
The draft ends up reading as typical overshoot, something that raises expectations then inevitably back-pedals in its application.
Artists and institutions are miles ahead of the government's cliched guff - success is in spite of a policy-driven agenda, not because of one.
Take Melbourne's Asialink. The Myer Foundation and University of Melbourne initiative subtly promotes public understanding of countries in Asia and of Australia's regional role through residencies, lectures and networks, among other things. It brings Japanese shows to the Arts Centre and sends Australian artists to Malaysia, for example. Asialink is an excellent example of a non-government, but government-supported, organisation that has extended Australia's influence.
The discussion paper speaks of such forms of cultural diplomacy, and so it should.
Now often referred to as ''soft'' diplomacy, it's an area in which Australia takes part in a piecemeal manner. Serious and unilateral efforts are left to those with specific remits such as universities, programs within the Australia Council, and the various country-specific foundations and institutes within the Department of Foreign Affairs.
If there's a single initiative the federal government can nurture domestically, and harness internationally, it's soft diplomacy. But with political short-termism an enduring trait, and a desire for instant triumphalism, don't hold your breath.
Blockbusters are the prototype. The idea of backing something astonishing from a low base and nurturing it to the point of becoming a cultural exemplar now seems less attractive. Blockbusters spruik cultural tourism and local economic benefits, and become statements of competitive civic pride. Politicians love attendance figures and numbers is one thing they grasp clearly; that's how they now give expression to success in the arts.
They also like to memorialise cultural rhetoric (the French excel at it); that's why brass plaque projects and new buildings hold enduring appeal.
Many such as Quai Branly Museum, Paris, and the Gallery of Modern Art in Queensland have been important. (Former foreign minister Alexander Downer once tested an idea with me: he wanted to build a Guggenheim Museum on Mount Lofty. Sometimes great ideas work once, and in the case of Bilbao, the population of Europe is a direct flight away. Adelaide has vineyards, then desert.)
There have been flickers. Downer established the Australian International Cultural Council in 1998, and chaired it (I served a couple of terms). It was unashamedly an instrument of cultural diplomacy and was very strategic in the areas in which it chose to focus. It garnered a budget of about $1 million, and that's about what it still has for places of strategic interest to Australia all over the planet. When it eventually secured more, that quickly vanished when, in 2008, Kevin Rudd ripped into the Department of Foreign Affairs' budget.
Some have argued for a British Council or Goethe-Institut as a model of cultural global diplomacy. I'm not sure that's the right course.
In any event, it won't happen; all governments are loath to create perpetual statutory bodies - they don't go away, cost money and are likely to be independently minded. You can only keep them in check by starving them of funds.
But if a focused policy were to identify who does what well in terms of soft diplomacy, and sub it out, we might see some kind of model begin to take shape.
Yet the chance of a focused policy any time soon seems unlikely.
There have been a few political leaders from either side of politics whose keenness spotlit the arts.
Don Dunstan, Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating are obvious examples. Few realise Harold Holt and John Gorton created the National Gallery of Australia, Australia Council for the Arts, and the Australian Film Television and Radio School.
I'm reminded of Dick Hamer's response (perhaps apocryphal, but in keeping with his character) to a question about why he was premier, treasurer and minister for the arts.
He said: ''One provides the ideas, one the money, the other the imprimatur for the ideas to happen.''
Is there anyone in politics to match this intellectual commitment?
Doug Hall is a former Australian commissioner for the Venice Biennale and former director of the Queensland Art Gallery, where his innovations included the Asia Pacific Triennial and the Gallery of Modern Art. He now lives in Melbourne.