Lost in the wake of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's massive departmental overhaul, among the talk of sacked departmental heads and the obliteration of red tape, is the fact that once the Department of Communications and the Arts is subsumed by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, Australia will have no federal department named for the arts.
Despite the new department buckling under the weight of its own title, the absence of that word remains conspicuous. The Morrison style of government has been defined by its careful use of rhetoric and sloganeering - this is an administration for which language matters.
Given the Coalition's history, it is fair to say that the change affirms a disdain for the arts and contempt for the notion that among the nation state's fundamental responsibilities is the provision of opportunities for its citizens to flourish creatively and spiritually.
Morrison's restructure is symptomatic of a mentality that presumes the only crucial values are those with economic criteria, that a nation's success is measurable by its prosperity and nothing else. Governments, particularly conservative governments, tend to view the arts sector as a producer of inessential luxury. Because the logic of the humanities cannot be neatly incorporated into models that prioritise endless fiscal growth, the field is dismissed as an unserious indulgence (although if you wished to make an argument for the sector's economic value, you could point to the Bureau of Communications and Arts Research having found that cultural and creative activity contributed $111.7 billion to Australia's economy in the 2016-17 financial year).
The neglect is embarrassing, a tragedy. The Coalition brought no cultural policy to this year's election, only some promised funding for the music industry. Labor, on the other hand, guaranteed $300 million in arts funding. But even Labor's relative generosity seems timorous when measured against comparable parties internationally; UK Labour recently announced a £1 billion culture fund to be implemented if it wins the upcoming election and, in 2016, the Canadian government pledged $CAD1.9 billion towards arts and culture funding over five years.
The bureaucratic language of efficiency and management that Morrison deploys to cast himself as a pragmatist, a champion of ordinary budget-balancing Australians, is incompatible with the stuff of life that matters most. It is a language void of wonder and ambiguity, empty of love and fear. And these uncommodifiable experiences are not the exclusive domain of the elite strata of society that Morrison pretends to define himself against; they concern us all.
The arts encourage play, reflection and purposelessness. They provide spaces for disagreement, failure and error. They are a vital venue for marginalised voices - Indigenous Australians, immigrants, people of colour, the queer community - to stake out cultural ground, asserting their presence and value and humanity. They also encourage a critique of commonly held assumptions, a critique usually against the interests of those in power.
If a society's function can be reduced to maximising profit, the human aspect will be eroded. To strip his government of cultural concerns is a moral failure on Morrison's part, and the arts are not the only victim of this mindset. As part of the coming shake-up, the Department of Education is to be buried in the Department of Education, Skills, and Small Business.
Morrison enthusiastically explained the thinking behind this merger: "This is about having a continuity from the day you walk into school to the day you walk into a job and beyond." For our Prime Minister, the only conceivable purpose of education is to create workforce-ready subjects, optimally efficient and productive citizens who will make the nation economically competitive. This government has no vocabulary with which to imagine an education that provides social or cultural nourishment.
This neurotic obsession with efficiency that has spurred the creation of four new mega departments reveals the shape of the nation the Morrison government desires to administer, to create. We are governed by ideologues that suppose Australia would be best organised if populated not by human beings, but by uncomplex, unfeeling machines.
- Dan Dixon is a writer who teaches at the University of Sydney. He writes about literature, culture, politics, and America.