No doubt many Canberrans are relieved that the election is over, if only because we will be rid of all those signs.
Imagine, however, if just a fraction of the millions of dollars that was spent on political advertising in the ACT this election was directed to local artists in future elections.
Imagine, for example, if those reviled corflutes were designed by some of our best painters and illustrators. Imagine if the slogans were crafted by poets, if they were arranged by landscape architects, and if the portraits were not touched up, but rather taken by photographers to capture the inner truths of our political leaders.
Suddenly, our landscapes would become colourful sites for contemplation and debate. Over time, imagine tourists flocking to the capital region to behold and partake in our Floriade of democracy.
If that is hard to envisage, it is because politics as we know it disdains art. The Arts Party labelled what has just passed "THE LEAST INSPIRING ELECTION WE'VE EVER WITNESSED!" The suggestion being that political advertising is so boring, ugly, and demeaning because mainstream politics is boring, ugly, and demeaning.
The lack of major policy initiatives was reflected in the lack of inspired and challenging corflutes. Of the established parties, only the Liberals departed from the norm with their "MORE LAND, MORE HOMES" sign. The colours were bold. The language was simple and powerful. Most striking was the shape, like a house, but with "HOMES" to add warmth and family appeal. It was also viewed as an upward arrow, which evoked better times, but also rising interest rates and living costs.
As a candidate for the Senate, I tried to add some beauty and flair to the election. What has become known as "the Torso Sign" was designed to disrupt hum-drum politics and give people something to smile about (and smirk at). It challenged us to question what grabs our attention and what we neglect. The face was absent because every other candidate's face was in-your-face, and because faces can easily mislead in contrast to the bare, honest body. The sign conveys the Hamiltonian "young, scrappy and hungry" vibe of the Kim for Canberra Party. Together, the facelessness, toplessness and sparseness invited the viewer to fill the sign with wonder and meaning.
The torso sign did not work. Perhaps it was simply not creative enough, and conflicted with the anxiety and hardship that abounds in the electorate.
Much better artists can and would do much better - not only as political candidates, but also leaders.
Imagine, then, if more artists were politicians. Election campaigns would become stages upon which they would enact their vibrant and righteous visions for our country. More artists in Parliament would ensure the establishment of an enriching national cultural policy or arts plan, and a Ministry for Culture that would include in its ambit First Nations arts, heritage, public broadcasting, film and cultural education.
We need them more than ever because the arts are in a critical state. During the pandemic the federal government provided $1 billion of emergency funding for creative sectors, largely to stimulate the economy. To put this in perspective, Australian arts and culture contributed around $15 billion to the economy per annum before the pandemic. In the recent budget, the Coalition abandoned the arts even though many in the sector are still struggling. In 2021-22, "arts and cultural development" received $159 million. In 2023-24 it will receive $2.4 million.
Many in the halls of power and broader community believe that we must prioritise bread and butter issues like healthcare and defence. This view fails to grasp how the arts are essential to our lives. Music can make all the difference to the rehabilitation of survivors of trauma and abuse. Theatre companies like Rebus provide platforms for elderly and disabled people give the "up yours" to ageism and ableism. When it comes to national defence, people do not love and sacrifice for dollars, but rather for a nation and culture described by Geertz as "the ensemble of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves".
At the opening of the National Museum of Australia's Songlines exhibition, Anangu artist Rene Kulitja said that "Art learns us". For many First Nations people, art is not only about expression; it serves as an archive of knowledge and as a connection to Country. It should and can be this for all of us.
With a little imagination, art can invigorate not just the next Australian election, but Australia itself.
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