In today’s world, enlightened voices in support of the arts and sciences are needed more than ever. We need the sciences to understand our world and find solutions to its problems; we need the arts to raise our horizons and unleash creativity. Since the earliest times, this is how humanity has moved forward.

Yet today art and science are under attack, not just from bigots and extremists, but from politicians and establishment bureaucrats among whom vision has been replaced by spin, electoral expediency and the soul-destroying ideology of neoliberalism. In cutting funding to public institutions such as the ABC, the Australia Council, the CSIRO, universities, museums, galleries and libraries, they are sacrificing the wellbeing of society for short-term political gain.

The 1970s opened a period in which the arts and sciences flourished in Australia, and the world was the richer for it. But today, while billionaires and multinationals amass their largely untaxed wealth, the cultural gains of previous generations are being stolen from the rest of us. That’s the heist.

The good news is that the push back is under way. Travelling around New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT in the month since my book Culture Heist was published, I’ve found audiences everywhere to be wonderfully receptive. There’s a growing sense of urgency among concerned citizens.

Here are just some of the developments I’ve noted in the past week alone:

  • Researchers Kristin van Barneveld and Osmond Chiu published a study in the Australian Journal of Public Administration showing that the federal budget cuts of $36.8 million which began in 2015-6 were putting Australian history and heritage “at risk of becoming inaccessible, or worse, marginalised and forgotten through wilful neglect”. Their findings made the front page of The Canberra Times on 30 May and were noted by the Books + Publishing website, but went largely unreported by mainstream media.
  • Medical research specialist Sally Smith, speaking on ABC Radio National’s Science Show on 3 June, detailed the impact of budget cuts on research institutions, beginning with the $400 million axed by the Abbott government in 2014. She took the example of the termination of a CSIRO program of research into customised nano-particles which can, among other things, effectively carry chemotherapy in a targeted, less invasive way to cancer sites; and she described the knock-on effects of terminating the program as a slap in the face of those who have built up “precious social capital” in supporting such crucial research. She ended with a plea to governments: “Think not only of your bottom line when you delete an item in your budget.”
  • In New South Wales, meanwhile, the upper house inquiry into museums and galleries has deferred its reporting date for a fifth time, to 25 August this year – two months after the state budget is due. Until now it has focused almost exclusively on the contentious plan to move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta, and evidence to the inquiry from some of the state’s most seasoned museum professionals and former trustees has shown that the costs of the move would be up to $2 billion – far more than originally envisaged. Observers are now asking whether the inquiry will also have any recommendations about the foundering Sydney Modern expansion plan at the Art Gallery of NSW – and also whether Gladys Berejiklian’s government will take the inquiry’s new schedule as a reason to postpone allocating funds for cultural infrastructure in the 20 June budget. In any event, it’s clear that both the Powerhouse and the AGNSW must remain under the closest public scrutiny.

Internationally the tide is turning against the corporatisation and dumbing down of culture. Here in Australia, it’s time to reassert public control over public institutions. We can’t allow them to become the playthings of the corporate world or pawns in some grubby electoral auction and race to the bottom. At the last federal election an astonishing 1.5 million votes for the fledgling Arts Party showed how strongly many Australians feel about the arts. We have to find ways to build on the powerful support in the community for both the arts and the sciences.

Thanks to all of you who have shown interest in Culture Heist, attended events or read the book, and especially to the many who have sent encouraging messages. The website is open to continuing the discussion.

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