Frank Moorhouse's Letter To Our Leaders

Dear Malcolm, Dear Bill, re KPIs

Cc: Queen Elizabeth, Head of State (you may remember me, you have given me a couple of medals and I met your late sister, Margaret), Richard di Natale, leader Australian Greens (we haven’t met), Barnaby Joyce, and all Independents – ‘Things is crook in Tallarook and there’s no dough in Dubbo...’ (Jack O’Hagan)



Dear Malcolm, we have dined together at the Catalina, and you are my local member, so we see each around the neighbour but I haven’t had a chance to talk with you about the KPIs.

Dear Bill, we have not met, but I have been a union organiser, and I edited The Australian Worker for the AWU, your former union, so we share some common background.

I thought I would take the unusual step as a writer to email you as a matter of urgency, both about the national culture and the state of the arts and intellectual life in this country and thought I would give you our latest Key Performance Indicators.

Seriously, over these last months I have received letters requesting my support from people and organisations who are deeply alarmed at the decline of political recognition and funding for the arts, including writing, scholarship, the ABC -- that is, the community of arts and ideas, sometimes known as the ‘creative class’ sometimes known as ‘knowledge workers’, was once known as Science and Letters or longhairs.

There is a feeling that in recent years, there been a rather steep devaluation of our national culture -- more a degrading of it -- by the withdrawal of funding – from the Australia Council (reduced by $104.8 million)  the Australian Research Council ARC (reduced by $86 million), CSIRO (reduced by $111m) the ABC (reduced by $254m), Screen Australia ($38 million) not to forget the National Library, the National Museum, the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Australian Democracy, and the National Film and Sound Archive, all of which have lost funding. Literary magazines such as Meanjin (been around for 75 years), Quadrant, Island, and Sleepers and sixty two performance groups have lost funding, and maybe their existence, because of the cuts to the Australia Council. As for what is happening in the universities, as an example, the ANU has lost 15 staff from its Asian Studies Centre because of budget cuts.

There has been a failure to address the slow collapse of the print newspapers and to see the profession of journalism as being a Public Good and to find ways of preserving them, say, through statutory corporations or foundations – at least until we are sure what is happening with print and the internet.

They are a crucial part of the intellectual life of this country. We are being dumbed down.

The rug is being pulled out from under the arts and intellectual life making in difficult for many to maintain a decent life and to embark on creative enterprises.

The reach, speed and quality of a national broadband network is the foundation stone for any successful digital economy. Without a high-quality and pervasive broadband footprint, a nation cannot compete effectively on the world stage. Australia currently ranks poorly in this area – sixtieth in the world for internet speed -- and despite an accelerated NBN rollout in recent years our relative position has not improved. This must change, says the Australian Computer Society.

The internet, too, is crucial for our intellectual life.

Such wide expression of grave alarm for the national culture at a federal election has not happened before in my life time and I reckon I have consciously followed about twenty federal elections.

The mission of every federal government is to raise revenue to meet the standards of public service expected by the electorate, to meet expectations of fairness, and to serve cultural enrichment which in turn helps create a responsive and vibrant society -- determined by judgement, vision, and even faith (by faith I mean that in the absence of ‘metrics’ we sometimes choose to believe that this is the best way forward).

By the way, I can think of at least two ways of funding literature, for a start, without raising taxes – if anyone is interested.

A metric: public social spending (for the vulnerable), excluding health, as percentage of GDP in Denmark is 24% and in Australia 12%.  

Maybe it might be easier for some in government to understand what I am talking about if I use the Key Performance Indicators asked of the community of arts and ideas by government funding agencies.

A few mates helped me with it and they have signed off on this KPI acquittal (except one, see below) and we had a problem with the metrics.


Key Performance Indicators


Evidence of economic, environmental, social, health and/or cultural benefits to Australia arising from the practice of the arts and research: more than 95 per cent of completed arts and research projects would report that their objectives were met, well, in the arts, give or take 50% and fingers crossed (and if not, the applicants told me that they would try harder next time – things do not always work out as you want them in the arts). Yes, the arts and intellectual research do ‘build social and economic capital’ -- the 2008-9 National Accounts puts the cultural and creative input to the economy as double agriculture, forestry and fishing; a couple of points behind construction; and bigger than education and training however, despite what it ‘does for the nation’ it doesn’t do much for building of the personal economies or artists and thinkers, as well, artists and thinkers ‘drive innovation’, in fact, we do little else other than ‘drive innovation’ all our lives, and, yes, we think that we probably ‘promote social inclusion by bridging communications between disparate groups’, assuming that the disparate groups wish to be communicated and bridged – sometimes we have to push it down their throats. Oh yes, the community of ideas and arts also ‘works to counter disaffection through alienation’, even when they themselves, are feeling rather disaffected and have always, through the centuries, often felt alienated, although it has been demonstrated that a decent income for those working in the community of arts and ideas could allay some alienation and disaffection quite quickly.

Evidence of the building of Australia’s imaginative and intellectual capacity through the winning of prizes and awards: there is excellent evidence that arts and intellectual projects win prestigious prizes and awards, here and internationally, (but, strangely, some of those works which do not win prizes sometimes have a longer life than the prize winners and are ultimately considered of more importance. Even those project which do not win prizes are often valued highly. Odd).

Evidence of the building of Australia’s imaginative and intellectual capacity through the winning of audiences and readership: Yes, we have won ever-larger audiences and readerships -- at least, sometimes, sometimes not, sometimes no one turns up except friends and family, sometimes the audience does not appear until 50-100 years later. Any suggestions?

  Building Australia’s imaginative capacity by giving early-career training: great evidence exists that established artists and thinkers support ‘career opportunities for early-career artists’. It has to be said that early-career artists and thinkers can be very difficult to work with because they believe they know best: established artists and thinkers – and early-career artists and thinkers -- can also fall into romantic illusions and delightfully errant fantasy when working together. Nothing much can be done about this. By the way, career is a word we don’t use much in the arts – maybe ‘obsession’ or ‘commitment’, actually, without going into it here, the artist and the thinker and the society are part of a gift economy, as well as the market economy  -- the gift economy is constructed on the invitation from the society to writers and thinkers to present, to offer, say, an original work of art, new thinking, to the society, first as a gift -- the obligation of the society then to respond, to receive the work or reject it, and, if accepted and used, there arises the third part of the formula -- the obligation of the community to adequately reward the artist.

 Evidence that the practice of the arts and the intellect in Australia is accessible internationally, and open to internationals, that is, foreign nationals and returning Australians, and open to international collaboration: there is excellent evidence that the Australian artists and intellectuals ‘involve themselves in international collaboration and win international audiences’ but, surprisingly, there are some Australian artists and thinkers whose work speaks only to Australians and who do give a damn about ‘the international’. They should try harder? I suppose it doesn’t help to say that in his lifetime, as far as we know, Shakespeare, himself, did not travel.

Building Australia’s imaginative capacitycreation in areas of national priority: I can supply evidence that arts and intellectual research projects address all areas of ‘national priority’ (in so far as these exist in any coherent way), and, more, even by dreaming up some of those priorities and by establishing yet other stranger ‘areas of priority’ neither national nor recognisable or expected, and even by demolishing some ‘national priorities’ by ridicule. Can’t do much about this. 

Further, in reply to the KPI’s terms of reference, other broader evidence is provided in an Overview of Western Civilisation – but only since the Renaissance (to be forwarded). Also to be forwarded are statements made by Winston Churchill (beginning with…The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age arts….ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.’), Robert Menzies (beginning with… ‘Are we so little concerned with the things that really make life worth living that we expect many of our best writers and artists to live in a sort of eccentric penury’, Gough Whitlam (beginning with ‘…To help cultivate a rich and enduring national pride, and to enlarge the people’s opportunities for cultural fulfilment, we have given high priority to the encouragement of the arts’ and Malcolm Fraser, (beginning with ‘…These people looking for efficiencies have no understanding that governments have to do things you can’t put a dollar on…’).

The KPI is signed off by The Man from Snowy River, who said he can’t answer the KPI more fully because the colt from old Regret has got away.

‘There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around

That the colt from old Regret had got away

And had joined the wild bush horses - he was worth a thousand pound,’

Dorothea Mackellar also signed off on the KPI and asked me to say, that she also,

‘…loves a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!

 (Written when she was 18)

Henry Lawson was indisposed but asked me to say as an addition to the KPIs, ‘…my ways are strange ways and new ways and old ways, And deep ways and steep ways and high ways and low, I'm at home and at ease on a track that I know not, And restless and lost on a road that I know.’

I tried to get Clancy of the Overflow to sign off on the KPI – but that didn’t work out, either.

‘I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better

Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,

He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,

Just ‘on spec’, addressed as follows, ‘Clancy, of The Overflow’.

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,

(And I think the same was written with a thumb-nail dipped in tar)

’Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:

‘Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.’




BIO NOTE: Frank Moorhouse has written seventeen books, mainly novels, published over a 100 short stories, and as many essays. All his books have been constantly in print. He has won major national prizes in each of these forms. Last year he was made a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) by the University of Sydney. He has no assets (except for his copyrights and a fine collection of Australian short story anthologies from 1886 to the present) and over the years has often been broke. He is not whingeing but says he is urging.


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