Another objection to gutting Port Phillip’s arts support

Bill Garner – academic, author, actor and activist – attended the City of Port Phillip Council meeting discussing the Cost Review Report. (see last blog for the blog’s view of the matter).

He was cut off after two minutes and what he wasn’t allowed to say is in italics. It is a compelling defence of the role of the arts and culture. He has given his permission to reproduce what he said. His comments follow.

The Cost Review Report is concerning on a number of levels.

In the first place the whole exercise seems to have been a waste of time as all it has produced is a sad little list that no councillor in their right mind would endorse. Costing $70,000 it has only identified savings of $95,000. That’s not a good look.

But it does reveal the priorities of this council.

Somehow, the lengthy review, directed by councillors, managed to avoid targeting any major cost centre at all. It went for the minnows. It appears councillors see the tiny budgets for culture, the arts and community engagement as way too fatty.

But the Cultural Development Fund is hardly over-endowed. It distributes a small number of grants to a wide range of applicants that include individual artists and groups such as the Historical Society and theatre companies. These are the people who culturally enlarge the city. They do stuff. They make stuff. And they struggle financially at the best of times. The Open House program and Middle Park library, the Eco Centre, for god’s sake, these are on the list. Talk about punching down! How strange that we don’t see the St Kilda Festival there, with its $1.8 million for two days entertainment. Take 10% from it. Problem solved.

This is not just small government in action; this is mean small government operating with a narrowing sense of what our city should be. By even presenting, let along endorsing this report council condemns itself. It beggars belief that the people of Port Phillip, if asked for their opinion, would support these proposed cuts. It is political poison.

Indeed, one can’t help wondering if the report were not written up by officers who themselves have a sceptical view as to the value of this wankery.

The only reason I can think of for engaging in this exercise is because councillors remain trapped in a way of economic thinking that for many decades has distorted the purposes of government at all levels. Efficiency is not the purpose of local government—or any government.

Lower taxes are not the purpose of government. Making itself smaller is not the purpose of government.

The purpose of government is to enlarge the lives of the citizens. To care in a generous way, not just to provide basic services and leave the rest up to individual initiative. It’s the less well-off members of the community who create art, have you not noticed? Would anyone who had ever walked in the shoes of an artist cut back the already measly Cultural Development Fund?

Anyone who reads knows that the tide is going out on neoliberal orthodoxy. The time of lower taxes, do little government, outsourcing, the privileging of individualism over the common good. COVID belled the cat. People now want governments to do more, not less.

Perhaps it takes a long time for the global change in thinking to trickle down to the local level, but privatisation, managerialism, tax cuts for the wealthy, running governments like businesses—all of which have fuelled the greatest inequality the world has ever known—are on the nose. And all of these ideas are implicit in this cost cutting exercise.

It’s time for Port Phillip to move on from the shibboleth of neoliberal cost-cutting. People have woken up to the con.

Council could begin its journey into the future by shelving this report.