Australia/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Autor: Margaret Seares

Australia has an extremely ancient history in terms of its Indigenous inhabitants, who are thought to have inhabited the continent and the island now known as Tasmania for more than 40,000 years. 

Despite exploratory forays by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French, it was the British who, in 1770, laid claim to the eastern part of the continent. The first settlement occurred on January 26, 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip led a British fleet, known as the ‘First Fleet’, into what later became Sydney in order to establish a British penal colony. 

The British established a group of colonies, the first being New South Wales in 1788, then Tasmania (initially known as Van Diemen’s Land) in 1825, Western Australia in 1829, South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851 and Queensland in 1859.  South Australia was unique among the colonies in never having accepted convicts as all the other colonies had done or were to do at some stage in their history.

In 1901 the colonies, most of which had prospered through agricultural, fishing and, later, mining enterprises, were federated into a nation, the Commonwealth of Australia. The Federation comprises six states – New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and Tasmania – and two territories – the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

The federal or national Parliament elected through this universal suffrage comprises two houses, the House of Representatives where members are elected by designated electorates established on the basis of population, and the Senate where each state is represented by twelve senators and each of the territories by two.  Most states tend to have replicated this bi-cameral model, although Queensland and the two territories have only a single house of parliament.

Each of the constituencies of the Australian federation has, over the years, developed its own instruments for the development and implementation of cultural policy while, superimposed above these and with varying relationship to them, sits the national or Commonwealth policy framework.  Given that each state and territory has its own ‘provincial’ government, which may or may not be, at any given time, of the same political flavour as the national government, there is significant potential for creative tension in Commonwealth (i.e. national)–state relationships in all spheres, not least that of culture.  Further discussion of state and territory arts and cultural agencies may be found under section 3.2.

Another significant and ongoing tension has been the position of Indigenous Australians[1] within the national polity.  The British territorial claim of Australia was made on the legal basis that the land was uninhabited, despite involving the displacement of Indigenous people from land. Neither the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Constitution Act) nor the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 included Indigenous people as citizens of Australia. 

It was not until 1967 that a national referendum was held to decide on a proposal to amend the Constitution Act to remove the words ‘other than the aboriginal race in any State’ in order to overcome the problem that, up until that date, Aboriginal people were subject to individual laws governing Aboriginals in each state.  The Constitutional change meant that Aboriginal people would now be counted in the national census and that they would be entitled to the same rights, including the right to vote in federal elections, as all other citizens.  The referendum came about as a result of a range of pressures, both national and international, including the United Nation’s Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.  The latter had significant implications for the long and, as yet, often protracted, battles over land rights for Aboriginal Australians, and also led to increasing intervention by governments in overcoming cultural exploitation of Aboriginal peoples. 

At the time of writing, what is effectively the next phase of Indigenous recognition in Australia is underway, with a strong bi-partisan move towards the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian Constitution – a constitution that is currently silent on the matter.  In the words of one of the leading protagonists for this movement, Patrick Dodson, ‘Recognition of the first peoples in the Constitution of a country starts to send a message that you are valued, you are important, that we want to respect you, and we want to deal with the things that have caused us division and discord in the past.’ Despite the strong bi-partisan support, this will not be as easy a task as one might think, as the history of referenda in Australia is that more often than not they are defeated, with only eight out of 44 having succeeded.  Part of the reason for this is the criteria for success: firstly, the Constitutional Bill must pass through both houses of Parliament. Then the Bill is submitted to the electors for approval, and voting is compulsory, as for elections more broadly.  Changes to the Australian Constitution require a ‘double majority’: firstly, a majority of the total electorate must agree, and then separate majorities are required in a minimum of four of the six states.  No timetable for a referendum on Indigenous recognition has been set as yet.

For further information on cultural policies directed to support Indigenous cultures see section 4.2.4. and for further on the Constitutional change movement, see

A further issue is Australia’s status as a constitutional monarchy.  Australian law is still closely connected with that of England (see section 5.1.1), there have also been moves, over the past decade, for Australia to abandon its status as a constitutional monarchy, with the monarch being the King or Queen of the United Kingdom, and become a republic.  In 1999 a referendum was held for the Australian people to vote on whether or not to become a republic with a President.  A key issue revolved around the mechanism for appointing a President.  In 1998 a national convention on the issue had resolved that the Federal Parliament should appoint the President.  This model, as opposed to direct election, did not find favour with the electorate, and the issue was voted down.  There are no plans at present for a revival of the debate.

Aside from its history and its constitutional structure, another factor that inevitably impacts upon the way culture is managed and supported in Australia is the size of the country in relation to its population.  According to Geoscience Australia, Australia is the sixth-largest country on the planet, as well as the planet’s largest island and has a landmass of over seven million square kilometres.  However, the population of the nation in 2010, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, was only 22 million people, which is significantly smaller than many European nations that are a fraction of Australia’s physical size.  The spread of population and the sparseness of many inland communities have presented challenges for delivery of services of all kinds, including cultural services.  The mooted introduction of a National Broadband Network is intended to make a major difference in this regard.

Development of Commonwealth government support for cultural agencies and institutions

Government involvement in the cultural landscape of Australia goes back to the early days of federation when in 1908 the Commonwealth Literary Fund was established initially in order to provide pensions for needy writers or their families.  The fund’s members included the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and other worthies, and they were advised by academics, writers and publishers.  Over time, the fund expanded its remit to the support for literature and for writers more generally, including grants for publishing and fellowships for writers and, after World War 1, support for student writers.  The fund was ultimately subsumed into the Australian Council for the Arts, later the Australia Council, of which more will be said in section 2.1.

The next focus of attention was the visual arts when, in the first decade of federation, there was a strong push from leading Australian artists for the Commonwealth to establish a national art collection.  In 1912 the Historic Memorials Committee was established, chaired by the then-Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher.  Fisher agreed to the idea of the Commonwealth collecting or commissioning portraits of key contemporary government figures, together with those of the Fathers of Federation.  Importantly for the fledgling nation, only Australian artists would be commissioned to paint the portraits.  Because the committee comprised largely of government figures, Fisher wisely established an advisory board drawn from artists or people working in the arts.  Thus in 1912 the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board was established which remained in place until, in 1973, it was replaced by the Acquisitions Committee for the planned Australian National Gallery.  Over the years, and as the significance of federation as an event faded, the Art Advisory Board broadened its responsibilities to include advice to the Commonwealth government, building a national collection, providing works for official buildings in Australia and overseas, and for touring exhibitions.

Possibly the biggest single national cultural initiative established in Australia since the coming of the British settlers was the establishment, in 1932, of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, now Corporation, commonly known as the ABC.  (For additional information on the ABC, see section 4.2.6.)  Originally the Australian Broadcasting Company, a non-government organisation, it was subsequently taken over by the Commonwealth government and gradually coordinated into a significant national broadcaster of radio, with television broadcasts commencing in 1956.  In addition to news, current affairs and talks, the ABC broadcast radio drama and music.  Indeed, the biggest single stimulus for the development of music in Australia came with the establishment of the ABC, as the broadcaster gradually built up a network of studio orchestras to provide the primarily live music, both classical and ‘light’ that went to air in the days before recorded discs were readily available in Australia.  Furthermore, in its charter which was established through the Broadcasting and Television Act 1942, the ABC was required to ‘endeavour to establish groups of musicians for orchestral, choral and band music of high quality’, and to ‘devote not less than five % of music program time to works by Australian composers’.  These studio orchestras gradually developed into a national system of six professional orchestras based in each state and variously named after the state itself (the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, West Australian Symphony Orchestra) or the capital city of the state (Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra).  However, the orchestras were operated and managed from the ABC’s head office in Sydney, a situation that was to prevail through to the end of the century.  The orchestras were funded through the ABC’s annual funding allocation from the Commonwealth government, with some funding also being contributed by the relevant state government and, in some cases, from local government. The orchestras are now independently run companies, though still in receipt of Commonwealth and other government funding. 

In the early days of television, the ABC also broadcast concerts, including those by the state orchestras and occasionally, opera and ballet.  Australian drama on television also played a major role in providing employment for actors, directors, and the like.

Aside from the ABC it was not until the post–World War II years that Australia gradually saw the emergence of a more serious and coordinated attempt at supporting a national cultural life.  In terms of the establishment of major national institutions, such as a national gallery, library or museum, the seemingly tardy progress needs to be understood in the context of the national capital city itself.  Canberra was and is a planned city: a compromise capital which was intended to placate the two rivals for national capital status, the cities of Sydney and Melbourne.  In 1911 the Commonwealth Government held an international competition for design of the new capital, a competition won by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Griffin.  The Commonwealth Government itself did not move to Canberra until 1927, which goes some way to explaining the absence of major national institutions until somewhat later in the century.

Although advocacy for the establishment of a national library had begun in the years immediately after Federation and before Canberra was developed, partly in response to the fact that, during the 19th century the British Government had established libraries or lending organisations in each of the colonies, it was many years before this aspiration was fulfilled.  The Commonwealth Parliamentary Library had fulfilled part of the role of building a national collection since its establishment at the birth of the Federal Parliament in 1901.  However the dream of a national library as an equivalent to the state libraries was not realised until 1960, when the National Library Act 1960 was passed by the Federal Parliament with the library being fully established by 1968.  The Act specified that the National Library of Australia would be responsible for ‘maintaining and developing a national collection of library material, including a comprehensive collection of library material relating to Australia and the Australian people’.

Likewise, after decades of advocacy for the establishment of a national art gallery, the Australian National Gallery (now National Gallery of Australia) finally opened its doors in 1982.  After World War II the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, mentioned above, began to acquire works for a lending collection, with the intent that these works would be provided on loan to government offices and, importantly, the growing number of overseas diplomatic posts that emerged in the post-War period.  This collection became a major impetus for Australian artists, an implicit if not explicit intention of the board.  In 1965 the then-Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, announced that he would appoint a National Art Gallery Committee of Inquiry to report on the potential establishment of a national gallery.  In 1970, the government approved the future site of the gallery, and in 1977 the first Director of the Australian National Gallery was appointed and charged with the duty of creating ‘a national collection of art and a new national institution’.  This process had already begun when the gallery finally opened in 1982.  Because most states had an art gallery established well before this time, the national art collection was designed to complement the existing gallery collections.  Hence, in addition to Australian art, the new national gallery collected significant works from modernist European and American artists, as such works were not well represented in the state collections.  Likewise, works from South India were collected by the national gallery, as the state galleries did not have large collections of Indian art and sculpture.  And the national gallery began to collect what was to become the largest collection of Australian Indigenous art in the country.

While the visual arts were increasingly well supported, there was no government agency, other than the ABC, charged with support for the performing arts in the years immediately after World War II.  Instead, a not-for-profit organisation, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT), was set up in 1954 to support the arts, primarily performing arts, with funding from both public subscription, an early example of arts philanthropy in Australia, and from the Commonwealth Government.  Although the AETT initially supported performing arts companies, and funded the first moves in establishing national training schools for dance and drama, it was probably best known to the general public as a major entrepreneur for touring productions.

Whilst the AETT had a role in distributing grants to the arts on behalf of government, this role was later assumed by the Arts Council of Australia, established in 1968, which was also called upon by the Commonwealth government for advice on the development of the arts in Australia.

In the late 1960s, then, there were boards or committees put in place by the Commonwealth to support literature and writers, visual art and artists, touring, and grant allocation.  In addition, in 1967, the government had established a further body, the Committee for Assistance to Australian Composers, an organisation that worked closely with the ABC in bringing the works of Australian composers to the public, not just through publication, but also through broadcast and public performance.

Finally, the Commonwealth government moved to establish a new, statutory body whose role would be to pull together all these different initiatives and provide a more coherent framework for the arts in Australia.  In January 1973 the then-Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, announced that he would appoint a new, but interim, arts council to subsume the roles of all the boards and committees that had operated independently hitherto.  The Australian Council for the Arts was to sit within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, with support from officials from within this and other relevant government departments.  The members of the new council comprised people from the arts, but also people from the law, the financial sector, and other areas of professional life.  Within the council there were seven specialist boards that effectively subsumed the roles of the previous range of boards and committees.  These boards were an Aboriginal Arts Board, a Craft Board, Film & Television Board, Literature Board, Music Board, Theatre Board and Visual Arts Board.  Some of the members of these new boards came from the now-defunct former boards and committees.  Of particular significance was the establishment of the Aboriginal Arts Board – this being only six years after Indigenous Australians had achieved the right to be counted in the national census. 

This interim council, whose funding allocation was significantly greater than that of the previous boards and committees combined, was asked to provide the government with advice on a more permanent structure for government administration of the arts.  In 1975 the Australia Council Act 1975 was passed and the Australia Council, an arms-length statutory authority, was established, modelled broadly on the existing independent or ‘arms-length’ arts councils of Great Britain and Canada.  The council was part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet until 1977 when it was transferred to the Department of Home Affairs, together with the other cultural institutions that were the responsibility of the Commonwealth government. This was the first of several moves of portfolio for Commonwealth arts and cultural institutions, as will be discussed later in this article.

Given the background of most of the boards of the Australia Council as independent entities they, not surprisingly, tended to continue operating with a high degree of autonomy.  In 1975 the incoming Fraser Government established an Administrative Review Committee to look at issues of duplication and waste within Commonwealth departments and agencies, and also between the Commonwealth and the states.  The Australia Council was not immune from criticism in this review, and in 1976 the Australia Council Act 1975 was amended so that all the boards were made responsible to the council and were to function under the council’s overall direction.  Furthermore, the council was given a formal role in advising the government of the day on issues of arts policy.  Further discussion of the Australia Council’s role in implementing national cultural policies may be found in section 2.1 below.

Soon after the establishment of the Australia Council came the amendment to the Broadcasting and Television Act 1942 in order to establish a new broadcaster, the Special Broadcasting Service which, first through radio, and then radio and television, provided foreign-language broadcasting to Australia’s non-English speaking communities.  For more on SBS see 4.2.6 below. 

In addition to the public broadcasting services, governments in Australia have become increasingly involved in providing support for an Australian film industry.  In the early part of the 20th century Australia had had a brief flowering of film activity, with the films often produced by theatre companies as a means of extending their markets.  Films about Australia’s past, in particular films about the bush, often with a focus on bushrangers or other swashbuckling types, were particularly popular and were part of the long engagement between the Australian population, predominantly urban, and the ideal of being a country forged from the vicissitudes of the outback or bush.

Such was the interest and concern about the impact of the new ‘moving picture’ industry that a Royal Commission on the ‘Moving Picture Industry in Australia’ was held in 1927–28.  With the exception of the Northern Territory, the commissioners held 147 sittings in Canberra and all states taking evidence from over 260 witnesses.  The commission investigated and made recommendations mainly about customs tariffs, income tax and the general economics of the industry but also investigated other issues including censorship.  In addition, a range of measures were recommended to promote ‘Empire and Australian pictures’ for commercial, ‘moral’ and cultural reasons ‘…to improve national sentiment’.  However, very few of the commission’s recommendations were ever implemented.

Gradually in the years between the wars the nascent film industry foundered, partly due to competition from international distributors who also owned some of the local cinema chains and, of course, favoured their own products.  As the industry struggled, more actors and technicians moved overseas in order to find work, thus increasing the problems for a home-grown industry.  Then, in 1956, television was introduced in Australia, compounding the problems for the film industry as a whole.

It took government intervention to get the industry on its feet again.  Following reviews and reports on the needs of the film and television industries, the Gorton Government announced, in 1969, a program of assistance.  This was to include a body that would assist in financing feature films, an experimental film fund to encourage new people into the industry, and a national film and television school.  Thus the Australian Film Development Corporation was established in 1970, becoming the Australian Film Commission (AFC) in 1975.  The Australia Council’s Film & Television Board was transferred to the AFC, while the Film & Television School remained an independent entity. 

The AFC was given a mandate to promote the creation and distribution of films in Australia, and to preserve the country's film history.  A portion of its funding came from the Commonwealth government and it also derived funding from its returns on investments in film production and from interest on film development loans.  The combined funding enabled it to provide assistance for the production of Australian film and television.  The AFC also provided development assistance and support for film-makers, and played a major role in the promotion of Australian film and television internationally.  Over time it developed international co-production agreements that benefitted the Australian film industry through access to further production finance and international expertise, while promoting Australian film and film-makers abroad.

In a significant new development, the AFC established, in 1985–6, an Aboriginal Advisory Committee whose role it would be to support either Indigenous film-makers, or film-makers working on projects that dealt with Indigenous concerns.  Once again, production assistance, script development, and other forms of input were provided to applicants.  This began an important stream of Australian film-making that has remained strong and has established the careers of several Indigenous actors and film technicians.

In addition to the support provided by the AFC the Commonwealth Government also sought to support the film industry in Australia through the use of tax concessions.  The first such moves came in 1978 when tax incentive schemes were introduced, known throughout the industry as ‘10B and 10BA’, in reflection of the relevant divisions of the amended Income Tax Assessment Act.  These schemes were aimed at attracting individuals or companies to invest in Australian films and, in so doing, claim a tax deduction of 150 % of the amount of their investment.  Furthermore, they did not have to pay any tax on the first 50 % of the investment.  It has been well documented that these new and generous concessions led to considerable investment in the Australian film industry and, in turn, gave rise to a great flowering of Australian film, television, and documentary production.  These incentives multiplied many times over the direct support from government that came from the AFC.  Over the years, the amount of the concession fluctuated in accordance with both the interest of the government of the day in the industry and, equally significant, the preparedness of the Federal Treasury to accommodate this reduction of taxable income.  The taxation incentives schemes have been managed between the department responsible for the arts portfolio and the Australian Taxation Office, not the film agencies.

In 1988 the Commonwealth Government established a new film agency, the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) as a wholly-owned company through which was channelled the government’s direct funding for film and television production.  FFC had a focus on projects at the upper end of the financial spectrum: feature films, telemovies, television mini-series and documentaries, with the market being expected to fund less expensive formats, while the AFC maintained its role of funding development and niche projects.  In 2006–07, government funding represented 17 % of the total funding for Australian produced and co-produced feature films in production.  From its establishment until 2008, the FFC invested in 1,079 projects with a total production value of $2.58 billion[2].

A third film agency, Film Australia, was established as the Commonwealth Film Unit in 1946 with a primary role to assist in the post-war nation building exercise by creating an audio-visual record of Australian life through documentaries and educational programs, initially for the cinema but increasingly for television.  Film Australia became a fully government-owned and funded corporation in 1987 and had, by that time, become one of the largest television documentary producers in Australia.   Its extensive library of audio-visual materials was also accessible to developers of educational material and, in more recent years, new media outputs, while its studios were also utilised by independent film and television producers.  Probably its best-known production was Colour of War: the Anzacs, which exemplifies the nature of the national interest documentaries generated by Film Australia.

In 2006 a review of government film funding support was convened, arising from concerns in the public arena that the film industry in Australia was, once again, in a poor state.  In July of that year an issues paper was distributed for comment by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA).  Among many issues canvassed was one relating to the most appropriate model for direct government support, which was a harbinger of things to come.  In posing the question ‘What is the most appropriate model for direct Government support to the film industry? Is the current agency structure a model that is delivering the best possible outcomes?’ the issues paper noted the range of Commonwealth government agencies involved in the film industry, with their functions and overlaps described as follows:


Individual professional development

AFTRS, AFC, Film Australia


Production funding for emerging talent

AFC, FFC, Film Australia, Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF), Australia Council

Production funding for established talent or where there is major private support

AFC (feature film development, new media), FFC, ACTF, Film Australia

Support through tax incentives

DCITA; Australian Tax Office

Access and outreach programs

AFC (screen culture programs and National Film & Sound Archives), Film Australia, ACTF


AFC (National Film & Sound Archives), Film Australia

Sales and marketing


Support for business/enterprise development

AFC, AFTRS, Film Australia



The paper went on to note the benefits of having a ‘many doors approach’ to government support, but also stated that ‘it has been argued that a consolidation of existing funding avenues could provide a more strategic approach to both the assessment of film projects and to the achievement of other support objectives’. It later suggested that ‘[O]ne approach could be to re-configure agency responsibilities so that functions such as business development, access and outreach, collections, archiving/preservation and marketing are delivered in a more consolidated way’.

It did not come as a great surprise, therefore, that in May 2007 the Commonwealth government announced the creation of a new agency, which would evolve from a merger of the Australian Film Commission, the Film Finance Corporation Australia, and Film Australia.  Screen Australiawas subsequently created under the Screen Australia Act 2008 and from 1 July 2008 took over the functions and appropriations of its predecessor agencies the AFC, FFC, and Film Australia, with a view to ensuring a creative and sustainable screen industry for Australia across the chain of development, production, promotion, distribution and access. 

Within the states, publicly-funded support for the film industry began in 1972 with the establishment of the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC), which provided investment and facilities for films and television.  The significant success that the SAFC had with three major Australian films, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Sunday Too Far Away (1976) and Storm Boy (1976), no doubt had an impact on other state governments which quickly established their own screen support agencies.  This brought new sources of investment to the development of the Australian film and television industries, new opportunities for co-productions both within and external to Australia, and encouraged major distribution chains to become involved with the presentation of Australian films to the public.

Concurrently with the establishment of Screen Australia the Commonwealth government established the National Film & Sound Archive (NFSA) as an independent statutory authority.  In 1935 the government established a National Film and Speaking Record Library as part of the then Commonwealth National Library.  Subsequently, it became the National Film and Sound Archive, which was created as a separate Commonwealth collecting institution in 1984 together with a council to guide it in its operation.  In 2003, under the name ScreenSound, it had been incorporated within the Australian Film Commission but was then removed when the AFC was subsumed by Screen Australia, a move welcomed by many who saw the previous merger of a film development agency and an archival agency as less than optimal.

The NFSA has responsibility for preserving, documenting and sharing Australia's moving images and sound recordings from the very first film images to the present day and beyond.  The collection is made available to all Australians in a variety of ways: through supplying footage and recordings for use in television and radio productions, through regular screenings of some of Australia's greatest films, and through a range of public presentations ranging from travelling exhibitions, to web access.

[1] The term ‘Indigenous’ is more frequently adopted in public discourse, as opposed to “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander”, due to the length of the latter, or ‘Aboriginal’ which has tended to be applied to the Indigenous peoples of continental Australia and not those from the Islands.

[2] All dollars quoted in this paper are in Australian dollars unless otherwise specified.

Capítulo publicado: 26-12-2013