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  • Ned Manning

Abbott and the Arts

Updated: May 26

The image of Tony Abbott emerging from the surf on the weekend with a mini mal tucked under his arm is a striking one. The accompanying story told us that there was a relatively big swell and the waves were pumping.  The implication was that only a pretty serious surfer would go out there. Surfers are pretty tough. Dropping off the lip of a big wave takes some guts. Surfers are also egalitarian by nature. They don’t give a rat’s who you are. So the idea that a guy in his mid fifties would get out and mix it with the locals on a day when the surf was working seems impressive. Especially when the mid fifties guy happens to be Prime Minister of Australia. The last Prime Minister of this country who was known to flirt with a big surf was Harold Holt. And we all know what happened to him.

The question I would like to pose is whether we are ever likely to see Tony Abbott emerge from a marathon session of the Ring Cycle? Or will we ever see him at an opening night at one of our major theatre companies? Will we even see him at an Art Gallery?

A marathon session of the Ring Cycle is about sixteen hours long. That is less time than Tony Abbott spends cycling around the country on one of his marathon rides. A night at the theatre, even a Shakespeare, is unlikely to be more than three or four hours. A visit to an Art Gallery even less.

So it’s not a matter of time. It’s a matter of priorities. Mr Abbott likes to roll his sleeves up and show us that he is a “real bloke”. There is nothing wrong with that either. His work with his local bushfire brigade is admirable. What is troubling is that there is no place for the Arts in our Prime Ministers schedule. The reason for this is that he, like his predecessor Julia Gillard, has no interest in the Arts. The one thing these political foes shared was a stated preference for an “arvo” at the footy over the theatre.

At a time of impending “tough decisions” this is very worrying.  Fiscal rectitude will necessitate some pretty draconian cuts in the Budget. This is a given.

The government will prioritise what it regards as vital to the community and what it sees as excess. In this context the prospect of this government regarding the Arts as surplus to requirements is very real.

Being an artist is as scary and, sometimes as precarious, as surfing. Every time a performer walks on stage they are taking off on a big wave. They might carve it up or they might be wiped out. They could drown. The same applies to visual artists and musicians. This is one of the things that most attract us to the Arts. You never really know what you are going to get.  At its best it’s edge of your seat stuff. Like surfing. Or bike riding. It’s a test. And it touches us at our core. It is vital to our souls.

The recent controversy in Queensland over the cutting of a line of dialogue that could have offended a politician may have been a storm in a teacup. In this climate, however, it does nothing to give artists confidence that politicians will appreciate and understand their worth. Coverage of the Arts in the major news outlets is diminishing almost daily. This is another worrying sign that we are backpedalling to a time when the Arts were an afterthought in this country. A time that spawned Sir Les Patterson.

The irony of this is that hundreds of thousands of Australians have embraced the Arts through participation as students, audiences and players. The thousands of students who study the Arts at a high level in both secondary and tertiary level is evidence of this. Many of these students are the children of politicians.

Our engagement in the Arts as a society is as odds with our politicians. Quite simple not enough of them show an active interest in the Arts. It might do them a lot of good to go to a theatre or an art gallery and expose themselves to the world of the imagination. It might be challenging and it might even be confronting but it will enable them to appreciate what really excites a significant proportion of the population.

Besides, wouldn’t they like to be remembered as Athenians rather than Spartans?

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© 2020 by Ned Manning.