What’s new in the International Journal of Cultural Policy: Parker and Parenta on Australian film policy

I’ve been busy lately with my NEAF ethics application, but after emailing that off to Elaine earlier this week I thought I’d spend some time today on some close reading of a recent journal article on Australian film policy. In doing so, we might be able to draw out some of what I think are the antinomies between the way academics and practitioners write about cultural policy in Australia.  

Rachel Parker and Oleg Parenta’s 2009 article “Multi-level order, friction and contradiction: the evolution of Australian film industry policy” is published in the most recent edition of the International Journal of Cultural Policy (15:1,91 — 105). It’s an institutional analysis of Australian film policy that pays close attention to the Australian film funding bodies, particularly the AFC. Parker and Parenta’s starting point is a conceptual frame we might call “institutional punctuated equilibrium”, in which an

… emphasis on structure, order, patterns, regularities and dominant logics is associated with a particular model of institutional change which emphasises ‘institutional stickiness’ connected to a strong account of the mechanisms of path dependency, in which a given set of institutional arrangements constrain opportunities, limit the repertoire of ideas and create incentives for actors whose interests and ideas come to align with the dominant structure, which they in turn seek to reproduce over time [here they cite the work of influential political theorist Paul Pierson]. These approaches depict long periods of continuity, limited degrees of freedom and minor change in institutional systems. 

But, Parker and Parenta continue, institutional analysis theory has moved on somewhat recently, to encompass a more nuanced understanding of change within organisations (as well as change exerted upon them from outside):

By relaxing the assumption of order and stability, a range of alternative paths and contradictory orders may become apparent and their role in institutional change may become clearer. As such, these insights provide a basis for exploring the role well-documented tensions and contradictions play in cultural policy change.

So far, so good. But when Parker and Parenta apply their thinking to the history of the Australian film industry, we start to encounter some fairly contentious assertions. Take their assertion, for instance, that Australia is “a liberal market economy and the state in liberal market economies has been conceptualised as an arms-length state that is neutral between sectors” and that “although the state oversaw a period of high tariff protection for Australian manufacturing in the 1950s and 1960s, this was itself a form of arms-length intervention as the state was not actively selective in its approach to industrial development and it was not accompanied by a strategy designed to improve the quality of inputs in the production process, such as labour or technology.”

At the very least, I think these points are open to debate. Australia’s supposedly “arms-length” approach to industry policy over the past 50 years  includes some pretty impressive examples of special industry protections and state interventions in specific sectors. Parker and Parenta themselves mention the Button car plans of the 1980’s, but let’s not forget Australia’s government-owned corporations such as Telecom/Telstra, Australia Post, the Commonwealth Bank, our entire university system,  or the legislated price- and wage-fixing laws that were such a strong feature of Australia’s industrial relations system until it was deregulated by Paul Keating.  In the cultural industries sector itself, we have the ABC, a significant state intervention in the broadcasting market, not to mention some very specific regulatory protections like copyright law and TV broadcasting licenses (a legislated oligopoly, let’s remember).     

Parker and Parenta’s broader point is that “the development of a state-funded Australian film industry is therefore distinctive from the dominant [liberal] model of state–economy relations and itself represents a contradiction in the institutional system.” Apart from the contradiction implied by some kind of monolithic Australian “institutional system” that they posit is none-the-less committed to liberal, deregulated free-markets, it’s hard to take this point seriously from any historical perspective. It’s almost as though the authors are ignorant of recent Australian economic history.  When the AFC was set up in 1970, Australia had centralised wage arbitration and high tariff walls across wide swathes of the manufacturing economy.  The government set interest rates and the exchange rate was pegged, not floating. Yet, somehow, the state-sponsored creation of a national film industry was a massive departure from institutional norms. I don’t buy it.

This is not to say that the overall thesis of this paper isn’t essentially sound. There is undoubtedly a tension between the nationalist cultural policy priorities of successive Australian governments and the increasingly commercial imperatives imposed on the local industry by funding bodies such as the AFC. But this paper has little new or interesting to say about these tensions.

Part of the problem is the lack of fine-grained investigation of the evolving funding structures and regulation of the Australian film industry. For instance, it is true that around 2/3 of the investment in Australian film production originates from overseas investors, and that bodies such as the FFC demand demonstrated investment, commercial tie-ins and distribution outcomes as pre-conditions for investment. But the FFC is, after all, a public investment fund, as are the state-based film production funds like Screen Victoria and the Pacific Film and Television Commission. On the demand side of the equation, many of the eventual buyers and exhibitors of FFC products are themselves public bodies such as the ABC, SBS and publicly-funded film festivals. 

Does any of this really demonstrate that “the institutional framework of the Australian film industry can be understood as a multi-level order and its evolution can be understood as being driven by tensions and frictions in the various dimensions of the industry and their redefinition over time involving a new compromise between commercialism and national culturalism.” On the basis of the evidence presented in this paper, I don’t necessarily think so.

But even if it did, I don’t think this is a particularly interesting point to make. Can you think of any public policy in a democracy that isn’t “multi-order”, that doesn’t evolve over time, or that isn’t a compromise between competing interests?

No, me neither.

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