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From left to right: Chlöe Swarbrick, Simon O’Connor and Carmel Sepuloni, three of the four participants of this election’s only arts policy debate. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)
From left to right: Chlöe Swarbrick, Simon O’Connor and Carmel Sepuloni, three of the four participants of this election’s only arts policy debate. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsOctober 4, 2023

The only arts policy debate of the campaign wasn’t a debate at all

From left to right: Chlöe Swarbrick, Simon O’Connor and Carmel Sepuloni, three of the four participants of this election’s only arts policy debate. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)
From left to right: Chlöe Swarbrick, Simon O’Connor and Carmel Sepuloni, three of the four participants of this election’s only arts policy debate. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)

The campaign’s only debate around arts policy was just a bleak reminder of how little the major parties prioritise arts, culture and heritage, writes Sam Brooks.

On a rainy Monday night in Onehunga, the sole debate around arts, culture and heritage policies was held. At the newly opened Factory Theatre, MC Richard Green shepherded current MPs and one parliamentary hopeful through two hours of genial discussion about the current state of the arts, and the panel’s largely agreeable opinions on them, with scant mentions of policy throughout. So less a debate and more of a conversation.

One of those hopefuls was the Labour Party’s Carmel Sepuloni, deputy prime minister and minister for arts, culture and heritage, having held the role since the 2020 election. She’s overseen the portfolio through times where all three aspects of that portfolio have been in the media a disproportionate amount. 

Sepuloni asserted herself fairly well, as she often does in these situations, despite having five portfolios (and indeed, when asked about achievements, she pointed this fact out). It’s perhaps telling that the public’s lethargy around talking about Covid-19 at all meant that she was left bringing up how that injection was crucial to keeping the sector afloat, as a recent story about the Court Theatre bleakly reveals. Also telling, more about the audience than the people onstage, was how little fanfare the passing of the Artist Resale Royalty Bill got. A massive achievement for the portfolio, in the making since Judith Tizard was in parliament. The two men in black t-shirts in front of me shrugged when this was brought up.

An awkward moment occurred when Green asked after Labour’s arts, culture and heritage policy, not realising it had been released just the day before as part of their 77 page manifesto. In fairness to Green, it takes up just a quarter of page 69 (nice). In fairness to Sepuloni, the policy mentions exploring an Aotearoa Arts Strategy, which would be the first national policy for arts in the country for decades. Unfairly for us all, it was announced 13 days before the likely end of her time as the minister for arts, culture and heritage.

A gathering at the St James.
Chlöe Swarbrick, Carmel Sepuloni and Steve Bielby at the St James, earlier this year. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

The Green Party’s Chlöe Swarbrick, stepping back into the role of arts, culture and heritage spokesperson again after a reshuffle post-election, was equipped with a robust, months-old policy and the highest words-per-minute rate onstage. Swarbrick hammered on the points that I remembered from this same debate, hosted via Zoom, back in 2020: the need for an artist’s wage and the need to desegregate arts funding from gambling.

The Department of Internal Affairs currently administers nearly half of all lottery profits to three statutory bodies: Creative New Zealand, Sport New Zealand, and the New Zealand Film Commission, under which comes Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. Around $300m from gaming machines is parcelled out to various sports, arts, recreation and community groups.

Before the debate, I decided I would go to the closest spot available for a drink and to do some research on what policies were actually available. As I sat in the corner with my $7 wine, knowing in the back of my brain that at some point that money might have come from one grant or another, I looked over at five pokie machines, each with a person attending it, at 6pm on a Monday night. 

There was a bleak, invisible line between the pokie machines and me. The uncomfortable link between gambling and the arts was mentioned during this equivalent debate three years ago, when it was highlighted how many millions are poured from the pockets of the vulnerable into the bank accounts of our biggest arts institutions, then handed out piecemeal to artists, vulnerable in a very different way. An ouroboros starving itself while eating itself. 

This uncomfortable tension was mentioned later on Monday night, in fact, by the same person who brought it up three years ago (Swarbrick). Since then, the community, the industry, the sector, however you want to name it today, has talked about it too. They’ve talked about it in theatres, galleries, foyers, often over too many free wines. How little of it reached the people that mattered.

Three years ago, Sepuloni said that the Labour Party “wasn’t in a place” to shift from that funding model. It seems that, regardless of what happens on October 14, it won’t be in a place anytime soon.

Onehunga’s Factory Theatre, the location of Monday night’s debate. (Photo: Kete Aronui)

Simon O’Connor was there as the National Party spokesperson. He admitted that National did not have an arts, culture and heritage policy at the moment, due to not “having the bandwidth”. The time of Chris Finlayson, a true National Party advocate for the arts, is well and truly over, it seems. 

While his most memorable moment might’ve been referring to Winston Peters as Voldemort, he managed to get across his one talking point eloquently – the importance for neurotypical children to have access to arts, culture and creativity experiences in schools for their wellbeing. Not a policy, but what kind of monster would be against that? (Admittedly, there were some parties that did not accept the invitation for this event.)

Finally there was Ciara Swords of TOP, armed with a really game attitude and detailed knowledge of the few pillar policies that TOP is campaigning on, but just in case that knowledge failed her, the A4s in her lap wouldn’t. Like O’Connor, she freely admitted where her blind spots were, but was able to identify where TOP’s policies could benefit artists as well, because, spoiler: artists are people too. 

Often, it felt like the conversation was beneath actual policy and rested more in individual grievance – a question about a specific project being funded by MCH found Sepuloni on familiar ground, explaining patiently that she is not responsible for each agency’s individual decisions, while the potshots at the amount of funding that sports and recreation receive compared to arts and culture felt of a bygone era. (You only have to look at the Stop the Cuts campaign to see how advocacy for all four areas works to the benefit of the many.)

I’ll be honest: It was depressing. Not just as a journalist sitting there and hearing the same issues I’d heard talked about three years ago in this very same debate, but as an artist, whose sometimes livelihood and often wellbeing is dictated by arts policy.

The party currently in government has a quarter of a page in a 77-page manifesto dedicated to arts policy, taking up less space than the tray of sliders Chris Hipkins is genially loading up on page six. The biggest party in opposition doesn’t have an arts, culture and heritage policy at all, but their representative has thoughts, which is a very low bar to clear! Two parties have actual, robust arts, culture and heritage policies – Act and Green – and only the latter showed up. The rest didn’t even deign to attend.

This wasn’t a debate. This was a conversation from several years ago, put in the microwave and left to dry out. 

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