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Government Censorship - Should NZ Creatives Be Worried?

04 Mar 2024

Interference and inference from the highest offices in the land are once again starting to blight the arts internationally - Andrew Wood looks at whether this is on the cards in Aotearoa.

In a staggering announcement, Arts Council England (ACE) - the national agency for funding and supporting organisations, artists, events and others in the English creative and cultural sector - cautioned National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) and Investment Principles Support Organisations (IPSOs) it supports to be vigilant about any overtly political or activist remarks made by their affiliates in a personal capacity, on the grounds that these could lead to reputational risk and even breach funding agreements.

What is bizarre about this, aside from the arts being intrinsically political in the first place, is that ACE is supposed to be an arm's length non-departmental public body of the UK government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 

It seems highly unlikely - given the current political climate in Britain - that this isn’t either due to pressure from Westminster, or at the very least, a case of self-censoring in anticipation of such pressure.

It seems outrageous that this should happen in a bastion (at least sometimes) of democracy. But, then again, back in 2014 - and much closer to home - when artists threatened to boycott the Sydney Biennale over sponsorship ties to Transfield, then Australian Federal Attorney General and Arts Minister George Brandis sent a widely reported letter to then chairman of the Australia Council, Rupert Myer:

“…the decision sends precisely the wrong message to other actual or potential corporate sponsors of the arts: that they may be insulted, and possibly suffer reputational damage, if an arts company or festival decides to make a political statement about an aspect of their commercial relationships with government, where it disapproves of a particular government policy which those commercial relationships serve… 

"Artists like everybody else are entitled to voice their political opinions, but I view with deep concern the effective blackballing of a benefactor, implicit in this decision, merely because of its commercial arrangements … No doubt when renewal of the funding agreement beyond 2015 arises for consideration, the Australia Council will have regard to this episode and to the damage which the board of the Sydney Biennale has done.”

This, of course, skirted dangerously close to violating the Australia Council Act 2013.

Must we continue to rehash the kind of thing seen in the 1980s when the US National Endowment of the Arts was weaponised by the Christian Right over an exhibition of Robert Maplethorpe? Yes, these are, once more, politically divisive times dominated by conservatism, but could that happen in Aotearoa?

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Tusiata Avia. Photo: Supplied.

It was an alarming prospect to see ACT leader David Seymour, who had so viciously (some might say “savagely”) attacked poet Tusiata Avia for her poetry and stage show The Savage Coloniser make it into the coalition government, not least because one of his campaign policies was to impose political biases on public arts funding.

Specifically, "Creative NZ will not fund projects which promote or glorify violence or racism.”

That is to say, artistic expressions of the trauma caused by British colonialism and the experience of its ongoing legacy of institutional bias. 

This is strange because good poetry should upset the status quo, make you look at things from a different angle, and make the comfortable uncomfortable. Seymour, who once joked about the blowing up of the Ministry for Pacific Peoples and self-declared defender of free speech, seems to be somewhat selective in how definitions are applied.

While I might not entirely agree with Avia’s free and abstract interpretation of historical context, that’s what poets do and we are all the better for it. Anyone identifying so closely with a centuries-dead British explorer that they feel personally slighted by it probably needs similar professional help to those who dress up like Napoleon.

As many in the arts community noted at the time, it’s outrageous and demoralising for someone to be exposed to that degree of public bullying by a political figure, and Avia had the last laugh by being awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement – the first Pasifika woman to do so.

This apparently outraged the ACT Party - now in the coalition government - to issue a statement through ACT list MP Todd Stephenson (then ACT Arts, Culture and Heritage spokesperson) condemning this decision, administered by Creative NZ (CNZ), which emboldened a tsunami of racist vitriol against the poet. Stephenson said CNZ might soon lose some of its funding. “With a new Government looking to make spending cuts at low-value departments, CNZ is tempting fate.”

In some ways, it’s a good thing that we live in a culture where poetry can provoke this kind of reaction when most of the time it just gets ignored by the mainstream, but no one should be subjected to this kind of thing, which reminds one a little of the official state hour of hate directed at Emmanuel Goldstein in Nineteen Eighty Four.

NZ's Media Council had no time for the astroturfed controversy, but that aside, it seemed rather surprising no one had bothered to follow up on whether ACT would apply pressure from the Beehive to that end, what Paul Goldsmith (National) as Minister for Art, Culture and Heritage thought about that, and where the land lies as of now.

When approached for this article, CNZ’s response was unequivocal:

“Under our governing legislation (Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa Act 2014), one of the functions of the Arts Council is to ‘uphold and promote the rights of artists and the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts’. 

"Creative New Zealand operates arms-length from the government when making funding decisions. Much like the press or broadcasters who maintain editorial independence from their government or corporate funders, we have no jurisdiction over the creative output of those we support. 

"The artists and organisations we fund are independent from Creative New Zealand. We recognise that art has an important role to play in our democracy, where artists often debate cultural, societal, and political issues and fulfil the role of critic.”

Somewhat reassuringly, Minister Goldsmith reaffirms CNZ's independence to The Big Idea.

“As in any portfolio, we have challenges to ensure we get the best results from limited government funds. However, funding and grants decisions are made by Creative New Zealand, independently from government.”

In large part, this was probably to be expected. National, as the senior party in government, has not overly indulged the more radical policies of its co-parties beyond allowing due process and select committees to smother them in the cradle (its own are another story). 

Regardless, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remain vigilant as in the political sphere things can always change rapidly. 

Goldsmith is somewhat of the Old Nat model, a ‘Wet’ who values culture as a public good as far as can be ascertained. The current state of his involvement and engagement with the creative sector is another story.

David Seymour was approached for comment, but as of publication, his office hasn’t acknowledged this request.

It would appear that the political independence of CNZ (and presumably other funding bodies) is safe for now.