Courting blue-collar, white-collar and turtleneck votes

Having rolled out its blue-collar platform, Labor is now trying to charm its inner city base with an artful – and light – flurry of creative grants.

Controversial early 20th century artist Eric Gill – the man remembered in your computer's pulldown font menu for the typeface 'Gill Sans' – once wrote: "The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist."

How wrong he was.

And right.

While every man (and I suspect he meant women too) has the potential to create beautiful things, many are convinced they can only be spectators. Such individuals congregate in galleries, theatres, underground music venues to drink away their self-loathing and receive the gift of art from the priests of their religion – the artists.

Labor understands this cultural system much better that the Coalition, and the release of its overhauled cultural policy yesterday by Arts Minister Simon Crean is a shrewd plan to capitalise on the nexus between 'the yarts' and left politics that Paul Keating made permanent with his 'Creative Nation' policy in 1994.

In medieval times, a tyrant wishing to control the masses had only to threaten the church with another round of burnings and flayings to get the message out via pulpits everywhere that he/she was really jolly nice.

What the Gillard government has done, instead, is throw relatively modest sums of money at The Australia Council, and created a series of smaller grant schemes to ensure that artists at every gallery opening, every avant-garde gig, give a small nod to Tyrant Gillard. She even wears arty thick-rimmed glasses, not like those philistines in the Coalition!

In launching the first major overhaul of its arts policy since 1994, Crean noted that "In 2011, the cultural workforce represented 5.3 per cent of the workforce and ... creative services employment is one of the fastest growing areas as the economy digitises".

He also pointed to the social dividend of the arts "strengthening our underlying values of inclusiveness, openness and democratic practice" ... which means neo-Nazi 'black metal' bands will have to fund their own creative development.

Crean added: "There's another benefit to the nation from investing in the arts and artists to build a rich cultural life: the economic dividend. A creative nation is a productive nation."

It's also a boon for the latte industry.

The sums of money involved, within a federal budget that is likely to lurch $20 billion into deficit this year, are very small.

The Australia Council gets $75 million over four years, with around $60 million of that expected to end up in artists' dungaree pockets. There's $20 million set aside for "elite arts training organisations" such as the National Institute of Dramatic Arts. And $20 million in incentives to encourage film-makers to shoot on location here, rather than scout abroad.

Then there's a long list of smaller pots of cash such as $9.3 million for six major performing arts companies: Bangarra Dance Theatre, Belvoir Company B, Black Swan State Theatre Company, Malthouse Theatre, Circus Oz and West Australian Ballet.

The total bill, once $40 million of pre-existing Regional Development Australian Fund has been rebadged 'Creative Australia', is $235 million.

That's an investment that would pass any cost-benefit-analysis for the ALP. There is no cheaper way to shore up inner city seats and coax a few creative types back from the Greens.

In the past two decades Labor's support basis has evolved into two distinct groups – traditional blue-collar workers, for whom 'digitisation' often means snapping on a rubber glove to unblock your toilet; and a professionals/intelligensia base in inner city areas who are a big part of Labor's NBN 'digital economy' plans.

In the past fortnight Labor has cut through to blue collar voters by reviving xenophobic fears of 457 visa rorts and promising to 'put Aussies first in line for jobs'. That strategy, though unworthy, is likely to keep working right through to election day.

And the new cultural policy should not be underestimated as a way of firming up the more recently formed professionals/intelligensia base. The interconnectedness of the arts and the 'cultural capital' required to do well in many professional or intelligentsia roles (teachers, public servants, creative industry roles, etc) is something Labor understands, and will milk for all it's worth.

The rather unimaginative 'chaos' narrative applied to Labor's recent troubles overlooked the longer term game being played by imported communications director John McTiernan. It is no doubt his influence that has put these two planks of Labor's elections strategy – 'put Aussies workers first' and 'Creative Australia' – into place with a full six months for them to take effect.

Whether McTiernan will prove to be a special kind of artist in his own field will be judged on September 14.

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