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Open letter to Simon Birmingham

The Weasel often writes letters to elected officials… as the dictum goes: If you smell something, say something.

The most recent pronouncement by our erstwhile federal education minister that creative careers were a lifestyle choice had a particular odour. The lack of response from the reigning opposition parties also left much to be desired. So while the intended recipient for below missive was originally for Mr Birmingham; I encourage you, good reader, to freely appropriate the text and send to all those elected officials you believe would benefit from my educational inquiry.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Dear Minister Birmingham  [or insert name of senator or MP here]

I am writing to you regarding recent comments [by the Federal Education Minister] that described creative careers as a lifestyle choice.

I would like to enquire why the government of the day is ignoring the actions of most other technologically developed nations. In the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030, creative industries are identified as key drivers in revitalising manufacturing sectors, and on-shoring production or services that in previous decades been shifted to less expensive markets.

The U.K., France, South Korea, and Germany all have policy that explicitly links creative industries to programs designed to build or enhance innovation; and gain competitive advantage in the shift to Industry 4.0. Many countries now have dedicated creative industry hubs to create and enhance networks and connectivity between creative professionals and other industries.

To state that creative careers are a lifestyle choice ignores the essential function of cultural events in our society. It ignores the economic contribution. It ignores the contribution to the expression of the Australian character by thousands of actors, painters, dramaturges, designers, editors, architects, writers. Finally, it ignores the contribution that trained creative’s deliver in innovative thinking to thousands of Australian businesses. You can read more about how vibrant and vital creative professionals are on the AusTrade website.

If the current government is truly serious about innovation, then engagement and investment in creative careers and industries is essential. Design thinking is inherent in all creative pursuits, and those are exactly the structured innovative skills Australia needs to regain economic strength.

In the new knowledge economy, superior creative thinking can conquer limitations of scale or distribution. The emerging decentralised, interconnected, and data-rich manufacturing landscape has opportunities waiting to be discovered and exploited; and it is creative professionals who are best positioned to think outside the box, make use of limited resources, and take advantage of connectivity to drive innovation.

In light of all this, I would like an answer to the following questions:

Why does the Education Minister consider creative careers non-essential to the Australian economy?

How does the government plan to succeed with an innovation agenda without using design thinking, or input from creative professionals?

I have included links to some of the sources to which I refer in this letter. I encourage you to investigate them further.
I look forward to your reply

Yours Sincerely

The Weasel


austrade.gov.au: Creative-Industries



Deutschland creative industries

UNESCO Science report: creative industries driving innovation


forbes.com: what everyone must know about industry 4.0


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  1. Miriam English

    Don’t worry. This government has a plan. They’ll fix everything by outsourcing creativity to China.

  2. Miriam English

    Maybe we should outsource our politicians. I’m sure we could get better politicians for much cheaper elsewhere. Our current ones are far too expensive and don’t work satisfactorily.

  3. Matters Not

    Leaving aside the ‘creative’ dimension which I know little about, Birmingham is really a breath of fresh air when it comes to the education portfolio more generally. While Labor ought to be commended for the ‘Gonski’ framework, albeit some three years too late, it really stuffed up when it was finally delivered. The Education Minister of the time (Shorten) proceeded to debase the model via grubby political deals. Shame. Shame. Shame!

    Birmingham correctly ‘called out’ those perversions and indicated a possible way of righting the wrongs. The subsequent Labor response was pathetic. Cheap shots all round. All tactics and no strategy. Birmingham provided the political ‘rationale’ to pursue real funding reform but Labor couldn’t resist the ‘immediate’ headline. I repeat – all tactics and no strategy.

    But Birmingham wasn’t finished in the ‘truth telling’. He recently provided damming evidence which shows that in the VET area, publically provided TAFE courses are so much more effective and efficient than that of the private providers. (Shock, horror.) What happened in recent years is a disgrace. Rorts here, there and everywhere.

    He ought to be congratulated. I await Labor’s response. And I hope Labor can look further than tomorrow’s ‘story’.

  4. guest

    Thank you, Matters Not. Trouble is, your accusations against Labor need more substantiation. Education has always been the political football, whipping post…whatever. Birmingham seems like a ‘breath of fresh air’ after Pyne, who had a very hazy idea of what Gonski – and education – is all about, even though he said he ‘fixed’ it.

    One thing you do emphasise is the gouging, rorting attitude and behaviour of some of the private sector. So we see the white-ant destruction caused by perpetrators in the education sector and building, the BER and Pink Batts, banking and finance, tax avoidance, salaries, subsidies…

    But who gets the blame? Labor and unions, that’s who.

  5. Kaye Lee

    Any big changes like Gonski and VET funding (and the NDIS and NBN and mining tax and carbon price for that matter) will need refining in the implementation. I applaud Labor for getting the ball rolling but I agree that they are being obstructionist at times now, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. Birmingham seems like a reasonable man, albeit pushing an ugly party line. Tanya Plibersek would do well to work with him on improvements.

    This dismissal of creativity is very worrying. Creativity is the birthplace of our future but this government wants to go back to direct instruction, phonics, etc. So much for innovation.

  6. Matters Not

    When it comes to Education Pyne was hopeless. (No further discussion required). Birmingham in my view opened the door for a way forward when he pointed to ‘over funded’ schools, listed same and provided the numbers in some detail.


    In going down that path, Birmingham admitted that funding plays a significant part in the success or otherwise of school achievement. That was a golden opportunity to reinforce that on the public mind because the vast bulk of conservative commentators usually run the line that funding makes no difference – it’s other factors – funding is neither here nor there. So Birmingham was on the ‘record’. He had dug himself a hole as it were. But instead of agreeing with Birmingham (and not believing your luck), Labor attacked Birmingham accusing him of having a ‘hit list’. It was the same accusation used against Latham with devastating effect some years earlier. By criticising Birmingham and not praising his honesty Labor changed the debate.

    As for how Labor stuffed up Gonski, I’ll let the real brains behind the model do the talking.

    Further, there is no evidence that the Labor opposition has learned from the mistakes it made in government in the long winter of 21 months between December 2011 when we submitted our report and the election in September 2013.

    • It set aside what the Gonski panel regarded as an essential recommendation: to establish a national schools resourcing body, similar to a schools commission, responsible to all education ministers, to determine in a nationally consistent way the school resourcing standard, the minimum public contribution, the loadings and the indexation factor. (This was crucial! – my comment.)

    •Instead, the Labor government sought to negotiate those matters unilaterally and separately with the state authorities, non-government school organisations, church leaders and unions – after we had consulted with them all for more than 18 months – thus repeating the pattern of the past 40 years.

    •It set aside the recommendations on disabilities funding and the coordination of capital works funding across states and territories.

    •It announced that the required funding would come from tertiary education.

    •And in the final few weeks of government, it touted Gonski around the country in an unholy scramble to entice states to sign up to deals in which the fundamental principles were entirely secondary.

    Nine months after the election, we have no road-map from a party that commissioned the most important education report since the Karmel Report and failed in the politics of its delivery. The most effective political questioning of the Abbott government’s education policies is coming from the NSW government, not from the federal opposition.
    I finish up with three observations.

    First, the current system of sector-based needs-blind funding is the cause of the both relative and absolute decline in Australia’s international education performance over the past 15 years.

    Consider: the gap in reading performance between the top 20 per cent of year 9 students, who are mainly in affluent schools, and the bottom 20 per cent, who are mainly in disadvantaged schools, is currently equivalent to five years of schooling.
    It is an appalling situation. One in five of our 15 year-olds is reading at no better than mid-primary level.


  7. lawrencewinder

    Aawww… fair suck of the Sav… Flappy-Head Birmingham needs to fund all those lovely Private schools. … and to tax 300 or so large companies and banks would be a sort of double dipping with the fees that the parents of these pay for sending their children to those same private schools.

  8. guest

    The problem with Labor implementing any reform across the country is that the conservative side will accuse Labor of indulging in centrist top-down supply-side socialist command implementation. When Labor goes to the states and other involved interested parties they are accused of piecemeal fragmented implementation – never mind the obfuscation of the conservatives, whether federal or state.

    As for education funding, conservatives deny that funding is necessary at all. It is a matter of quality teachers – and Socrates taught in the market place, so what is the gripe?

    Conservatives would deny there are over-funded schools – all are in need of funding, parents pay taxes, and they dare anyone to reduce funding in any way. So Labor is right to remind voters and supporters of over-funded schools that Birmingham is doing what conservatives accused Latham of doing. Interesting, isn’t it, when the boot is on the other foot. One law for one side, but not for the other.

  9. Miriam English

    Guest, but conservatives will spin regardless. There’s no point worrying about them. Labor should just do the right thing and stop trying to appease the conservatives (who will always hate them no matter what) and get on with the job. By fiddling and dithering and trying to appease the wrong people they actually achieve nothing and end up standing for nothing much that anybody can see, and wasting their chances.

  10. Matters Not

    Conservatives would deny there are over-funded schools

    Indeed! That’s what made Birmingham’s admissions so interesting. In the Senate, Labor should have directed quite a few questions his way so as to lock him into that view and get them on the public record. Put his head on a stick. (Reference to Walt Kelly’s Pogo character who wrote about facing the future with a child on a stick.)

    Labor strategists (if they exist) would then be able to face the future with Birmingham’s analysis front and centre. (Please sir, it’s not our view but that of the LNP Minister for Education. And he’s correct – the numbers prove it. Sit back and see how he’s going to solve a problem of his own construction. Or watch when he attempts to run away.)

  11. totaram

    MN: “…Sit back and see how he’s going to solve a problem of his own construction. Or watch when he attempts to run away…”

    Come one. you know how these people operate. Deny, obfuscate, say it is out of context, that is not what was meant, and if necessary change the minister again so that there will be a “fresh look at the problem”. Par for the course.

    I’m not saying Labor gets it right every time. We all know when we are a bit slow and miss some gotcha moments we should have utilised.
    The point really is what can be done? Quite a lot, actually, when you realise that “budget repair” is all smoke and mirrors. But who will do it?

  12. Diane

    @Matters Not: You say “But Birmingham wasn’t finished in the ‘truth telling’. He recently provided damming evidence which shows that in the VET area, publically provided TAFE courses are so much more effective and efficient than that of the private providers. (Shock, horror.) ” and yet this bill also attacks TAFE courses in equal measure.

    Unfortunately, this is typically lazy policy – rather than auditing the courses of offer and shutting down those that are shown to be rorts, or where there is low uptake or low attendance, he’s taken a sledgehammer to a wide swathe of arts courses around the country, including many at TAFE – meaning hundreds of students are going to be left high and dry – with VET Fee debts to pay off but no opportunity of being able to finish the qualification they are studying for.

    From a letter from the Arts Council of SA to Birmingham about the cuts:

    “In South Australia our VET sector has largely been protected from the unscrupulous behaviour of some private providers, as our Creative Arts VET courses are run exclusively by TAFE SA, building on the 30 year history of first the Centre for the Performing Arts and now AC Arts. These courses are highly acclaimed and are efficiently and professionally run. Furthermore, there is noalternative provider in our State. ”

    In his defence of his policies, he’s very careful to pick a couple of ridiculous-sounding courses as examples (such as the Diploma of Life Coaching and Veterinary Chinese Medicine) but carefully forgets to mention some of the other affected arts courses, such as the Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts (Acting) and courses for sound, lighting and stage technicians, production managers and stage managers: courses where there is a strenuous audition process for places, a high number of applicants, and the successful ones are required to put in up to 45 hours a week of contact time, and extremely high attendance levels. These courses aren’t an easy option, in any way.

    Making these courses ineligible for Vet Fee Assistance and subsidies means in future the only people who will be able to afford to train as actors and dancers will be the rich and privileged, and the entertainment industry – and the whole country – will be poorer as a result.

  13. Matters Not

    totram – you say.

    I’m not saying Labor gets it right every time

    What disappoints me most was that via Gonski, Labor (and only Labor has the commitment to at least go in that direction) could’ve made giant steps. Real progress and all that. Instead, they not only delayed ‘action’ In both initiation and action and when they acted, they were all about the ‘politics’ and let the Gonski recommendations be prostituted by ‘slogans’. An implementation disaster. Missed opportunities sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

    Diane, I’m not really across the details of the VET or the TAFE sector, but at a level of generality, it seems to me that the unscrupulous private providers had a ‘field day’ and did so via ‘nonsense’ courses, bestowing outrageous and unbelievable ‘qualifications’, recruiting completely underqualified candidates who were simply grist for the money making mill. Almost a perfect example of what happens when you leave it to the ‘market’ to determine re the how to proceed. You know – no regulation, no red tape, no public accountability, and so on.

    For my part I was operating at the level of low specificity – and from ignorance in most aspects. .As for the detail, you provide, I thank you for that.

    Both the ALP and the LNP raced down an ideological track and eventually hit a ‘reality’ wall. Birmingham at least admitted that. And therefore I give him some credit.

  14. Steve Laing - makeourvoiceheard.com

    One of the largest problems in implementing Gonski was that the starting point wasn’t the same in each state, resulting in certain states (i.e. WA) not signing up to a model which would result in them getting essentially punished for having invested more in education at a state level than some other states (like NSW) who were financially doing very well from Gonski.

    But I’m not convinced that Birmingham is anything more than another Liberal toady, who might come across with a very plausible sounding message, but ultimately who’s goal is to strip more from the public education budget and give it to the private sector, because the former is a state cost whilst the latter is a federal cost (and, of course, is the breeding ground for the next generation of political leaners).

    The outsourcing of VET to private business was a disaster waiting to happen. The opportunity to take advantage of government largesse attracts a certain flavour of “entrepreneur” of the type that also provides funds to the Coalition…

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