House debates

Tuesday, 12 February 2019


Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs; Report

12:13 pm

Photo of Ann SudmalisAnn Sudmalis (Gilmore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs, I present the committee's Report on the impact of inauthentic art and craft in the style of First Nations peoples, together with the minutes of proceedings.

Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).

by leave—On behalf of the standing committee, I rise today to make a statement with regard to this report. It was presented to the Speaker out of session on 19 December last year.

I acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this nation and the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia. I pay respect to ancestors and elders past, present and future and extend my thanks to all those who took part in the committee's inquiry. In addition, I have come to have a greater respect and understanding of guardianship of culture for our First Nations people. I especially love the work of the dozens of art centre products, some currently on my walls, but the brilliant printing expertise of the women of Nagula Jarndu, a women's art and resource centre, I am wearing today in their honour. You can buy the material and make your own clothing, as I have done.

First Nations art and craft is not simply a collection of design elements in some artistic media presentation. Rather, it is integral to their cultural identity, stories and history of the First Nations peoples.

So it has been alarming to learn that up to 80 per cent of souvenirs sold in Australia, seemingly representing our First Nations cultures, are fake. These imitation products have no connection to First Nations people or their culture and are often cheaply made imports.

And although the First Nations fine-art market is not affected by authenticity issues to the same extent, the committee heard some troubling reports of unethical practices in this market as well.

It is not surprising that First Nations artists and communities feel disrespected and cheated, while for consumers there is no reliable way of knowing if what they are buying is genuine.

The misrepresentation of First Nations cultures is unacceptable, so the committee makes eight recommendations to significantly reduce the prevalence of imitation products and create opportunities for First Nations artists and their communities. The key recommendations include:

          There are individuals and businesses making outstanding contributions to safeguard Indigenous cultural expression. The committee is keen to support their efforts.

          The Indigenous Art Code does an impressive code of getting businesses to adopt its voluntary code of practice, to behave ethically and responsibly when selling First Nations art and craft, but limited resourcing affects its ability to achieve its full potential.

          We recommend increased resourcing for the Indigenous Art Code with a review after two years to see whether the voluntary code is affected or if a mandatory system should be considered.

          As well, First Nations art centres provide opportunities for artists and communities to foster and preserve their heritage.

          Unfortunately, centres struggle to keep qualified staff due to a lack of infrastructure, services and housing. Many would also benefit from greater access to business development expertise. So we recommend more support for capacity building through Indigenous business sector strategy funding. With many centres operating in remote areas, the committee learned about and was inspired by the art centre as businesses and community capacity builders. There are obvious social and economic benefits to growing them as self-supporting businesses.

          Additionally, we believe it is important to better understand the impacts of inauthentic products and, for this reason, recommend that the Productivity Commission conduct a comprehensive analysis of the First Nations art and craft market. This will play a vital role in implementing effective strategies to combat the sale of fake art.

          As to current legislation, consumer law allows the ACCC to take action where there is explicit evidence that consumers have been misled about inauthenticity—for example, by false labelling—but the absence of a consistent and recognisable labelling system for Indigenous art and craft products provides little protection for artists, communities or consumers.

          Therefore, we recommend IP Australia, in consultation with stakeholders, develop a certification trademark scheme for First Nations art and craft.

          Equally, copyright law is designed to protect an individual's artistic work over several decades, and it does this well, but these protections do not extend to the communal and enduring nature of First Nations traditional knowledge and cultural expression.

          For this reason, we recommend the development of standalone legislation to protect Indigenous cultural and intellectual properties rights. This could be facilitated through the establishment of a national Indigenous art and cultural authority, which is being explored by the Australia Council.

          First Nations people have been the custodians of their cultures for tens of thousands of years. It is an ethical and moral demand that we assist this guardianship into the future.

          It's my hope that the committee's report and its recommendations will help foster and preserve authentic First Nations cultural expression for the benefit of all Australians.

          In concluding, I'd like to acknowledge that this inquiry would not have been possible without the many contributions from First Nations artists and communities. For this we are extremely grateful. I also acknowledge contributions from industry peak bodies, Indigenous organisations, government agencies, academics and others. I thank the committee's deputy chair, Warren Snowdon, and other committee members for their commitment to this inquiry. I also acknowledge the complete dedication of the secretariat team including Mel Brocklehurst, Kilian Perrem, Louise Milligan, Joel Bateman and Ben Vea Vea and all of the other support staff from broadcasting, Hansard and IT. Without their efforts we would not have been so well able to capture the essence of the guardianship, the love of country and the significance of our Australian First Peoples' songlines. I commend this report to the House.

          12:20 pm

          Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

          by leave—I thank our chair, Ann Sudmalis, for her speech and I support the words she expressed. I think she articulated in a very good way and a very appropriate way the outcomes of this inquiry and the importance of it.

          Living as I do in the Northern Territory, and in Central Australia, you are confronted by a whole lot of different sets of circumstances which go to the root of this inquiry. There are those issues which the chair expressed around people having their stories appropriated by others. There are those stories of carpetbaggers holding artists as prisoners effectively, paying them a pittance and getting them to produce works of art which are worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. This is a pitiful state of affairs.

          On the other hand, as the chair said, there are art centres which proliferate around this country, which are under-resourced by and large, but which with their minimal resources undertake great work in developing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art across the country, making sure that markets are accessed and available and providing an income stream for artists—a very important income stream—without which many people would be destitute.

          When we comprehend the sort of unique nature of the art of our First Nations peoples, we need to appreciate that it is not just a question of the art being a design; it's a question of understanding the uniqueness of that art and the stories which it represents. It's, in effect, an expression of culture. In Central Australia at least, and I know in many other parts of the country, you can't write, you can't paint and you can't describe someone else's story. It's owned by someone else. So to have it pinched, as happens from time to time, is a major cause of concern. We've had evidence during the course of this inquiry as we've crossed the nation, visiting remote parts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia. Every state and territory was visited, and we visited remote communities and remote outstations. We've given artists the opportunity to express their views about the importance of their art for themselves but most particularly for their families and their communities.

          I just want to refer to one part of the report very briefly, which is a statement regarding storytelling and Australia's early history, which is at page 7 of the report. I want to go to the statements from Wayne Barker of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre. He commented:

          Art, for our people, is not just a piece of art, in terms of a western concept of that—which is a product to sell, exchange, trade and barter, to decorate or to beautify. Art, for us, particularly our artistic design and our cultural design specific to language groups, specific to religious groups, if you want to use that word, is embedded in our traditional lore and custom. I will emphasise our lore and custom. Our lore and custom are a foundation of who we are as a sovereign people.

          Then there is a statement from the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, at Yirrkala, who say:

          Our connection to our country, our history and our knowledge informs our artistic practice. If we break it, we get into big trouble and are brought into account by our elders.

          I think those of us who have got any experience in this field understand what that means. Sadly, there are those in this country who have no respect for, or any understanding of, those views and are prepared to rip off Aboriginal art for their own profit without referring to the appropriateness of that rip-off or whether they should be compensating someone for the work they've misused. This is a real issue.

          If people in the parliament or those listening in visit any souvenir place across this country, they will see in many of them, particularly at airports, pieces of so-called craft—designed to represent a boomerang, for example—that may well have been produced in some foreign country, without any licensing from any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australian, and sold back as authentic Aboriginal art, which of course it's not. That goes to the guts of this. We tried to establish the value of this art industry. Sadly, we couldn't get a figure, although one estimate was that it was worth close to $100 million. Contemplate that, because a significant proportion of that $100 million was going out the door to those people who were ripping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people off. That is the sort of shameful behaviour we want addressed through this report.

          I note the committee's recommendations, which were summarised by my colleague, the chair. But I particularly want to say some words about recommendation 8, which provides an excellent opportunity for this government or any future government to undertake a significant reform of Australia's intellectual property law to encompass and serve to protect the art and cultural expression of the oldest continuing culture on the face of the earth, Australia's First Nations people. Recommendation 8 says:

          The committee recommends that the Australian Government begins a consultation process to develop stand-alone legislation protecting Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property, including traditional knowledge and cultural expressions.

          The committee is mindful of the current Australia Council inquiry into the feasibility of a National Indigenous Art and Cultural Authority. The committee fully supports the establishment of this body and recommends that it be part of the consultation process.

          I want to emphasise that. I think that this recommendation is extremely important, but it also gives us an opportunity to perhaps go further. The consultation process recommended could, for example, take the form of a green paper process that examines IP law in Australia and offers up alternative means to address the appropriate and much-needed protection of Indigenous cultural intellectual property. It would inevitably be a complex challenge that would require further and extensive consultation; however, the need to protect First Nations art and cultural expression is urgent, and this work must commence as soon as possible.

          I know we get to debate many things in this parliament, and many documents are presented, Mr Speaker. But I say to you: this report gives us a unique opportunity for strong bipartisan support, across the parliament, for this report and its recommendations. I would say to the government: please respond to this report in a timely manner and, if at all possible, enact all its recommendations. If the recommendations have not been responded to by the time of an election—although I hope they are and I hope there are some initiatives taken—I commend any future government to look at the recommendations of the report and adopt them as we've recommended. I say that with the hope that a Labor government will be on that side of the chamber in the not-too-distant future, after the election, whenever it is held.

          I want to thank all of those involved in the deliberations: the many, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists around this country who made submissions, the art industry generally—except the rip-off merchants, the carpetbaggers and the spivs. We don't need to refer to them in any positive way because, frankly, they're not worth talking about, apart from disparaging their behaviour and making sure, if we possibly can, that they don't operate in our community.

          I want to again thank the chair, Mrs Sudmalis. I thank also Melanie Brocklehurst, Kilian Perrem, Louise Milligan, Joel Bateman and Ben Vea Vea for their unstinting support. I'm sure they found working with us a bit frustrating from time to time, but that's the way of the world—and I apologise if we caused any heartache. I thank the other members of the committee, and I want to acknowledge in particular Ms Sharon Claydon, the member for Newcastle; and Ms Madeline King, the member for Brand, for the unstinting and unwavering contributions they made in the course of this inquiry. They were consistently present and put themselves out to make sure they were available, and I know Llew O'Brien did. I want to thank all of the members of the committee—government and opposition members. Tim Hammond was with us for a little while and then, sadly, decided to pull the pin, which in every possible way wasn't a good thing, I didn't think. But in any event he did. He is no longer in the parliament, but we have a report and his name is on it, and I want to thank him for his contribution. He was, while a member of the committee, a very enthusiastic participant. I should also make reference to Bob Katter, who has had an unstinting view about the need to outlaw unauthentic Aboriginal art.

          We discussed whether or not it was possible to do that. Well, it is all but impossible, but we think there are ways of doing it, and the recommendations in this report address, I think, the way forward, and they are shared by all my committee colleagues.

          I might just make this observation as I conclude. I've been on and off the Committee on Indigenous Affairs for 30 years now. If we were in government, I wasn't on it because I was fortunate enough to have a ministerial position. But I've been on this committee for every other year while I've been in the parliament, and I want to thank all of those who, over those many years, have contributed, because it has always—always—operated in a bipartisan way. I stand to be corrected, but I don't think we've ever had a dissenting report. That, I think, says a lot about the way this parliament can operate from time to time. Whilst we see a lot of crap going on here every now and then, I just want to make sure that the people who are in the galleries and those who may be listening know that parliamentarians in this place, when they can, work effectively together and across the chamber. It's important that you understand that we're not all clowns and we actually work hard. I want to express my appreciation of the contributions made by the members of parliament who have served on this committee over the many years that I have been involved with it. Thank you.

          12:32 pm

          Photo of Ann SudmalisAnn Sudmalis (Gilmore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          I move:

          That the House take note of the report.

          Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          The debate is adjourned. The resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.