Music Australia News

Seasoned campaigners share tips to make music politically potent

Julie Owens MP, Dean Ormston and Van Badham
Chris Bowen
| August 30, 2016

A popular session at the 2016 Roundtable was called Making Music a Potent Political Force. An expert panel explored strategies to place Australian music higher on the Federal political agenda.

The session was moderated by Joe Hay, arts industry consultant, opening speaker was Michael Smellie, Chair of Music Australia. Panellists: Van Badham, writer, commentator, arts critic; Julie Owens MP, Federal Member for Parramatta; and Dean Ormston, Head of member Services Group APRA AMCOS.

Michael Smellie’s opening address urged the industry to face its challenges, to build a compelling case by assembling credible evidence; to reposition the industry’s policy positioning from arts based subsidy to creative industries delivering growth; and to move from a transactional to a long term strategic focus.

Read full panel discussion transcript here

Read Michael Smellie’s address here

A summary of key insights and campaigning tips shared:

Influencing public policy

The first task is to be clear about your objectives, and to take a long term view. “You have to be able to articulate the bigger picture” noted Dean Ormston. With a strategy in place, you then work through all of the steps required to achieve success.

There is no automatic entry point into the Federal Government for music, or indeed most other industry sectors. As Julie Owens MP pointed out: “There is no single pathway to get a decision made, you need as many links as you can possibly get”. These include multiple relationships, including politicians, their staff, and departmental officials.

In terms of working across multiple portfolios, relevant to music, there is also no one way to do this federally, unlike some states such as South Australia. The only way to do this structurally is through a committee Inquiry, which would have a specific focus, gather evidence and develop options. Julie Owens noted music would have a good case: “no sector is transitioning to the extent that the intangible sector is …That is probably the biggest transition going on. You would have very good grounds to ask for an Inquiry that crossed portfolios areas that looked at that very significant transition”.

Van Badham observed that music also has enormous cultural brand power and influence which can be used politically. The music sector can “withhold that brand power, or deploy it, based in the service of what you are trying to achieve”. The powerful social media followings of musicians can also be used: “The ability to mobilise opinion around messaging and around political action is the great unused weapon of the cultural communities in this country.”

Julie Owens suggested that sometimes the approach is to see where a government thinks it wants to go and make it easy for them to get there. “In other words, you give them the answer. Those sort of strange situations we are in now, where they is a lot of talk about innovation and export but there are no real strategies to get there… So it is an opportunity to go out there and fill the gap, particularly with the public sector and provide the government with some answers”.

Parliamentary friends groups

A good example of a mechanism to influence policy is Parliamentary friendship groups. Julie Owens explained how these work: “These are bi-partisan groups co-chaired by one person from each side of politics. The role is to create links between people in the industry and in the parliament. So that when you have an issue you need to raise with someone in the parliament, you can get in very quickly because they know who you are.” The emphasis is on building relationships and links within government.

Friendship groups can run activities: “Usually we do events around particular topics – access to Australian markets, trade, copyright issues, the changing nature of the sector. We have forums about particular issues with experts speaking to members or parliament, and we organise private meetings between key people and members of parliament so that links are made and they can exist after the event.”

Dean Ormston noted that the Parliamentary Friends of Australian Music event in March, where Jimmy Barnes played, achieved this relationship building objective: “The next day we had an hour meeting with advisors from four portfolios across government”.

How to influence the federal government

Van Badham shared some frank advice for the arts on working with conservative governments, pointing out there are few votes in the arts: “I had a list of the ten most popular electoral issues… and the arts didn’t even register, let alone the music industry.”

“If you are organising an electoral movement, you can spend years investing in building the soft power of your community to influence long term policy change. That is a grass roots engagement at a community level, at building alliances in the community, running advocacy and awareness campaigns. That’s your long game. Your short game is actually looking at where your enemy is weak and playing them off an electoral break on the issues that can break them.”

There is no point saying “be nice to the arts community because we do really great stuff”. Far better to build alliances with those mobilising in marginal seats on key issues such as job security, university deregulation, and local school concerns.”

“That is how you build political alliances, protect yourselves and create long-term change. That is how you get people in the room, because you actually become an agent of political change and political threat. If they don’t think you are going to vote for them, they don’t care about you. If they think you can influence how other people will vote for them, you will get that meeting.”

“The first step is unity and the second step is industrial organisation. That actually enables us to build powerful political alliances and friendships with the kind of agents of change who can weaken our enemies and deliver our results” Van Badham pointed out.

“So you almost have three levels – you have your political level, which is your members of parliament, you have your mechanical hard work, policy work going on at the department level, and you have your fan base able to kick in and stir things up when you need to.” Julie Owens concluded.

Effective organisation

The panel wound up with a discussion on the music industry’s increasing sectoral maturity. Dean Ormston gave an example of effective organisation: “for the last ten years everyone has talked about piracy, the music industry, which were split on what to do, came together and hooked up with other creative partners in film, sport etc. to say ‘this is an issue for all of us, it is all around content.’

“This can be done without a threat to votes, there are no votes to be won on this issue, it is very unsexy, so we need to de-risk it completely and get something done. We ended up getting a new section of the copyright act passed under Brandis, supported by the Opposition which is great. This now allows a copyright owner to get an injunction for an ISP to disconnect overseas infringing sites.”

Joe Hay concluded with another example, the Contemporary Music Plan launched by Music Australia, where “the industry is pulling together an approach and a set of asks, which we can do hone in on and build campaigns around.


  1. Megs Wright

    Very enlightening to read this.
    Dean Ormston says ‘work through steps’ to achieve success.
    I did this in a national competition.
    I addressed every criterion fact they could have been written for my groups totalling 170 musicians who have been meeting for nearly 20 years, showing sustainability and continuity, (just two of the criteria) but the prizes went to: First, 8 Aboriginal women who had recently got together, Second, a disabled group also recently convened. Both are undoubtedly worthy, but not in the context of the award I am mentioning.
    From my further investigations into music in Australia, I realise that in all your discussions, it is necessary to indicate that ‘success’ will only be achieved by groups/people who are from the following sections of the community:
    Indigenous, disabled, refugees, environmental, climate, multicultural.
    You must be precise about this.
    No more obfuscation and waffle to confuse those presenting music with agendas of musical worth, beauty and interest.

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