Speech to Drama Australia’s National Symposium
30 September 2016

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. Thank you John for that welcome and ladies and gentlemen, thank you for choosing to have your symposium on a Friday afternoon in my home city of Adelaide … [laughter] … it makes for a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to be here and open it as well as know that I will get home to see my children and my family [inaudible] always the case. Can I acknowledge Uncle Lewis O’Brien, thank you as always for your Welcome to Country and this morning I had the pleasure of speaking to the Federation of French Teachers who are having a similar national assembly in Adelaide today and tomorrow. They’re gathering at Flinders University, just to the south of the city and in following the Welcome to Country there I reflected upon the fact that of course language, Indigenous languages in our case, were on the cusp of being lost to Australia but for action in recent years to work for their recovery, championed by people like Uncle Lewis and much can also be reflected in terms of the understanding and appreciation of Indigenous dance, culture, drama, dare I say, in terms of our appreciation and understanding there.

So, in thanking you Uncle Lewis I acknowledge that as a nation we continue to learn much of Australia’s Indigenous cultures, learn from it and hopefully build upon it as a nation for the future. 

I have a little confession to make, that is that back in high school I only failed one subject and … [laughter] … that was art actually … [laughter] … not drama. I remember – fondly remember doing my year eight or nine homework when you would have thought that perhaps by then I might have mastered some basic artistic skills and mum looked over my shoulder and said what is it and I remember saying it’s meant to be a kettle which is not really probably the most challenging thing to draw… [laughter] … but a demonstration that art was not my thing and safe to say that I probably have a couple of left feet. I stumbled through my wedding dance and can get around, so you know, dance may not be entirely my thing and I wouldn’t say that my toning skills are brilliant in terms of being able to sing with the best let alone play any musical instruments. So, when it came to the arts through school, drama was definitely my thing … [laughter] [applause] all of the others were a little bit more of a struggle. Perhaps that, of course, explains something about ending up in politics … [laughter] … but drama is of course a very significant part of the development of individuals. 

In our education system, we spend a lot of time and I spend a lot of time as minister, talking about the basics that we [indistinct] expect students to leave school with and they are absolutely essential and I don’t resile from those discussions one iota because that is what we obviously expect in terms of the skills students are equipped with in the industry.

But equally, and they are of course – it is of course equally essential that the people who leave our schools are rounded individuals, are individuals able to work together to participate and have the self-confidence to engage in workplaces, in further study and society in general and dramatic arts, generally, but drama in particular, provides a wonderful opportunity and an important place in terms of the development of such individuals. One of my departmental staff in Canberra put out a fabulous quote from the Merchant of Venice that the man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.

Now, I wasn’t sure whether he was giving me a quote directed at politics … [laughs] … reflection of our treasons, stratagems or spoils, but of course he was absolutely highlighting very much there that we need more than just – more than just basic skills, basic knowledge for success, people need a whole range of other personal attributes which you, as educators, and in this sphere of drama, do help to provide students right around Australia with. And it’s with that that I’m very pleased to be able to come and join you today and celebrate the work that you are doing for the development of drama in our schools, universities, across our education landscape in Australia.

And because your work and today and tomorrow in gathering in a forum like this is essential not just to your personal professional development but as has already been remarked upon, to your place in the national curriculum, to ensuring that the recognition that has been afforded to the arts, the foundation years through to Year 10, and dance, drama, media art, visual arts, and music, and is capitalised upon, and that you applying the best of demagogies, the best of resources, the best of approaches in terms of how it is that you take the time you have – the valuable time – in what is, and has been acknowledged to be, a tight curriculum with many demands that exist upon schools and teachers nowadays and ensure that we are getting the best, and students are getting the best, from that time as well as opportunities.

Because we know that engagement in fields like drama, from many studies in Australia and abroad, enhances a whole range of other outcomes for young people. It helps, of course, in attainment across a range of subjects, outside of those related to the humanities, because of that lift in individuals’ abilities and in their self-confidence. It can strengthen the types of cognitive abilities students have. We know that students who are from low income families who take part in arts activities at school are more likely to go on to higher education. We know that the employability of students who subject- who’ve studied in arts fields is higher and that they’re more likely to succeed in staying in their employment, thanks to that capacity to relate to others.

We know that engagement in the arts means that there’s increased likelihood to volunteer and to contribute in other fields of society, and we know that it can help to break down gender disparities and other things in other disciplines, like the STEM disciplines, which in this fora I’m sure you will want me to reflect upon the importance of STEAM subjects. [Laughter] And it does all have to come together. I absolutely recognise and acknowledge that. So I want to thank you for the work that you do, and yes, come here today to acknowledge the important place you have in the overall structure and landscape of Australian education, and that perhaps we don’t spend enough time celebrating that and recognising it, but today I’m really pleased to be able to do so. I’m delighted to hear that 40 years on, you feel stronger, more recognised than ever, because you should, and just as we’ve come a long way over 40 years in recognising and of course longer the place of Indigenous culture and Indigenous language, so we have come a long way in recognising the importance in the role of the arts to all students, not just to some students. 

I’m pleased you’re celebrating your history as well in returning to the wonderful Woodhouse. I can remember attending a conference at Woodhouse when I was but a university student, and of course what theme would university students have for a conference at Woodhouse but a Woodstock theme? [Laughter] So I think somewhere there are some terribly embarrassing photos of me in some terribly embarrassing clothes, possibly even sitting on the roof of that old house, which we won’t go into the stories of how I made it to be there…[Laughter].

But I wish you every success over the couple of days of discussions you have, but importantly thank you for the work you do, the effort that you make, and the contribution you make to enriching the lives of so many young Australians and ensuring they are as well prepared as possible for the future. Good luck, and all the best. [Applause]