Australia’s public-health lobby: it’s time the fat lady sang

Charlie Pearson

Topics Politics

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Last week, the West Australian Opera company decided to shelve its planned 2015 production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. The reason? The characters in the opera smoke regularly throughout the performance.

After signing a sponsorship deal with Healthway – a state-owned body whose job it is to ‘promote healthy messages, facilitate healthy environments, reduce the promotion of unhealthy messages, and increase participation in healthy activities’ – WA Opera decided to remove the show from its 2015 line up. But here’s the twist: Healthway did not request the show be pulled; WA Opera did so of its own volition.

It’s hard to know where to start picking apart this sorry story. It’s a travesty that more and more cultural institutions are bending to contemporary political imperatives and compromising on their artistic integrity. The fact that, in this case, the decision to censor the play came from within the institution itself makes it a doubly depressing case.

The dropping of Carmen shows how widespread the patronising ideas of health organisations like Healthway have become. Even those who attacked WA Opera’s decision did so by pointing out that, given the educated audience opera attracts, the punters would be smart enough to watch the opera without feeling compelled to smoke. Of course, this is true, but it’s also true that all autonomous adults – whether they enjoy the opera or football – aren’t so easily led.

The story has given some politicians pause for thought. Yesterday, health minister Kim Hames said he intends to write to WA Opera, on behalf of Healthway, and insist they put on the show. Meanwhile, state premier Colin Barnett has called for an overhaul of the way Healthway operates. While Barnett should be praised for taking a stand against Healthway’s nudging ways, the problem runs deeper than one institution. The real issue is the contemptuous attitude towards the masses and their lifestyles; an attitude that has become so ingrained in Australia’s public institutions that the likes of WA Opera are doing Healthway’s job for it.

Charlie Pearson is a writer based in London.

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Topics Politics


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