Tuesday, June 16

How much should we tax bookbuyers to support Australian culture?

Your blogger has had too many distractions lately, so he's only just read the full text of the closing address by novelist Richard Flanagan (pictured) to the Sydney Writers Festival on May 24. Click here if you'd like to read it before I tell you that it's a superb, elegant speech – and that it's full of claptrap.

I was a finance journalist for much of my career, and when it comes to arguments for tariffs and protection from international competition, I heard them all back in the 1970s.

Let's see. There's the infant industry argument – protect us from overseas competition until we grow enough to take on the big boys around the world. Worked well for BHP, didn't it?

Or the defence capability argument – we need strong industries so we can ramp up production of war materiel if we're under threat of invasion. Except that in the 21st Century, we'll all be blown to smithereens before we convert those railway workshops to producing Liberators and Lancasters.

Or to protect our pristine primary production, don't introduce disease with imported apples/pork/fish/poultry/etc. – sometimes a valid argument, but often too self-serving.

All have something in common. Corporations, unions and primary producers plead that the public should pay more for goods and services than they otherwise would, whether it's in the shops or paid by their taxes.

But culture is different, isn't it? Australians should pay more for their books to allow our stories to be told with Australian voices.

We must continue “territorial copyright” so that our authors, publishers and independent booksellers thrive under protection from those unscrupulous overseas publishers and our greedy retail giants like Woolworths and Coles and bookstore chains like Dymocks.

That's the proposition Richard Flanagan tries to sell us in that beautifully constructed speech (it really is worth reading, so here's the link again). His exposition is so good, even I almost succumbed.

But I can't go along with it. Stripped of all its high-falutin' good intentions, it's an argument that higher authority – the Australian government – should decide that a cultural issue is so worthwhile ordinary Australians should pay more for their books than they would otherwise.

And that's a decision the Australian people should make, not their governments. The only place Australians can register their vote is in a free marketplace. All the government should do is make sure the marketplace works properly, and is regulated by well-administered competition policy.

[Richard Flanagan alleges our market would be flooded by dumped books which would otherwise have been remaindered or pulped by US publishers. If he's quick, he's just got time to lodge a submission to the current Productivity Commission inquiry into Australia's anti-dumping legislation.]

Flanagan also troubles me with his suggestion that the Australian government should stuff our dollars into a bloody great milch cow with plenty of teats, so that an entire Australian cultural industry – authors, publishers and independent booksellers – can take sustenance and thrive.

He's envious of the government money which subsidises some film-makers. I don't blame him. But when did you last see a government-subsidised Australian film and say,"Wow!” ?

The last Australian film Grumpy Old Journo enjoyed was Shadows of the Past (GOJ post, May 28, “An excellent film stuck in the bush”, a movie for which film-maker Warren Ryan received no government assistance). Should we go that way in boosting the publishing industry?

I have another worry. Should – God forbid! – Australians ever elect another John Howard as Prime Minister, he will have a ready-made structure to implement a Quadrant-inspired purge of Australia's “culture industry”.

But the biggest flaw in Richard Flanagan's argument is its total failure to look to a future in which many readers will use the internet to obtain books by digital downloads to home computers, laptops or specialist e-book readers such as Amazon's Kindle.

The internet is international, and trying to rope off Australian writing into "territorial copyright" will become difficult to enforce and probably counter-productive.

The Australian government would serve our writers and our cultural interests better by developing policies which earn authors exposure and proper royalties in the emerging world of digital publishing, and it should make sure its voice is heard in forums which develop the protocols for internet publishing.

Perhaps we could allow "territorial copyright" to continue – but only while the Productivity Commission, or a specially set up inquiry, develops those policies.

If you type "territorial copyright" into Google or another search engine, and restrict it to Australian pages, you will come up with hundreds of results. All of which disagree with me. Still, they might be worth your time.

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