Saturday, June 20

Sorry, Tim, but I still can't buy that argument

Here's a link which will take you to the pre-recorded video in which author Tim Winton uses his Miles Franklin acceptance speech to argue that Australia should retain "territorial copyright" protection for our authors and publishers.

Sorry Tim, but as I said in my previous post, I can't buy the proposition that Australians should be required to pay more for Australian books than they otherwise would, all in the name of protecting our culture.

If there are inequities in a free international book trade, they should be addressed by competition policy and anti-dumping rules.

If our authors don't receive full royalties on their books when they're imported from international publishers, it's up to our authors and literary agents to seek better contract arrangements. If they need government support to do so, it would be a valid role for government to play -- especially in international negotiations.

Some may think Grumpy Old Journo's comments mark him as a right-wing fundamentalist. On the contrary, a left-of-centre, socially progressive commentator should have no problem in also being an economic rationalist.

Here's the ABC report about Tim Winton's winning the Miles Franklin for the fourth time with his novel Breath, and the report from the Trust which administers the awards.


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.

Friday, June 12

Thursday, June 11

Loathe him or love him, Senator Bob Brown gets responses

Surely this takes the prize for the nastiest letter to the editor this week. Published in today's Sydney Morning Herald, it drips with a sneering loathing for greenies generally, and Senator Brown in particular.

Perhaps letters editors should commission anti-tripe software, to screen out any submissions which say, “How silly of me,” along with those which start, “Is it only me, but . . ?” – terms which usually say the writers are pompous old gits.

This letter's writer appears not to have troubled himself to learn the facts behind Senator Brown's huge legal bill. Nor does he feel it matters that Brown undertook the legal actions not for his own benefit, but for what he perceived to the need to protect natural environment. And that his bankruptcy would rob the nation of a unique political leader.

But the letter writer needn't listen to a Grumpy Old Journo – if he flicks to the Opinion page right opposite his letter, he'll find the background fully explained. (He might have problems with the big words, however – Elizabeth Farrelly is erudite, and isn't shy in showing it. Even your GOJ had to look up guddling and manky.*)

And Elizabeth Farrelly says she loves Bob Brown. “Nothing personal. Never met the guy. But I love his articulate, undaunted, un-self-aggrandising and untiring defence of the planet.”

*Guddling: To try to catch fish by hand, esp. by groping under rocks or in murky water.

Manky: Inferior or unpleasantly dirty.

Wednesday, June 10

Rudd's countdown to November – if he decides to go that way

After a lot of shilly-shallying, Federal politics is entering a new period of tension – double dissolution or not? This video clip reports on the possibilities.

It's probably true that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd would prefer to serve out his full first term to the end of next year, as he's said a number of times.

But it's also true that he has put his newly envigorated ministry and the Labor machine on notice to be ready from about November in case he calls an early election, as Phillip Coorey reports in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

Despite his conservative preference for a full term, a double dissolution must be enormously tempting to Rudd for a reason seldom analysed by commentators – he would sweep away many of those troublesome senators.

At a normal three-yearly Federal election, all members of the lower house must step down. If they want to stay on, they must be re-elected. But senators are elected for six-year terms, and only half must seek re-election at each Federal election.

That why the Senate still contains so many Coalition members – two short of a majority – despite Rudd's convincing win over John Howard at the last elections.

However, after a double dissolution all members of both the Reps and the Senate must face the electors in fresh polls.

Of course, the numbers in a new Senate following a double dissolution cannot be certain, but it would be surprising if the Coalition did not fall sharply. In the current national mood, the Greens could lift numbers.

And Rudd would probably still face a number of loopy independents, such as Family First's Steve Fielding.

As Paul Kelly reported in The Australian last month, a double dissolution must be attractive to Rudd for many other reasons.

. . . his gains from a double dissolution are potentially immense and this is the key to future politics. A double dissolution gets Rudd to the polls before the worst of the downturn, possibly before the jobless rate reaches 8 per cent, maximises his House of Representatives vote, destroys the Coalition's gross over-representation in the Senate and constitutes the new upper house at once rather than on July1, 2011.

Taken together, such advantages pose a mortal threat to the Coalition parties. The paradox, of course, is that only the Coalition creates the conditions for a double dissolution. The test, therefore, for Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull is to persuade his party to avoid a double dissolution election and ensure a full term parliament.

Section 57 of the Australian Constitution says the Prime Minister may ask the Governor-General to dissolve both houses of parliament, the Representatives and the Senate, if:

  • The Senate rejects or fails to pass, or passes with amendments which the Reps will not accept, any legislation sent to it by the Reps – which means the Australian Government, with its majority in the Reps.
  • At least three months pass, and the Reps again passes the legislation and sends it to the Senate, which again rejects it.

That's when Rudd may make an appointment to see the Governor-General. From the time the G-G dissolves both houses, the Australian Electoral Commission timetable allows between 33 and 68 days till the nation goes to the polls.

See why Rudd wants the troops ready before November?


Saturday, June 6

Quentin Dempster turns the spotlight on prison death cover-up

When will the NSW Labor government wake up? Prison deaths, and the failure to provide reasonable medical care to ill or geriatric prisoners, could cost it votes and destroy any faint hope it may have of re-election.

The scandal had registered only in scattered newspaper articles and the occasional blog. But last night, Quentin Dempster's NSW Stateline program on ABC television gave a disturbing report on the NSW Coroner's Court findings on the 2007 prison suicide of Adam Shipley (the subject of my previous post, on Thursday).

Stateline reporter Philippa McDonald interviewed Bill Beale, the department's former principal investigator, who had told the Coroner's Court that systemic failures in the management of inmates at risk contributed to the death of Shipley, who had a history of mental illness and self-harm.

Beale had resigned in disgust after his boss binned his report and substituted something much more bland – not the first time it had happened.

However, Stateline did not examine the broader questions of deaths in custory.

Grumpy Old Journo is the only commentator to have directly connected Shipley's death with other reports – the death of Mary Anne Roberts, who should have been in a nursing home, and the NSW Government's “couldn't give a stuff” response to the possibility Charlotte Lindstrom may die of acute anorexia – to conclude that in NSW, a prison sentence may well be a death sentence.


Historically, there's never been much public support for prison reform – it's been left to Quakers and the like. In Australia, our politicians are too frightened of “shock jock” radio thugs to speak up for reform.

But there is some support, and usually it's to be found in people who vote Labor because they believe it's the party with socially progressive policies.

However, the times they are a'changing. If Labor loses those voters, its re-election chances will move from “almost none” to “absolutely zilch”.

And Labor is losing those voters, as shown by Greens candidate Adele Carles's convincing win in the West Australian by-election for Fremantle on May 16. Admittedly, the old working-class port suburbs of Fremantle have gentrified over the past few decades – but that's no different from many electorates in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and other old industrial or port cities.

As this Crikey report said:

. . . Carles’s win underscores the point that the Greens’ encroachment into inner-city and bohemian enclaves is continuing to gather pace, posing a serious long-term threat to what had traditionally been Labor’s strongholds.

A number of seats in Sydney and Melbourne are likely to fall when the tide goes out on the ageing state Labor governments, which seems particularly imminent in the case of New South Wales.

As I said, prison reform is not a hot issue. But with more media exposure, and possibly a campaign through GetUp!, it could become so, and the NSW Labor could lose even more support from those of us who want to vote for a socially progressive party.

Perhaps the Stateline report will force the NSW Government to act. Philippa McDonald reported:

. . .the Corrective Services Minister is now under intense pressure to overhaul the treatment of vulnerable prisoners and the way his department conducts its investigations.

And Quentin Dempster concluded:

And last night, the NSW Government promised to ensure all government agencies respond to coronial recommendations in the future. Under new guidelines, government departments like Corrective Services will have to act within six months. Victoria recently introduced legislation to
make that happen. Despite numerous requests from Stateline over the past week, the Corrective Services Minister, the Attorney-General and the Corrective Services commissioner all declined to be interviewed about the Shipley case

The Corrective Services Minister, may I remind you again, is former NSW unions boss John Robertson, who brought the NSW Government to its knees when he helped organise a hooting, howling, jeering mob to shout down the then NSW Treasurer over plans to privatise electricity generation.

The images of Labor policy-making were even more damaging than the "36 faceless men" photo which harmed Labor so badly in the 1963 Federal elections.

After his having brought NSW Labor to its knees, it will be ironic if Robertson now administers the coup de grace with his handling of the prisons portfolio.

The Stateline transcript may be read here. This newspaper report tells of Beale's evidence to the Coroner's Court.


Thursday, June 4

Does the NSW Government give a stuff about the people who die in its prisons?

Another report which should make you angry, taken from an ABC Online bulletin yesterday.

A coronial inquest has found that the New South Wales Department of Corrective Services ignored a damning report into a death in custody.

Adam Shipley hanged himself in his cell at the Kirkconnell minimum-security correctional centre, near Bathurst, two years ago.

The 36-year-old, who was serving time for a breach of parole, had schizophrenia and a long history of self harm.

At the Glebe Coroners Court today, an inquest found that Corrective Services had no plan for Shipley's psychological wellbeing.

The State Coroner, Mary Jerram, said the department failed to properly investigate the death and ignored a detailed report into it, because it was not written in the right format.

Readers of this blog will know I'm passionate about this issue. Over the past month, my posts have included:

May 9: “Australia doesn't impose the death penalty, does it?”
May 23: “Should imprisonment be a death sentence”
June 1: “Morally, it will be murder if this prisoner dies”
June 2: “John Robertson decides: We'll risk her life”

The heading on this post today may seem over the top. It reflects my anger, certainly, but with the scandals continuing to unfold, it's justified. The ABC report concluded:

The Coroner recommended that the New South Wales Government order a review into the treatment of at-risk inmates.

She also questioned the usefulness of the department's investigation branch and called for a review of its operations.

Don't hold your breath.

Two events – one fun, the other sombre

Two events in this Queen's birthday long weekend may be of interest.

First, anyone in the Central Coast or Hunter regions who'd like to see the film Shadows of the Past, which Grumpy Old Journo praised last month, could catch it at the Nelson Bay Cinema Complex, Stockton St, Nelson Bay, from today till June 11. It's on at 12.15pm daily.

Port Stephens is hosting the 4th Blue Water Country Music Festival from tomorrow until Monday – you could see the movie and catch some good country music.

Second, and more sombre, the annual memorial service to mark the Myall Creek massacre takes place at the murder site west of Inverell on Saturday. You'll find details below.

Because you're reading Grumpy Old Journo, it's likely you're an intelligent person who won't be told what to believe – you make up your mind after considering the evidence. You may find value in two GOJ posts last year about the massacre.

I introduced them with this statement:

This is, hopefully, the final version of a post which has been revised and re-revised to ensure it is accurate with the ascertainable facts and fair in its treatment of those matters which must remain
subject to conjecture.

Reading back over them, I think they provide a useful guide to the evidence, with plenty of links to online sources. You'll find the main post here and the other here.

Here's a guide to Saturday's function at Myall Creek, taken from an email sent to reconciliation groups:

The annual memorial commemoration ceremony for those who died in the Myall Creek massacre will be held at Myall Creek, on Saturday, 6 June.This public commemoration is held at Myall Creek west of Inverell on the Bingara-Delungra Road, commencing at 10.00 a.m.
The guest speaker this year is Mr. Kev Carmody. Mr Carmody is a well-known and respected Aboriginal singer songwriter.
The NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Paul Lynch, will also attend.
The Myall Creek Memorial was erected in June 2000 by a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people working together in an act of reconciliation. It was awarded the Judith Wright Prize for innovative reconciliation work in 2005. In June 2008 Peter Garrett announced Myall Creek Memorial as part of the national heritage register.
The memorial commemorates the unprovoked massacre of twenty-eight Wirrayaraay women, children and old men by a group of stockmen in 1838. The story of the massacre, of those who fought to bring it to justice, and of the remarkable ongoing and growing grassroots reconciliation are told through the annual memorial ceremony.
Following the ceremony, two highlights this year will be the schools competition with 29 local schools invited to participate, and open discussion on a concept for an education/cultural centre
at Myall Creek.
10.00 Arrival and morning tea.10.30 Start of ceremony12.00 Lunch will be available after the ceremony for a small charge.12.45 Schools competition prize-giving, followed by cultural items and
hearing briefly from special invited guests.1.30 Open annual meeting, with a focus on new architectural concept plans for the educational/cultural centre.

Tuesday, June 2

John Robertson decides: We'll risk her life

This post should be read in conjunction with the previous post.

Today's Sydney Morning Herald reports that the NSW Minister for Corrective Services, John Robertson, has ruled that the seriously ill Charlotte Lindstrom must remain in a NSW prison until she gives evidence against her former fiance in two drug trials. Read the report here.

Robertson said she could not be considered for repatriation to Sweden until she had fulfilled her obligations to give evidence in the trials.

In the Herald report, he made no reference to expert medical evidence that her anorexia is so severe she is at risk of death, or to opinions that the stress of testifying could kill her.

The Minister's decision might, just, be justified if he were to make sure she receives adequate medical treatment, something our prison system has failed to provide during her two years in solitary.

The report makes no reference to medical treatment, so we must assume she will not get it.


Monday, June 1

Morally, it will be murder if this prisoner dies

The NSW State Labor Government continues to risk this prisoner's life.

I've commented on this before ("Should imprisonment be a death sentence", on May 23). I'm even more angry after reading this report in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

As the report says, the Swedish government is seeking her urgent repatriation to Sweden because she is dangerously ill with acute anorexia. The Australian Federal Government agrees she should go home.

Ms Lindstrom's body mass index has fallen to 13.6, which, as the Herald reports, is well below the level at which she should be in hospital and undergoing refeeding.

The NSW prison system has never given her the treatment she needs.

Sweden's Ambassador to Australia said: "This is not according to what we would have expected from a modern and well-equipped government in NSW."

Nor has the NSW government replied to Sweden's request. A spokeswoman for the responsible minister said no decision had been made.

And who is the Minister for Corrective Services? None other than John Robertson, the trade union boss who slipped into the Legislative Council seat vacated by the minister he got rid of, Michael Costa. Robertson did not have to face the public in an election.

Robertson has done more than any other politician to ensure Labor suffers a humiliating defeat at the next State elections, as I wrote on February 26 in "How to destroy Labor's electoral chances".

If Ms Lindstrom dies as a result of Robertson's failure to provide adequate medical treatment, and his refusal to let her go home to Sweden for treatment, he and his colleagues will be guilty of murder. Not in any legal sense, but in a moral sense the electors should understand.