Parallel Import Restrictions - The Saga Continues


I guess I shouldn't have been at all surprised to see Allan Fels (former Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) have an essay published in "The Age" today responding to the report from the Producticity Commission on Parallel Import Restrictions on books in Australia.  But, really, some of his statements are a little hard to swallow.

Take his first paragraph as an example:

Australia needs a loftier debate about book prices now that the Productivity Commission has demolished the arguments of opponents to lifting parallel import restrictions (PIR). We had been told books are actually cheap in Australia. Wrong. The commission found that books are much more expensive than in comparable foreign markets -- all due to parallel import restrictions.

By "loftier" I suspect he means at a level that deals with economics rather than culture, 'cos it's all about the bottom line isn't it?  And I really did like the point he makes that "the Productivity Commission has demolished the arguments of opponents", which brings the jargon of sports commentary to a cultural issue.  Oh, sorry, economic, not cultural.  Must try to remember that.  They disagreed with opposing viewpoints, put another, and came up with a recommendation.  This seems to amount to a "demolition".  Not sure how.  Didn't even know we were scoring points here.  Must pay more attention in future.

Sentence two reads: "We had been told books are actually cheap in Australia."  I'd like to know by whom.  Most commentators agreed that books in Australia were probably, on the whole, somewhat more expensive than similar books overseas, and that there were reasons for that.  So this is really a cheap debating trick - taking an extreme position of a few of your opponents and applying it to every opponent as if they all agree with it - which we can ignore.

Which leads us directly to sentence four, the best of the lot: "The commission found that books are much more expensive than in comparable foreign markets -- all due to parallel import restrictions."  Really?  ALL of it?  Every single cent?  No accounting for equipment and wage costs, shipping expenses, GST?  Bloody GST, Allan.  There's 10% right there.  What's the VAT on books in the UK? 

Skimming the rest of the essay - have to watch the blood pressure you know - I got the impression these were the major points.  The rest was just expansion and wordage. 

There are four sentences in Fels's first paragraph and the only one I agree with is sentence three: "Wrong."


That Australia would consider even for a second surrendering its literary rights strikes me not only as unbelievable but as very, very depressing.

As an Australian novelist who has been living in England for almost a decade, I am long used to tiresome and patronising British attitudes to Australia. It is clear to me that if Australia gives up its territorial rights we will be returning to the old colonial attitude once more -- that is, Australia as a territory of the UK, and effectively throwing in Australian/NZ rights with UK rights as a job lot. Australian publishers and writers have fought a long and hard battle to win Australian territorial rights, and it looks like it has all been for nothing.

I can't imagine a situation in which UK rights, or US rights, would be abandoned.

Yes, Australian books are too expensive, which is a bad thing. The answer: abolish GST.

This is bringing out the very worst of Australia's anti-intellectual streak. I can just imagine how the debate might run if, say, the Australian government was considering bringing in a law similar to Ireland's, in which all writers live tax-free. Now, wouldn't that be something to see?

I actually don't think the current state of Australian publishing is broken, and so don't see any need to "fix" it. And I also don't think the governments of the US or the UK will come out and say: "Gee, look what those nice guys down in Australia have done. What a good idea."

I don't think this is whole thing is based on an anti-intellectual stance - though there is some element of that in the arguments - it's more to do with a new broom, ie the new Federal government, wanting to put their imprint on the arts. It stems from the same sense of "wanting to be different" that led to the introduction of the Prime Minister's Literary Awards.

The weird thing is that this is an attack on an industry during the GFC. If we substituted banks for book industry here, there would be no recent bailouts and people would be talking about more competitive home loans and how banks aren't passing on drops in interest rates. But I'm sure we can trust the good folks of big book chain X and department store Y to pass on the margins to the consumer. Just like we didn't see a drop in CD prices.

Also if you want to have a 'lofty conversation' about the price of Aussie books - why not discuss cutting the GST. Apparently this 'wasn't within the scope of the commission'. Which makes you wonder why?

Yes, perhaps you're right about the Rudd government wanting to make an impact, but think this is one impact they may come to regret.

And what I meant by it bringing out an anti-intellectual strain is exactly that, in the arguments -- in the debates on the internet, in newspapers and letters to the editor -- there is definitely a strong distaste for writers who are often pictured as being above themselves, and many see the repeal of PIR as a nice way of bringing them down.

But it's not really the top dog writers who will be brought down, as much as the new ones trying to get in. The Wintons and Careys and Grenvilles will continue to be published overseas, but will Australian publishers want to take a punt on anyone new from Oz?

(And what I meant by 'wouldn't that be something to see' was the debate about not taxing writers...not a decision not to tax them. That would never happen in a million years -- but I can imagine the frothing at the mouth in Australia if it was ever mooted as an idea!)

Where does this hostility to writers come from? I know that many readers are disenchanted with literary prizes and may not necessarily enjoy the work of our most celebrated writers but, really, the level of hostility in some of the debates is gobsmacking.

As I said on Facebook, I was waiting for my lunch companion and Fels walked past. He damn nearly got shirtfronted by small but enraged author. Narrow-minded, free-market withered ideologue, with the likes of Biggles, Ayn Rand and Milly Molly Mandy on his bedside table, beside the jumbo-sized jar of Horlicks. Re his piece, when someone gets so smarmy, they either have a hidden agenda, or a huge ego.

I'm not at all supprised by the comments made by Fels. For the duration of this entire debate, those advocating for the removal of PIR's, that being Fels, Carr and Grover but to name a few, have distinguished themselves by what they omit from their statements rather than what they say. Misleading half truths infused with a fair dose of emotive language seems to be the way they want to run their campaign. What they espouse says more about them as individuals than it does about the current debate. Lets hope the government has enough intestinal fortitude to stand up to these free market idealogues.

The one thing we have in our favour in this debate is that it is the Government that has to implement the change, and not the Productivity Commission. The trouble with that is we don't know how Government members intend to vote as the bulk of them have been pretty quiet throughout this whole thing.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on July 23, 2009 2:11 PM.

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