October 2009

Comment

Parrallel imports

By Elliot Perlman
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Dear Prime Minister,

In the February Monthly you wrote that “the great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed … and the free-market fundamentalism it has produced, has been revealed as little more than personal greed dressed up as an economic philosophy … With the demise of neo-liberalism the role of the state has once more been recognised as fundamental … in the design of a national and global regulatory regime in which government has ultimate responsibility to determine and enforce the rules of the system”.

It is precisely this responsibility that you will be abdicating and precisely the free-market fundamentalism you reject that you will be giving effect to if you accept the recommendation of the Productivity Commission to abolish the 30/90-day rule that governs the parallel importation of books into Australia.

Legislated in 1991, the 30/90 rule defines an Australian copyright territory as a territory separate and distinct from the copyright territories of other English-speaking countries. The legislation states that a book may be imported by local booksellers if it is not published here by an Australian publisher within 30 days of its English-language publication in another country. If an Australian publisher cannot supply a copy of a book it has published here within 90 days of a request for it by a local bookseller, then the publisher forgoes exclusive rights to the book until it is back in stock.

The rule affords local publishers sufficient economic security to take the considerable risks inherent in publishing books, and thereby to make available works by both little-known Australian writers and more recognised ones. It can sometimes even offer Australian writers publication opportunities overseas, through the contracts our publishers negotiate with their overseas counterparts. The 30/90 rule does all this, while barely causing any delay in the importation of overseas published books into Australia and usually with little or no price disadvantage to the consumer.

Implementation of the Productivity Commission’s recommendation would render local publishers unable to compete with overseas firms, who can dump foreign-produced books here at cheaper prices due to the bigger print-runs permitted by their larger populations. Any ensuing gains to the consumer would be trivial and intermittent, while this last-ditch attempt to implement extreme deregulated market ideology would devastate the Australian book publishing and printing industries, lead to widespread job loss and strangle Australian writing.

Without a healthy Australian publishing industry to discover and nurture Australian writers, only a tiny number of our most commercially successful – and already established – writers would be published overseas. And, if the international popularity of those few writers waned then, in the absence of a viable Australian publishing industry to keep their books in print, the stories of a once vibrant and unique culture would become mere historical curiosities.

The narrative arts are the means by which a nation records and preserves its very identity, reminding us who we are and reinforcing the ways in which we matter. It would be a grave mistake to put this enterprise at risk for the sake of the slight and uncertain decrease in the price of books tentatively promised. Notwithstanding our small population and our distance from major population centres that share our language and broader cultural heritage, we have a unique culture that is worth preserving.

Australian writers invest years of their lives in refining and updating the nation’s narrative. Most consider themselves fortunate if they’re able to make just enough to get by – and keep writing. And Australian publishers pour their resources into grooming and promoting homegrown talent. They do it in the hope of profit, but also to maintain our collective sense of self. If Australian publishers were motivated solely by profit, they would sell fast food, alcohol and tobacco rather than books.

Prime Minister, do not let it be on your watch that Australian writing and publishing are critically damaged by the implementation of a discredited ideology that has led to the most serious global economic crisis since the Great Depression. Please reject the Productivity Commission’s recommendations and retain the 30/90 rule.

Elliot Perlman
16 September 2009

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