Bring On The Acid Bath

Australian public debate is usually sober and routine. Policies are proposed, criticised and eventually watered down. One person calls another person a “neo-liberal” and everybody goes home at a quarter past five.

So when novelist Peter Carey claims that a technical legislative change affecting the publishing industry will encourage the growth of “a new species that can swim in acid”, it is at least an entertaining break from the normal banalities.

The Productivity Commission is investigating the removal of the ban on parallel importing, which makes it illegal to import for sale any book that has already been published in Australia. It seems that any proposal to lift this ban is like kryptonite straight to the groin of Australia’s publishing fraternity.

If the ban is lifted, Carey imagines a very bleak future: “long-term devastation” and “cultural self-suicide”; Australian book editors will be “reduced to nothing, to become marketers and publicists for Paris Hilton”. And according to Carey, treacherous – and apparently acid-resistant – global retailers will take over. They plan to rob Aussie publishers “blind”.

Also chiming in, Tim Winton was slightly less surreal but more poetic, predicting a “great bitterness” would wash through the Australian literary community.

And Matthew Reilly, whose books have sold more than 4 million copies, compared the possible influx of popular books if the ban is lifted to the introduction of McDonald’s.

Our novelists are adopting a whole new strategy into debate over microeconomic reform: emotional blackmail. As a general rule, if a law needs a lot of exceptions to avoid being idiotic, it’s probably not a very good law. And there are a lot of exceptions to the ban on parallel importing.

To ensure Australian readers aren’t shut out of the worldwide book market altogether, if a new book hasn’t found an Australian publisher within 30 days, importers are free to bring it in. Other regulatory exceptions ensure that overseas travellers don’t get arrested for bringing in the Dan Brown novel they picked up at Heathrow, and that booksellers aren’t jailed for ordering books that are out of stock in Australia.

The hardest thing in retail is trying to figure out how much consumers are willing to pay for your product.

Australians might be willing to pay a relatively high price for books, but for the less affluent Indian market, authors and publishers might have to sell at a lower price. Clever capitalists try to segment their market as much as possible – rich people pay more, poor people pay less.

So if parallel importing is legalised, Winton, Carey and a lot of publishers are worried that bookshops will be able to import those cheaper copies.

Well, hey – cheaper books for everyone! And if authors really want to keep selling their books at different prices in different markets, they should be able to use private contracts to prevent their own retailers from undercutting them. Like all protectionist laws, the ban on parallel importing privileges producers over the consumers they are supposed to serve – novelists no more deserve to be insulated from competition and consumer demand than farmers, computer programmers or line workers.

In an era where everything is available on the internet, segmenting a market is getting harder and harder. Over time, the whole issue of parallel importing may become obsolete – call it the Amazon effect. The debate shows how much Australian cultural producers have made it appear that our culture is only possible with government protection.

But strong and vibrant culture doesn’t usually come from a bureaucratically orchestrated jumble of subsidies, regulations and writers’ workshops. Culture shouldn’t need a legislative umbrella to protect it.

Peter Carey may believe that parallel importing will silence Australian authors, but there’s something anachronistic and nationalist about the crusade to encourage specifically Australian voices, Australian stories and Australian images. It is peculiar that while we might believe that modern Australia is a cultural collage of backgrounds and value systems, culture warriors on both sides of politics are not able to admit that this makes the deliberate encouragement of a uniquely Australian culture a sham. Many Australian Muslims might find Islamic authors published overseas more personally enriching than Tim Winton’s descriptions of surf in Western Australia.

Unique voices will continue to find their way in a marketplace no matter how globalised that marketplace is – globalisation may spread McDonald’s outlets across the world, but it also makes far-away Peruvian cultural products easily accessible to punters in Narre Warren.

Yet Australia’s cultural legislation protects and subsidises authors with the aim of constructing some sort of universal story that can be shared by the 21 million people living within the territorial limits of Australia. Apart from being futile, this attitude imagines that Australia is a solitary island, rather than deeply integrated in cultures spanning the globe.

Culture evolves in the wild, battered and shaped by the elements, and by the pressure of competitors. It is more likely to stagnate or starve when protected in an artificial environment. The more Australian authors have to compete, the more rewarding our cultures will become.