It may seem at the moment that the only thing that will save the Australian book industry is moving every publisher and writer into Christopher Pyne’s electorate, and making them all wear hi-vis jackets and safety helmets.
For we have in recent weeks discovered that the Turnbull government is considering proposals for a writer to not have any rights in their work 15 to 25 years after it’s first published. So Mem Fox has no rights in Possum Magic. Stephanie Alexander has no rights in A Cook’s Companion. Elizabeth Harrower has no rights in The Watch Tower. John Coetzee has no rights in his Booker winning Life and Times of Michael K. Nor Peter Carey to The Kelly Gang, nor Tim Winton to Cloudstreet. Anyone can make money from these books except the one who wrote it.
The Abbott and now Turnbull governments’ record drips with a contempt for writers and writing that leaves me in despair. They want to thieve our past work, and, by ending parallel importation restrictions and territorial copyright, destroy any future for Australian writers.
That contempt has been made concrete in the report of the Orwellian titled Productivity Commission. The Productivity Commission doesn’t dare call books books. Instead they are called—in a flourish not unworthy of Don de Lillo—cultural externalities.
In their perverted world view, the book industry’s very success is a key argument in their need to destroy the book industry, and this determination to destroy an industry is revealed in their reports as the real aim of these proposals.
Just one highly revealing quote from the Productivity Commission:
The expansion of the books production industries over recent decades has attracted and held productive resources, notably skilled labour and capital, that have thereby been unavailable for use in other industries. The upshot will have been reduced growth in employment and output in other parts of the economy.
Replace the clumsy phrase ‘book production industries’ with the word ‘kulak’, and you would have ideological cant worthy of Stalin.
What they are saying is that without the book industry—which is nothing more than a parasite—the economy would be doing far better. We could all be helping the economy doing real work like, well, being unpaid interns for merchant bankers.
The report’s proposals, which even before seeing them the Turnbull government agreed to endorse, effectively extinguish the Australian book industry as we know it and deliver our market to American and British publishers.
And that’s what this government thinks of everyone in this room. Be under no illusion: they want to destroy this industry. And with it, Australian literature. They want you out of a job, they want us no longer writing. Cultural externalities are, after all, external to who and what we are.
And perhaps this is all not so surprising, because the Turnbull government’s decision is not based in reality. Vassals of an outdated ideology unrelated to the real world, they can, when questioned on this issue, only mumble neo-liberal mantras that have delivered the world economic stagnation, rising inequality, and global environmental crisis. Hollow men, stuffed men, their words rats feet over broken glass. The only thing these people read are The Panama Papers to see if their own name has cropped up.
This decision to destroy the book industry by removing parallel import restrictions is consistent with the government’s relentless assaults on science and scientists. It is of a piece with its ongoing attacks on thought and debate. Who benefits from ignorance and silence other than the most powerful and the richest?
The democracy of thought and discussion that books make possible, the possibility of empathy that books are known to engender, the sense of a shared humanity and the transcendent possibilities that books give rise to, all will be diminished by this profound attack on Australian writing. And we will have returned to being what we were fifty years ago: a colony of the mind.
You have to ask if, at heart, this is not profoundly political, because the disenfranchisement of the imagination is ever the disempowerment of the individual. There is, after all, both a bitter irony and a profound connection in a government that would condemn the wretched of the earth as illiterate, while hard at work to rob its own people of their culture of words.
I had long hoped for bipartisan support for arts. I have lobbied politicians of all stripes on that basis. I wrote to then prime minister Abbott on this matter. But the last two Liberal governments have been the worst in our history in their treatment of artists and writers.
With their gutting of the Australia Council, with their theft of money for a Book Council that never happened and the money for it vanished into general revenue, they have shown that they do not care, and now, far worse, that they wish to destroy the possibility of a future Australian literature by destroying territorial copyright.
Where is prime minister Turnbull’s much vaunted innovative economy in this decision? Where exactly, prime minister, are the jobs and innovation in destroying jobs and innovation? We employ people, some 25,000 by last count. We make billions, we pay tax, we make things and we sell them here and we sell them around the world. And all at no cost to the taxpayer. And now prime minister Turnbull would destroy it all.
We are not a subsidised industry. The fossil fuel industry gets $18bn of subsidies. A single South Australian submarine worker gets $17.9m. And writers? The total direct subsidy for all Australian writers is just $2.4m. That’s it. And that’s all.
What I say next, I say with heavy heart and only after the deepest thought, because I don’t believe in any party. I speak now only for myself.
This is a government that has no respect for us and no respect for what we do. This is a government that despises books and views with hostility the civilisation they represent. Perhaps it hopes in a growing silence that it might prosper. Certainly, it cares only about one thing: power.
And only on those terms will it listen.
For that reason, if you care at all about books don’t vote Liberal at this election. If you care at all about what books mean, don’t vote Liberal. If you value how books can enrich lives, don’t vote Liberal. If you think Australian books matter to an Australian society, don’t vote Liberal.
Because this is the party of philistines who punish the creators, destroy all that has been created and create nothing but destruction. They should stand condemned for what they have done. To the minister I say, if you have a shred of dignity, resign. His shame, and prime minister Turnbull’s shame should be public, well known and long, long, long lived.
For we inside this room and the many, many more beyond it have made something special and unique that helps us become a better people, and which brings our people honour around the world.
This government, which again, and again, has brought Australia only global shame with its follies of cowardice and cruelty has no right now to destroy such a good in our nation as this: the voice of our experience, the words of our people, the tongue of our hope—our culture of writing.
In this time of fracture we need more than ever the things that can bring us together as a people, not fear, not the resentments of the many carefully cultivated to cloak the privilege of the few, but the hope of a society that might discover in books the liberating possibility of a shared humanity. Of a better future. Together.
We need to fight for it. We must not give up—and, if we hold together, I promise you—we shall prevail.
This speech was given to the Australian Book Industry Awards in Sydney on 19 May.