Guy Rundle on parallel import restrictions for Australian books

In Fairfax’s relaunched National Times, Guy Rundle has a perceptive essay on the unsustainability of parallel importation restrictions (often abbreviated to PIR) for Australian books:

Though the chief opponents of PIR have been the large book chains and their tame flacks, the main game in terms of radically cheapening and improving the flow of information and culture should be the abolition of territorial controls altogether.

History shows new and wider modes of circulating knowledge, debate and information are the means by which entrenched power and unquestioned authority is challenged. Just as the printing press destroyed the monasteries, and made possible the Reformation.

This seems genuinely liberatory, so why are so many of the cultural left against it? In Australia, it’s because the cultural left has long seen progress as a coalition between left-liberal intellectuals, the state, and regulation and subsidy. In a backward postwar society that was accurate enough. Not only has technology changed our relationship to the world, but state regulation has become the barrier to wider cultural growth. In the meantime, a left-liberal clique have come to control the cultural institutions now being threatened – and find themselves in the position of defending a system that retains no logical basis whatsoever. Their progressivism has become the conservative status quo, linked to their cultural power.

It’s a valid point, and as always with Rundle, argued with his cutomary flair and elan. It’s true that the executives and cultural managers running Australia’s cultural institutions – and I’m guessing here that Rundle means the big cultural businesses and organisations such as the ABC, Fairfax, the major performing arts companies, state-funded libraries and art galleries and so on – are predominantly “left-liberal” in their political outlook, if only by a kind of default owing to neo-liberal assault on non-market cultural institutions and expressions and the general perspective of many conservatives and economic libertarians that state support for the arts is unjustifiable.

But has state regulation reallly come at the expense of “wider cultural growth” in Australia? On the whole, it’s difficult to argue that it has, especially at a time when many of the most vibrant organisations in Australia’s mixed cultural economy are the state-owned or funded ones, like the ABC and the big city cultural festivals.

Of course, the heavy hand of state regulation is certainly felt in copyright law, where western legislatures (including Australia’s) have enthusiastically enclosed the cultural commons at the bidding of multi-national music and movie industries – not to mention Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s quixotic tilt at internet regulation .

But does this mean Australia’s comparitively low trade barriers and liberal publishing regulations are really holding back Australian publishing? The evidence from the sector says they are not. In fact, if anything, Australian publishing appears to be thriving under present conditions. This may mean that the industry is healthy enough to survive in a liberalised trade environment. Or it may mean, as the Productivity Commission report on the subject suggests, that the meagre trade protection afforded by parallel importation restrictions has provided a small but valuable cross-subsidy, particularly to the sorts of smaller publishers that support interesting Australian novelists and non-fiction writers. If that is so, then why unilaterally liberalise PIR?

It’s interesting that Rundle finds himself to the right of the Productivity Commission (which ironicallly recommended a public subsidy as a more “efficient” solution to retain the “positive cultural externalities” provided by PIR) on this issue. He is normally quite suspicious of neo-liberal solecisms like the “left-liberal clique” or the “stone-cold absurdity” of cultural protection, and in other contexts, Rundle has railed against the damage wrought on the American middle classes by pro-market, deregulatory policies. Perhaps in this case, his cultural libertarianism is trumping his far more collectivist and radical views on economics.

As for the monastaries, political action by the state was far more influential in their decline than the printing press.

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