The depredations of an untrammeled free market inevitably leads to what has been described as the ‘tragedy of the commons’, that is, over-use and privatisation. This may then have the opposite effect — the ‘tragedy of the anticodon’ and under-use.

The latest example of a public good under threat involves AUSTLII, a conglomeration of 251 legal data bases with everything you want to know about legislation and case law in Australia. Freely available to all, it received an average of 637,000 hits per day during March.

AUSTLII needs a modest budget of about $1 million to survive; thin air will not suffice. ARC funding has now run out and its support from governmental and institutional users has been ad hoc. For example, only 18 out of 110 courts and tribunals make contributions. 

Even though Commonwealth legislation involves five million hits per month, nothing comes from the Commonwealth or the states. All requests for funding have fallen on deaf ears.

Lawyers are the meanest supporters despite being the largest users and generating more than a billion dollars annually in legal services. Some $85,500 is contributed by a small cluster of firms and practitioners, while only one of 17 law societies and bar associations makes a contribution. In contrast, the poorly funded community legal centres contribute $20 per head.

Without a substantial injection of funding from the public purse or key stakeholders, we are likely to see yet another example of commodification and user-pays. As government turns away from funding public goods, the market, the metanarrative of our time, tightens its hold, impoverishing civil society and eviscerating the notion of public good.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey