Stern Hu:

James McDonald writes: Re. “Hu is the broadsheets’ Schapellian moment” (yesterday, item 2). Bernard Keane, I think you’ve missed the point on the Stern Hu case. Neither the detention of our man in Shanghai nor the broadsheets’ reaction to it is really comparable to the Schapelle Corby affair.

Ms Corby got caught either in the commission of a crime Australia has warned travellers about for years, or in an unfortunate turn of events that effectively frame her for such a crime, depending on what version you believe. Either way, our interest in her has to do with fair process, human rights, and our consular protection of Australians abroad. These factors are of course very important in the case of Stern Hu and his assistants, but there is a much bigger dimension to this that you dismiss as if it were just a bit of broadsheet pomposity and “pushing buttons”.

Together with his team and his counterparts in a very small list of companies, Stern Hu is just as much our man in China as is the Australian Ambassador, and although I don’t know anything about international mineral negotiations, I’m quite prepared to believe he and his team have contributed more to Australia’s livelihood, especially in the global downturn, than our whole federal cabinet. This isn’t just a detention of someone in whom we have a consular interest; it’s a message to Australian business — which is to say, Australia. It’s a bit like displaying our envoy’s head on a stake.

So we are actually in a crisis which has no easy outcome and which is far too grave for the flippancy of that article. All of the well-informed advice makes it clear that the best chance of ever getting him out of there is … very softly. And of course we are hopelessly outmatched in any pushing contest with the Chinese. So if we pretend this is separate from recent events in the Chinese-Australian relationship, if we shrug sadly as if it were a “Schapelle Corby moment” and carry on with the appearance of business as usual, it’s conceivable the Chinese might see fit to release him at a later date. That’s one side of the awful dilemma we’re in. But while the consequences of responding a bit less sanguinely could be severe for us and even more so for the Mr Hu, the long term consequences of turning the other cheek are harder to predict but may be worse.

This kind of problem needs all the best analysis our thinkers, such as they are, can apply to it. Much of which takes place in the open, on the pages of the broadsheets. They may not be exactly the world’s best newspapers but whom would you rather leave the debate to — federal cabinet in closed session? The same people who led the Chinese on about the acquisition deal and waved an alarmist defence white paper in their faces?

Chek Ling writes: Let us not repeat our Schapelle Corby episode in foreign relations. Then it was the media and the talk-back shock jocks who embarked on a national “hate-the Indonesians” campaign, telling all that “they” were uncivilised and “their” judicial system cannot be trusted. Fortunately our Prime Minister took the opportunity to put an end to that campaign when a letter containing white powder was received at the Indonesian embassy in Canberra.

Perhaps we should revisit this Corby episode and search our soul.

On the other hand spare a thought for the growth straitened Chinese government. If commercial intelligence has been gathered, which is only expected if Stern Hu is any good at his job, then someone has got to pay for it, if only to deflect attention from the failure of some department or sector in not meeting its financial targets at this critical time.

And it won’t be the first time in history that this sort of thing has happened. Back in 1840 the British opium merchants, upon the Qing government’s demand, surrendered their 40,000 boxes of raw opium through their Queen’s representative in China. The subsequent undignified destruction of the boxes at the hands of Chinese officials was an insult to the Queen of Great Britain and therefore justification for the invasion of China by the British Empire.

Let’s not forget also that our soul is not lily white either. Some years ago one of our consular officials in an Asian country issued a new passport to a convicted Australian paedophile, awaiting sentence, to affect his escape from that Asian country.

Glen Fergus writes: Is that the best they can manage? Round up a few third to fifth ranked functionaries. If China Inc. is really that feeble then the London – Melbourne resources axis really does have them right where we want them. Think not of Corby; rather of Claude Rains’ immortal line.

The battle of the books:

Donald MacPhee writes: Re. “Readers have nothing to fear from the Productivity Commission” (Tuesday, item 1). To take just one example of the several items in which comparisons are made of OS and local prices for books, Michael James quotes Alan Fels as saying that Breath (Tim Winton) costs $24.95 and is cheaper overseas, but goes on to tell us that it would cost $26.63 from Amazon but only $16.22 from Myers or $18.33 from Borders.

It is worth noting that it would actually cost only $14.80 from the Book Depository (UK), a cheap source of many thousands of books that would seldom if ever be discounted to any significant extent in Australia because of their absence from the so-called Best Seller Lists. Does it ever occur to anyone that the Australian Best Seller lists consist in the main of books that are reduced in price, not those that people most want to read?

Most importantly for those who have not yet noticed, the Book Depository does not charge a cent for postage to Australia!

Jim Hart writes: I’m right behind Mem Fox (yesterday, comments) in her quest for decent royalties but I fear her argument is a bit wonky in parts.

First, authors don’t own something called territorial copyright. An author by right is the original owner of copyright in their work, which typically they license to a publisher who in turn may sublicense the rights for a specific country or region – hence territorial copyright. The royalty received by the author on each copy is determined by the terms of the various contracts, not by anything in the Copyright Act, nor by the Productivity Commission.

Secondly, in most traditional contracts the author’s royalty is based on the retail price on sales in the home market, but on net or wholesale price on foreign sales or host of other special sales categories, and virtually nothing if the book is remaindered below cost. Those terms were mainly inherited from British publishers back when they sold most of the print run in the UK with a few extra run-on copies shipped out to the colonies, but it’s a different kettle of possums when an Australian author or publisher is trying to paddle upstream into an open global market.

If Mem Fox receives less on foreign editions then her complaint should be with her publisher or her agent, not with the concept of territorial copyright per se. I’m not advocating the removal of parallel import restrictions, but if authors are being short-changed when foreign editions find their way back into Australia with a reduced royalty (or no royalty in the case of remainders) then perhaps it’s time for authors and publishers to review their contracts and push for more equitable terms that recognise the reality of a global market.

Angus Sharpe writes: I’m enjoying the book wars hyperbole. In summary: Mem Fox, yes, please do move to France.

And two things struck me today about Crikey‘s continued coverage of the book wars:

  1. Crikey, your audience is confused. You need to get a pro-abolitionist to write an article (as opposed to the wall-to-wall protectionist articles). For example, Rob Johnston writes “Why don’t Aussie authors receive royalties for books printed elsewhere and sold here? I assumed that no matter where a book is sold or printed royalties would flow to the author from the sale of that book. Why is this not the case?” The answer, of course, is that yes, the writers do receive royalties everywhere. They just want to (continue to) stop you from buying a cheaper (authorised) legitimate copy of the book overseas. It’s a form of subsidy. While I am fine with direct subsidies (i.e. go and plead for money from the Australia Counsel), what I don’t like is protectionism.
  2. Michael James’ price analysis articles are good facts-based journalism, but are ultimately irrelevant. Either books are cheaper overseas (which is an argument for removing the laws), or they are the same price or more expensive overseas (in which case, the laws are pointless – people will not import more expensive books). Either way, let’s remove the laws and let the market decide.

Santo Calabrese writes: The argument that Australia will be flooded with remaindered copies of books begs the question as to who supplies the remaindered copies. I presume that unsold stock is returned to the original publishers. Why don’t the publishers pulp the returned books instead of offloading them to these so called remainder barns? The supply of remaindered books could be eliminated if the publishers were sincere in their concern for their authors.

Also, why are there so many unsold copies of books that they pose such a problem? Cannot the publishers do better with their print runs? Rob Johnston (yesterday, comments) wrote: “Why don’t Aussie authors receive royalties for books printed elsewhere and sold here? I assumed that no matter where a book is sold or printed royalties would flow to the author from the sale of that book. Why is this not the case?”

Johnston makes a valid point with his comment, or are royalties not paid on remaindered copies?

It would seem that authors need to negotiate better deals with their publishers after reading about Mem Fox’s deal with her publisher. It would seem the publishing houses are sc**wing both the authors and the readers.

Jackie French writes: An author does not receive royalties when:

  • A company like Daltons buys remaindered books cheaply from the USA and sells them at full cost in Australia. Authors don’t receive royalties on remaindered books no matter how much they are sold for. As Australian books often have a far greater shelf life in Australia, it’s likely the US or UK edition of your books, especially in hardcover, will be remaindered after 12 months.
  • When an overseas company refuses to pay royalties (it’s not worth my flying to Britain to confront the publishers of Cafe on Callisto, who somehow have never remembered to send me any $$. rather like a certain Greek company…
  • Even when dealing with ethical companies like Amazon, and ethical publishing houses, an Australian author receives far smaller royalties on overseas editions, as the original publishing house, and often a series of agents, also receive a percentage. 10% quickly becomes 1% or less.
  • Authors receive much smaller royalties when the exchange rate means $1 US is only worth Aus 56 cents.

Remember that most award winning Australian books don’t earn their creators large amounts of money. Australian writing and publishing exists with a tiny margin of profit .. if everyone is lucky. It looks like with the Productivity Commission we are out of luck. But I’m keeping my copy of the report. It is a superb example of many conclusions with no substantiating evidence. It should be made compulsory reading for all students, to show just what a mess can be made when the authors don’t understand the concept substantiated claims.

Leith Daniel writes: Disgusted as I was by the proposed lifting of the ban on parallel importing, I did what any modern person would do to express my disgust — look for a FaceBook group to join. Wouldn’t you know it — do a search for it and you’ll only find two groups affiliated with The Coalition for Cheaper Books. No publishers on line or on Facebook it seems.

Niall Clugston writes: In extolling the virtues of e-books, Ian Derrick (yesterday, comments) highlighted their key advantage: they’re portable, just like, um, books.

Peter Garrett:

Peter Lloyd writes: Re. “Leave Peter Garrett alone” (yesterday, item 10). Sorry Bernard Keane (Item 10 yesterday), but I too was for a while willing to defend Peter Garrett’s brand of compromise politics. Peter might have “joined the party, participated in the debate, lost it” and then “abided by the decision of the party”, but it’s been clear for some time that he cannot win any debate on serious environmental issues.

The guy is reduced to posturing against whale hunting, just like every Coalition minister before him, while troglodytes like Martin Ferguson, factional hacks like Penny Wong, and the poll-addicted man at the top actually get on with policy. There is no debate, there is only numbers. Garrett’s only defence — that he joined the ALP when Mark Latham promised genuine change — has now lapsed.

Keane’s list of “achievements” simply doesn’t stack up: the solar panels program was pulled early because people were actually using it, and replaced with a less-generous scheme. The insulation subsidy is a joke because it subsidises not batts, but the men who install them. Given no skills are needed to lay batts, why not just get ’em in? And it’s only the fact that most people don’t care about Tasmania that allows Garrett’s amazing sop to Gunns — build you pulp mill and worry about the impact studies later —  to pass under the radar.

The saga of government favours and back-room deals Garrett tacitly approved should give Gordon Nuttall reason to consider himself hard done by.

David Hand writes: I echo Bernard Keane’s defence of Peter Garrett. Though it is trendy to write politicians off as being in it for the lifestyle, glory, pension, money etc, I believe the vast majority do it because they aspire to make a difference and Peter Garrett is a quintessential example of this. He would have been keenly aware of the free kick his Midnight Oil lyrics would give his political opponents but he has fronted up and taken it all on the chin. I see no conflict whatsoever with writing and performing the Oils songs and the cut and thrust of actual policy work in government. One in no way negates the other. Good on him.

Peter Beattie:

Nigel Pope writes: Re. Yesterday’s editorial. Your editorial summarises the manifold failures of the Beattie years almost perfectly. I say “almost” because there is one thing lacking: against the backdrop of such incompetence, why did the courts allow the reason Merri Rose thought Beattie could be blackmailed to be suppressed? It cuts to the very heart of why Beattie was unfit to be premier.

His astounding lack of judgement (and taste!) was reflected in the failings of his government. Your editorial should be part of a wider movement pressing for this to be revealed as Queensland should, almost inevitably, move toward an inquiry or Royal Commission about the rank government incompetence and corruption of the past decade.

The digital economy:

Verity Pravda writes: Re. “Australia’s Digital Economy: discuss it, but not here” (yesterday, item 14). I find myself somewhat distressed to be in agreement with Stilgherrian. My agreement relates to his observation that public servants must have struggled with the idea of the Digital Economy Future Directions paper being published with a Creative Commons licence.

Some people might not know of the issues Google had with the bushfires in Victoria of wanting to create a “mash up” of fire information with their maps. They were politely informed that the bushfire information was covered by Crown Copyright. More recently Terry Cutler’s innovation report was published attributing copyright to him. When challenged on it Cutler explained that he’d asked that it be published with a creative commons licence but that this had been too hard for Government so they’d just assigned copyright to him! Otherwise Stiglherrian is just a tad too harsh on the Department.

But I was intrigued to note his reference to everything in the digital realm being in “perpetual beta”. He must have missed the reports last week that Google has finally taken Gmail and other apps out of beta!

The food regulatory system:

Mark Lawrence PhD, Associate Professor (Public Health Nutrition), Deakin University, writes: I was interested to read Phillipa Smith’s reply (Wednesday, comments) to Rosemary Stanton’s concerns about the lack of commitment to public health in the food regulatory system. We all agree that protecting public health and basing decisions on the best evidence available should be primary considerations in decision making. However, there have been numerous situations in recent years when Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has ignored public heath evidence and concerns, making their public health commitment appear as empty rhetoric.

For example, Phillipa Smith cites the protection of public health as being a priority objective in FSANZ’s work, the reality is that the food regulatory system has no clear definition of what this objective means in practice and it has become increasingly vulnerable to political interference in this objective’s interpretation and application. How does she explain the FSANZ decision to recommend mandatory folic acid fortification of bread-making flour? FSANZ commissioned an independent research agency to provide it with the best cost effectiveness evidence available to address this controversial topic, FSANZ then ignored the evidence provided and recommended a politically-motivated alternative (that was inconsistent with its own Ministerial Council’s food fortification policy guidelines).

I understand Phillipa Smith’s comment that it is the wider food regulatory system which is responsible for the policies that dictate how FSANZ operates. The food regulatory system is a highly politicised entity. The process by which it selects the FSANZ Board is a case in point. For example, in 2005 it sought nominations for a public health expert on the FSANZ Board. The integrity of the FSANZ Board selection process came into question when the person appointed was a former employee of a multinational food company that had waged an aggressive campaign against the regulator during the 1990s. This appointment would have been understandable if the person had been appointed as a food industry (not the public health) expert on the FSANZ Board.

Actions speak louder than words, and I look forward in the future for evidence of a real commitment to public health in the food regulatory system’s policies and practices.

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