You may wonder why the most disciplined and controlled Labor Caucus in history has chosen book imports for its first halfway-significant rebellion, two years into government.

Major industrial relations reforms that infuriated the union movement have come and gone. “Tough but humane” has become the government’s motto on refugees without complaint. The CPRS has been waved through. But parallel import restrictions? That’s the line in the sand, apparently.

Concerns have been brewing for some time. In the weeks after the Productivity Commission handed down its report earlier this year, there was chatter that responsible minister Craig Emerson was not talking to Australian publishers and that he was too influenced by “the big retailers”. As part of the deal to head off the issue at Tuesday’s Caucus meeting, Emerson promised more consultation with Caucus and “stakeholders”, meaning the publishers.

Resistance to the removal of the decades-old ban on imports has got momentum because it combines progressives and the industrial Left. The AMWU has been fighting the PC proposals from the outset and successfully moved a motion at the ALP National Conference establishing a working group to “consider” the PC Report. The AMWU’s print secretary, Lorraine Cassin, worked on the group with Bendigo MP Steve Gibbons, who initiated this week’s Caucus motion to defeat the PC reforms. Cassin led a delegation on the issue to Canberra last month.

The maintenance of the existing bans also draws support from cultural protectionists across the party, who buy local industry arguments that greater foreign competition will erode Australian culture. This is despite evidence from the Productivity Commission that as a protectionist measure, parallel import restrictions are a gross failure, because the majority of the financial benefit flows offshore to foreign authors and publishers.

This debate has been going on since the early 1990s and it is still conducted like it is the early 1990s, when ordering books from overseas was the sole province of retailers. The internet has put foreign competition in book sales a click away. With a strong Australian dollar, it is far cheaper and easier to order books online from Amazon than it is to go to a retail outlet. And unlike the early days of Amazon, they only take a few days to arrive, rather than weeks and months.

From that point of view, the entire debate about parallel import restrictions looks quaint and irrelevant, unless you confine your book-buying strictly to Australian subjects.

It will become more irrelevant as online delivery of books becomes established and accepted.

I have no interest in Kindles or any other form of electronic reader. I like to own books. I like building a library. I buy hardbacks so my library will last. I have faint hopes that my children will keep and expand my library and hand it on to their children, in the unlikely event that they ever tear themselves away from Xbox and World of Warcraft. But I suspect in 10 years’ time, or a little longer, I will sound just like those audiophile nerds who still talk of the “warmer sound” of vinyl recordings. As unlikely as it seems, I don’t see why electronic delivery of books won’t do to the book industry what downloading did to the music industry, although at least publishers have managed to establish a model for legal, profitable online distribution. In that they differ from the recording industry, which appears to believe suing everyone will protect them from the future. But either way, the future for book retailers does not look especially bright.

The most appropriate role for government in an industry on the cusp of such a major change is not to meddle or regulate, but step aside and let consumers take the lead.

The debate about parallel import restrictions is in fact one about symptoms, not causes. Despite being, according to authors and the publishing industry, a bunch of crazed, child-eating, goose-stepping econo-Nazis, the PC understood this and that’s why it recommended that, in addition to removing the restrictions, the government review taxpayer support for what it termed the “cultural externalities” of the restrictions.

One of the more fascinating parts of the PC’s final report was its discussion of its clearly preferred approach of more directly subsidising Australian works. This is the issue that should engage cultural protectionists, not the parallel import restrictions themselves. Direct subsidies either to authors or publishers, aimed at encouraging Australian works, would be more efficient, transparent and effective than the current system of indirectly subsidising them from consumers via higher prices.

But authors reacted against that proposal, demeaning direct support as “handouts”, claiming to prefer, in Tim Winton’s words, “getting fair recompense for our labour in a marketplace”.

There’s no fair recompense at all, of course, because consumers are paying too much. Authors just prefer that their subsidies be hidden, rather than open. As the PC correctly noted, “it is a choice between explicit taxpayer support for the cultural externalities associated with Australian publishing or a private, implicit tax on book consumers, underpinned by the PIRs. That choice should be dictated by the intrinsic advantage and disadvantages of the two forms of support.”

Authors and publishers can vilify the PC all they like, but that perfectly sums up the debate. For people who believe in support for Australian culture, the issue must be how effectively and transparently that support is provided, particularly given the publishing industry is on the cusp of major change driven by online delivery.

That’s why the Caucus debate about the restrictions utterly misses the point.