So we retain parallel import restrictions on books. Those of us who don’t buy our books online will continue to pay too much, with the bulk of that extra cost going to overseas authors and publishers.

There is, after all, something admirable in having a protectionist scheme that mainly protects overseas jobs.

In the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter a great deal. There are far worse policy sins to complain about. It’s not a patch, for example, on the amount of money we waste on the local car industry — significantly increased by the government last year — that even with the drop on January 1 still involves a 5% slug on consumers who dare to buy an imported car. And it’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the amount of money we waste on middle-class welfare.

The problem is, it’s hard to shake the idea that this government simply won’t take tough decisions, decisions that are good policy but that someone, somewhere, will be upset about. True, some of the cuts to middle-class welfare back in the Budget were sound, and involved some political pain. Taking on Telstra also involves some potential pain, although given the contempt with which that company is held in the community, probably not much.

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But if it can’t take on some authors, a protected publishing industry and its relevant unions when it should have consumers and big retailers on its side, to end a system that mainly benefits overseas publishers, what chance of it ever taking on serious opposition? On big issues, when it counts — such as on the CPRS — the Rudd government has an unimpressive track record of standing up to vested interests.

However, a small consolation for the decision is Craig Emerson’s fascinating press release, which I reckon is, in its own quiet way, the press release of the year. Emerson, of course, lost the battle in Cabinet for reform. The normal result of such defeats is for ministers to grin and bear it, issue a press release saying what a great decision that government has come up with, and move on. Cabinet solidarity and all that.

Not Emmo.

Instead, his office issued a decidedly truculent effort that in effect said the whole industry was going to be buggered by online purchasing anyway so it didn’t matter whether there were reforms or not.

In the circumstances of intense competition from online books and e-books, the Government judged that changing the regulations governing book imports is unlikely to have any material effect on the availability of books in Australia. If books cannot be made available in a timely fashion and at a competitive price, customers will opt for online sales and e-books.

On the face of it, Emerson is saying that there’s no need for reform because the publishing industry model is under dire threat. Peculiar logic, but exactly mirroring the industry’s own argument.

But it gets better. An evidently thoroughly underwhelmed Emerson also says that the industry did itself out of assistance from the government.

“The government has decided not to commit to a new spending program for Australian authors and publishers,” the press release says, which obviously implies there was a program to be considered in the first place. The PC advocated just such a program in its recommendations — albeit after a review of current support for local authors, and in preference to the more obscure support program that is currently paid for by book buyers.

Evidently Emerson took a support program to Cabinet. It, along with the reforms, is now dead.

The press release concludes “the Australian book printing and publishing industries will need to respond to the increasing competition from imports without relying on additional government assistance”.

Cop that. In the face of what will become a threat to its very existence, the publishing industry had the chance to get additional support from the government, and successfully argued that it shouldn’t get it. Good work.

Guy Rundle adds: My esteemed colleague is certainly right about the iniquities of PIR. In the old days of imperial preference — when Britain retarded Australia’s industrial development in order to maintain it as a cheap agrarian supplier and non-competer — machinery imported from non-empire countries would have to be ritually dismantled and re-assembled at the docks. PIR has the same level of absurdity. Ireland has no PIR or territorial copyright — last time I looked it had a pretty healthy literary culture.

However, the pro-deregulation mob has only themselves to blame for the loss, because they never seriously addressed the main problem that PIR abolition would create — remainder imports that would see Australia’s most successful authors gain no royalties from sales of their books. Let’s say Fred(erika) Bloggs publishes a detective novel here. It’s a success and a steady seller. A US publisher takes a punt on it, with a 20,000 US print run. Publishers work on the salmon principle — publish 10 novels, one will make it upstream and pay for the rest that die in the rapids.

But that means the publisher then has 19,200 copies of the Decaf Latte Murders on their hands. They sell them down to a remainders broker at a $1 a copy — cheaper than pulping them — and the broker sells them onto bookbarns, for the three-books-for-$10 table. Without PIR, a book chain could buy the US run of the Latte Murders and sell them at $7.95 a pop. Since the book is still a steady seller in Oz, it makes sense. But the author gets no royalties from these sales, and they crowd out the oz edition sales. Since it’s full-time authors who are most likely to have an international edition, the move would be a unique killer of professional authorship. It’s also iniquitous to have an author’s work on a shelf at their local bookshop that is making money for everyone but them. If we believe, as we do, that cultural work should attract a royalty-wage, cross-territory remainder sales are simply theft.

The simple answer would be to protect Oz authors specifically. But we can’t do that because the US-Oz free trade agreement prohibits this, and this is the thing that really needs changing.

The free trade/hayek/alcan foil hat nuts never acknowledged the real problem of remainders (saying that authors shouldn’t sign up to such contracts is ludicrous — no one offers non-remainder contracts). But most campaigning authors (there were exceptions, such as Shane Maloney, usually authors of some political nous) never made it clear that this was the objection, preferring not to break solidarity with publishers, and willing to give the impression that the Australian public owed it to support their tale of love and anorexia in Northcote.

This is a reprieve, not a victory. PIR has 10 years, tops. Time for authors and publishers to advance more positive plans for supporting local cultural production — Ireland’s system of tax breaks for artists might be one place to start. Start they must.

Our media landscape is amongst the most concentrated in the democratic world. Big media businesses are marred by big media interests. If you want the full, untainted picture on important issues — our environment, corruption, political competence, our culture, our economy — Crikey is required reading.

I am a private person that takes online privacy very seriously but I wanted to contribute my words to this campaign as I genuinely believe that we will improve as a country if more people read publications such as Crikey.

Sydney, NSW

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