It may be relatively minor in the scheme of things, but the government’s decision yesterday to retain the protectionist restrictions on book imports was a significant public policy issue for several reasons. It is not some sort of arcane debate in which luvvies and economists battle it out while the rest of us get on with ordering our books online. As advocates such as Bob Carr have urged, the availability of cheaper books is important for low-income families with less discretionary income and where reading may not be encouraged as much as in middle-class homes.
Opponents of reform respond that the current restrictions are a critical component in the support of Australian literary culture. Both sides fielded heavy lobbying artillery in Canberra, and prominent authors were quick to state their (oft times economically illiterate) views. And underlying the debate is the political reality that there are doubts about the Rudd government’s capacity to take tough reform decisions.
In short, it was an issue tailor-made for our broadsheet newspapers.
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But while The Australian afforded the issue appropriate and extensive coverage, the Fairfax broadsheets were missing in action — even The Age, house organ of Melbourne’s literary set, buried the decision deep on the bottom of page 12, lost within its ever-more parochial domestic news coverage. The Sydney Morning Herald could do no better than the foot of page five.
When it comes to serious journalism, Fairfax is increasingly missing in action. It is an absence Australian public life can ill-afford, but one that, seemingly, we will have to accept.