Labor senator and Small Business Minister Nick Sherry copped a kicking from bookstore owners yesterday. They were outraged that he had predicted bookstores outside capital cities would be wiped out within five years, killed by online bookstores.
Personally I suspect Sherry — an unfashionably competent minister who should still be overseeing our superannuation system — was being rather optimistic in giving them five years, but you couldn’t concentrate long enough to decide for the froth-mouthed outrage of bookstore owners. Sherry took to Twitter to defend himself, declaring “I’m a book lover and I don’t have an e-reader. I’m a traditionalist, but obviously part of a dying breed.”
So say we all, Senator. Well, many of us, who doubtless a decade hence will feel like vinyl record enthusiasts with our prized and terribly quaint “libraries”.
What’s interesting is the tone of the bookstore owners’ response, and how it parallels the mindset of the coal association, or the steel industry, and the unions that represent workers in them.
Take yesterday’s effort — the “explosive” and “independent” modelling from the Coal Association purporting to show that a carbon price would see the loss of 4,000 jobs.
You already know what was in the modelling, by ACIL Tasman, a consulting firm that more than any other has made money conjuring “independent” modelling saying what polluters wants it to say. The job “losses” were from a slightly slower rate of industry growth, not net job losses. The modelling, like the claims made by the steel industry, were based on receiving no transitional assistance or compensation of any kind. And, you’ll never guess, the Coal Association declared that it was in favour of a carbon price, just not one that did anything.
But in contrast to the days of the CPRS debate, when the most absurd claims from polluters ran unchallenged, the Coal Association modelling didn’t even make it to the end of the day’s media cycle. The Climate Institute emerged and kicked it to death by late afternoon, using ACIL Tasman’s own numbers to show the report actually demonstrated growth of over 3,000 jobs in the coal industry. The Australian coal industry will, even with zero for a carbon price, remain in rude health — much to the planet’s detriment.
Maybe the penny will drop that selling differences between rates of industry growth as job losses isn’t going to fly any more.
Both reactions from these very different industries echo the same sentiment: they all fetishise the economic status quo.
Outrage that some retail outlets might vanish; complaints that a large industry might lose even a small number of jobs; demands that industries be protected from the rising dollar, ritualistic calls for a carbon price that won’t actually do anything… There’s no place for Schumpeterian creative destruction in Australia, apparently: even the loss of a single job is a cause for concern and the basis for government action; it’s as though Australians’ obsession with the need for governments to Do Something now applies even to micro-managing industry change.
This desire to freeze the Australian economy in its current state — to preserve retail from the threat of online, to delay the transfer of simpler heavy manufacturing industries to low-cost overseas producers, to retain the privileged position of emissions-intensive industries built on the Australia’s addiction to cheap, coal-fired power — receives succour from a media that loves nothing more than a winners-and-losers narrative.
The losers from an economic change of course are easily identified, and make for splendid stories of sad-looking families photographed outside suburban homes. The winners are harder to locate, for the benefits of economic reform are always diffuse.
It also helps that there’s a lingering economic cringe in Australia about service industries, jobs that don’t “make something”, retail positions dismissed as “McJobs” or office-based jobs that don’t earn the endorsement of a Prime Minister given to lauding “tradies” and the holiness of manual labour.
The irony — possibly only Morissettian irony, admittedly — is that the Australian economy is undergoing a fundamental change not seen since the early 1990s, driven not this time by the reform choices of its leaders but by the reform choices of China’s leaders, which have pumped up an historic resources boom and the dollar to force a fundamental realignment of the economy in favour of resources and away from manufacturing.
There is no “business as usual” case for much of the Australian economy over the next few years. And if that wasn’t enough, online retailing is going to place competitive pressure not just on bricks-and-mortar retailers but importers, wholesalers and entire supply chains, as Australians move their dollars onto the internet and offshore.
When it comes to economic change in Australia, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, it’s going to happen anyway. As that noted economist Billy Bragg once opined, here comes the future and you can’t run from it.