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Comments & corrections

Jun 24, 2016

5 comments

On parallel import restrictions

Mem Fox writes: Re. “It’s time to kill parallel import restrictions” (yesterday). Evan Mulholland needs to stop whining about the parallel importation of books and start worrying about the death of our culture should PIRs be abolished. Like him, I’m an Australian book-lover, but I know damn well that cheaper books have long been available to me and to any Australian buyer through the internet. If he doesn’t know that, he’s not a book-lover.

He quotes a 2012 review of a similar PIR reform in NZ, which is obviously out of date by fours unhappy years: the local NZ publishing industry has collapsed, meaning their national voice is now rarely heard in the new literature available to them. The same has happened in Canada.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s my book, Possum Magic, was rejected nine times over five years with several publishers in Australia, claiming it was “too Australian” to be published. Thirty three later it is still available in hardback, which is no small measure of our hunger to see ourselves reflected in the literature we read. Don’t tell me that Evan Mulholland is willing to return us to the hideous era of culture cringe. I couldn’t stand it. And I won’t put up with his spurious, pouty arguments either.

Jackie French writes: Could we, possibly, keep to matters that can be substantiated, instead of slanging Australian authors?

Myth: The Copyright Act of 1968 prevents the importation of overseas titles if an Australian publisher has also published them.

Fact: Australian individuals can and do legally  import titles from overseas. The copyright holder (usually the author) can also give permission for  titles to be imported to whichever country they have given a license to publish.

Fact: This matter is not simple -if it were, there would be fewer lawyers specialising in copyright and intellectual property- but those who wish to do away with PR are trying to make it seem simple. There are many reasons why  the USA, the UK and other major nations all have a form of PIR. If you wish, I could give you a 25 hour lecture on the complexities, about the same number of hours it took me to do a unit in copyright law, plus another few decades to get the experience to understand how it works.

Myth: Australian books are more expensive than overseas, and will be cheaper if PIR is abolished.

Fact: According to the APA International Price Analysis 2016, a study of 150 representative books sold in the USA, UK,  New Zealand,  Hong Kong and Australia showed that prices were MORE expensive in NZ and Hong Kong, the only two countries where PIR has been abolished. In all but one case, where a title was cheaper in the UK, the books were either cheaper, in Australia than all other countries, or much the same price.

Myth: There has been no impact on NZ publishing since PIR was abolished in 1998.

Fact: According to Neilson Bookscan the range of books sold in NZ since 2008, when figures began to be collected, has shrunk by 34.5%. The volume of books has shrunk by 15.7% since 2009. Prices of books in NZ  have risen 7.6% since 2008, while prices of books have dropped (become cheaper) in Australia in that period by 12.4%.

Two points to consider:

  1. If abolishing PIR will make books cheaper and more available to bookshops, why is the Australian Booksellers Association so deeply in favour of its retention?
  2. The wombat on the doormat rather than the elephant in the room is that Australian content is at stake here.

Internationally renowned authors tend to be brilliant, extraordinarily well and broadly educated, both formally and by their own efforts, and able to absorb, analyse and  correlate vast amounts of data. When writers as differing in their world views as Peter Fitzsimmons and Thomas Keneally agree, it is reasonable to assume that they are correct.

Books

Jun 23, 2016

5 comments

Abolishing parallel import restrictions on books isn’t neoliberal ideology, as Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan and Magda Szubanski claim — it is social justice reform.

It is a reform that would deliver lower book prices to Australians by removing a rent-seeking benefit to the multinational publishing industry.

Currently, Australian booksellers are prevented from importing books manufactured overseas if the book has been published by an Australian copyright holder within 30 days of overseas release. In effect, Australian publishers are granted a monopoly over any book they choose to publish and are protected immediately from foreign competition.

Parallel import restrictions are an effective tariff on international trade, similar to the archaic tariffs that were abolished under the Hawke-Keating government. We now have a wealth of evidence to confirm this.

In 1998, the New Zealand government took the brave decision to remove import restrictions on books. A 2012 review of that reform by Deloitte Access Economics commissioned by the NZ Ministry of Economic Development found that book prices are lower in New Zealand than in Australia and that the changes “had little impact on overall creative effort in the New Zealand book industry”.

Australian authors claim the changes will decrease profitability in the Australian market and will result in fewer Australian books being published. This claim is not backed up by evidence. The same report found that the number of new New Zealand book titles published annually has remained fairly steady, and that the share of authors in overall employment and income earned by publishers actually increased following the changes.

The Prices Surveillance Authority report 1989, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission reviews in 1999 and 2001, the comprehensive Productivity Commission report in 2009 and, more recently, the Harper review all found that removing import restrictions would make books cheaper for consumers, and recommended their abolition. The Harper review’s recommendation was accepted by the Turnbull government.

[Publishers try to hold back the tide on parallel imports]

The draft Productivity Commission report into intellectual property recommends that the Australian government abolish parallel import restrictions on books, saying there is no new evidence that changes the case for removing the remaining restrictions and that it is the analogue equivalent of geoblocking.

Reading and literacy are a social good. Removing these restrictions will mean libraries and schools can order more books, families will be able to buy more books for their kids, university students won’t have to struggle to buy textbooks, and local bookstores will be able to compete on a level playing field with Amazon, to the benefit of small businesses and the consumer.

Labor’s recent arts policy announcement had a piece both ways but slanted towards taking the side of the publishers without clearly stating its position.

This is a disappointing development as it slows what was rising bipartisanship on the issue. Labor’s student wing, the National Union of Students, launched a campaign against the laws, as they recognise that PIRs make textbooks substantially more expensive for struggling students. Labor shadow treasurer Chris Bowen brought the proposal to cabinet under the Rudd government and is a known supporter of the changes, along with former Labor ministers Bob Carr and Craig Emerson.

Emerson said of the reform: “Cheaper books for kids in poor communities is a good social reform.” He also said that multinational book companies put pressure on local authors and publishers to oppose the removal of restrictions. Authors like Tim Winton are lining up to be that very face.

A famous Australian like Winton is a much gentler face to argue for the status quo than that of a large multinational publishing giant that uses this archaic tariff to make profits at the expense of Australian consumers.

[Dymocks: throwing the book at parallel importing]

At the recent book industry awards, Richard Flanagan launched an attack on the government’s position, with an emotive plea to vote against the Liberal Party. This is a disappointing worldview from Flanagan to completely dismiss the struggle many Australians face with book prices.

Attempts to derail the government’s attempt to abolish parallel import restrictions on books recall the fear campaign ran by Peter Garrett and John Farnham in 1998 when the Howard government abolished parallel imports on CDs. Did the music industry in Australia die as they suggested it would? No. Did CDs almost halve in price? Yes.

We are in an age of digital disruption where businesses have had to adapt to adjust to a changing consumer climate. The prominence of Amazon has been around for quite some time. Australians know they can buy books cheaper from Amazon, an they do. Yet our retailers have no opportunity to adapt due to import restrictions inflating the price of our books. When the Prime Minister talks of the needs to be an agile economy, this is exactly the type of reform that does that.

The jig is up. This is a case of out-of-touch authors teaming up with big business at the expense of the consumer — book-loving Australians.

Books

Nov 26, 2015

5 comments

Should Australian booksellers be forced to buy books from Australian publishing houses rather than overseas ones, even if this drives up the price of books? Australia’s publishers still say yes, as they have for a quarter of a century. The issue has been to multiple competition and productivity inquiries, and every time, the industry has fought back.

Currently, Australian publishers bid for the Australian rights to publish books first published overseas, and once they have those rights, any Australian bookstore wanting to purchase commercial quantities of those books is forced to buy from the Australian publisher. This restriction lapses if the publisher doesn’t have copies of the book available within a fortnight, and doesn’t apply to purchasing individual books at the request of customers.

On Tuesday, the government indicated its acceptance of a recommendation from the Harper Competition Review that the current restrictions be removed or relaxed. Since then, Australia’s best-known authors have come out in support of the status quo. Removing current restrictions on importing books available for sale through Australian publishers is “ideological vandalism worthy of the Abbott era”, said Man Booker Prize-winning author Richard Flanagan. Cheaper books weren’t worth it, added Christos Tsiolkas.

The rallying cry has echoes of 2009 — the last time a government seriously tried to remove the current restrictions. Back then, the Australian Publishers Association hired Labor-affiliated lobbying firm Hawker Britton to fight the Rudd government’s intentions. The APA recruited support from Labor premiers and from the Nationals, and lobbied every minister it could find until the policy was abandoned.

Speaking yesterday, Australian Publishers Association chief executive Michael Gordon-Smith cautioned the issue was far from settled.

“Hopefully there’s some way to go before the legislation, and even after that, minds can be changed,” he told Crikey. “Hopefully there will be some understanding that the recommendation is based on an impoverished view of copyright in the public domain, and a simplistic view of how the book industry works.”

The argument from groups like the Productivity Commission is easy to understand. The status quo, as the Harper Review argued, acts as an “implicit tax” on consumers, forcing them to purchase books from Australian publishers over those available more cheaply overseas. Books in Australia are around 35% more expensive (though publishers argue this fluctuates with the exchange rate). The Productivity Commission also argued the restrictions do not act to promote Australian authors, with much of the surplus instead going to overseas publishers.

In an economy that has become increasingly liberalised, the import restrictions seem a hangover of an earlier time, affording the book industry protections not given to other manufacturers.

But such arguments fail to take into account the uniqueness of the publishing industry, argue publishers. Scribe is one of the Australian publishers most reliant on selling local versions of international books into the Australian market. Henry Rosenbloom, Scribe’s founder and publisher, says those who advocate removing the parallel importing restrictions don’t have “any idea what they’re talking about”.

“It offends economic rationalists — it always has. It offends them on economic theory, and they’re not interested in the details.”

The global book industry is dominated by major publishing houses. Rosenbloom says in many cases, they have little interest in Australia, a relatively small market. He says abolishing the rights of Australian publishers to have a first go at publishing many international books will only result in Australia being discounted by these players. “Ironically, this might result in poorer availability and higher cost of books. American publishers could well say, ‘it’s too small a market, we won’t bother with it’.”

A removal of parallel importation laws, Rosenbloom says, would render Australian rights to publication worthless. Scribe could translate, market and sell a book, but then booksellers could purchase remaindered (unsold) copies of the book from an international supplier at a steep discount if the book bombed elsewhere due to lack of marketing.

The issue of remaindered books comes up time and time again in publishers’ submissions. Booksellers, some of whom are advocates for removing the current restrictions, buy books on a “sale or return” basis. If a book is unsold, sellers send it back to a publisher for a credit. Books that do not sell are remaindered — that is, sold at a steep discount, with no royalties paid to the author.

Most Australian publishers publish both original books by Australian authors and a mix of titles first sold overseas (on which the margins tend to be higher). Though there’s no guarantee the profits from overseas titles will go towards Australian works, the internal cross-subsidy no doubt helps keep many publishers in the black.

“If you want to have a business as a publisher, your business has to be mixed,” Gordon-Smith said. As well as publishing Australian stories, publishers will spend time “researching and finding titles sold overseas, buying the rights for those here, and investing in marketing and promotion of those books in Australia”.

The removal of parallel importation restrictions in this context, he says, would take away Australian publishers’ ability to compete with overseas publishing houses. If something is a hit, booksellers would be able to cheaply import remaindered copies. “The local publisher who’s invested in marketing gets no return, and neither does the author.”

But technological change has made the fight over parallel importation ever less relevant to how Australians buy and consume books. Bookstores, forced to buy international books from Australian publishers, have declined in number, with many unable to compete with online companies like Amazon. Readers increasingly buy e-books on an individual basis from overseas, legally side-stepping the current laws (and avoiding GST in the process).

Because of this, publishers argue the current laws are no threat to the availability of books. To compete with marketplace realities, publishers have voluntarily reduced the time period over which they have to secure copies of a book before a local bookseller can buy from overseas (it currently sits at 14 days). But the whole complex argument gets less relevant with every passing year.

When he announced the government’s decision to not to dump the laws in 2009, then-innovation minister Craig Emerson, an advocate of changing them, argued that the whole issue soon wouldn’t matter anyway:

“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.”

Publishers argue the removal of parallel importation laws would devastate local publishing, cruel the chances of Australian authors, and strengthen the hand of multinational publishing houses. Given the competitive challenges they have to overcome, their fears may soon come to pass, regardless of the politics.

Tips and rumours

Sep 22, 2015

5 comments

From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Return of the budgie smugglers. What do you do when you find yourself suddenly out of a job, especially one that imposed a whole lot of restrictions on what you could and couldn’t do? Head down to the beach for a surf, of course. Yesterday The Daily Telegraph papped former prime minister Tony Abbott as he caught some waves in Manly, did a few push-ups on the beach and showered. Yes, they took photos when he used the public shower — no one pays former PMs any respect these days. While Ms Tips was horrified at this full-length pic in today’s Tele, it did make us realise that it’s the first time Abbott has been seen in his budgie smugglers since he was opposition leader. He told the Tele: “Politics is a game of snakes and ladders, and I’ve had a few snakes, and I’ve had a few ladders”. Given the context of the photograph, however, we wish he had chosen a different metaphor. 

Second verse, same as the first? While many lefties across the country celebrated when Malcolm Turnbull rolled Tony Abbott last week, expecting a better deal for the ABC, the environment and asylum seekers, it’s more than likely they jumped the gun a bit. New Communications and Arts Minister Mitch Fifield may not be a friend to Peppa Pig, according to this speech given to the Adam Smith Club (yes, that’s a real thing) in 2008, in which he said:

 “Conservatives have often floated the prospect of privatising the ABC and Australia Post. There is merit in such proposals. But the likely strong public opposition means that any government prepared to go down that path would need to prepare the ground and make the case for the change.”

We asked Fifield’s office if he still held those views and if he’d be making the case for change, and were told by a spokesperson: “The government has no plans to change the ownership of the ABC or Australia Post.”

And then they were Seven? There’s a persistent rumour going around that Channel Nine’s Perth news director Shaun Menegola is about to jump ship — and coast — to Channel Seven:

“Big word out of Perth is that Shaun Menegola the 9 News director is going to defect back to 7 to join Craig McPherson, who wants to parachute him into Melbourne to replace Simon Pristel … Apparently Howard Gretton, the 7 News Director in Perth was telling a few of the troops.”

Nine tells us that it’s just a rumour, but it’s also been reported at DeciderTV. Craig McPherson’s move to Seven from Nine was announced in July, into the role of director of news and current affairs across the country. He goes into the role “next to or above” Seven news director Rob Raschke, according to The Australian‘s Media Diary, whatever that means.

Fight club. A tipster tells us that the battle for the Liberal Women’s Council in NSW is heating up:

“The civil war in the Liberal party between the conservatives and moderates has turned its focus to a female battle at the grassroots. There are only two candidates for Women’s Council President and the vote is held next Wednesday. One candidate is Chantelle Fornari-Orsmond, a staffer with Member for Robertson, Lucy Wicks MP, and said to be hand-picked by Member for Mitchell, Alex Hawke MP … The second candidate is Teena McQueen, fighting on a platform of ‘giving a conservative voice for the women in party’. Despite her surname, the only queens Teena likes are royal ones, promoting herself as being both pro-monarchy and anti-gay marriage. The Teena camp are accusing Chantelle of simply ‘posing as a conservative’ (there’s a familiar theme). This battle is getting ugly with furious lobbying … The campaign is being fought to the death because the stakes are so low.”

It’s not the first time the battle for the presidency of the Women’s Council have taken a turn, in 2011 Teena McQueen said she was told by a senior Liberal that she couldn’t be president as she was “unmarried” and “dressed inappropriately”. Know more? Drop us a line.

Library resources battle. Yesterday we reported that Australian National University had frozen purchases of books for the library, under cost pressures. An ANU spokesperson responded to us after yesterday’s deadline, saying that the freeze wasn’t on books, but “other purchases”:

 “ANU libraries continue to buy new text books but have implemented a temporary freeze on the purchase of other new resources. The move is normal practise for the management of libraries, library resources and library budgets.

“ANU has already added almost 61,000 new books to its collection in 2015. ANU staff and students also have access to material in other library collections and at other university libraries, including many overseas institutions, through resource-sharing initiatives. At the same time, ANU regularly shares material from its collections through inter-library loans.

“ANU libraries are committed to ensuring staff and students have access to the best possible resources.”

We asked for clarification on what “other new resources” meant, as it could mean anything from furniture to staples or software. The spokesperson said modern libraries have lots of resources, including books and other material. Clear as mud.

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

The Arts

Sep 3, 2015

5 comments

It was a warm December night. Prime Minister Tony Abbott was hosting the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. He’d been unusually involved in artistic matters: the PM was later revealed to have intervened in the jury’s fiction prize recommendation, overturning the jury’s decision to give the fiction gong to Stephen Carroll’s A World of Other People.

But beyond the matey passive-aggression on show between Abbott and the winner, Richard Flanagan, Abbott also had a significant announcement to make: the government was setting up a new industry body, to be called the Book Council of Australia.

“It will strengthen the sector’s capacity to respond to rapid change brought by new technologies,” Abbott explained. “Members of the new Book Council of Australia will be drawn from a wide range of literary and industry organisations.”

We later found out, in something of a precedent, that the $6 million over three years announced for the Book Council would come from the Australia Council’s budget.

That was December. Since then we’ve seen plenty of action in cultural policy. Arts Minister George Brandis has launched a crippling raid on the Australia Council for the Arts and set up a new funding body called the National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

But we’ve heard nothing about the Book Council of Australia. No board has been appointed. No CEO has been advertised for. No offices have been rented. No phone calls have been returned.

About all anyone knows for sure is that prominent Melbourne publisher Louise Adler will be the body’s first chair. This news dribbled out in Senate estimates, where it was also revealed that Adler had lobbied Tony Abbott personally over the new industry council.

Industry figures who have inquired about the Book Council, including Melbourne Writers Festival director Lisa Dempster, have either been rebuffed or simply ignored.

Now a group of Australian writing organisations had had enough. They’ve written an open letter to the Arts Minister asking for details of what’s happening.

“The Book Council of Australia (BCA) was announced by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott in December last year. We agree with the statements made by the Prime Minister on its announcement that books are vital to our culture and to our identity, and we are heartened by the Government’s commitment that this new body will ensure Australia’s literary sector and its writers are strongly supported.”

“Nearly eight months later, however, it remains unclear what the Council will do, how it will run, who will be invited to contribute to both its strategy and operations, and how the $6m allocated to its funding will be attributed.”

“There has been no visible consultation with the industry to date and any proactive enquiries into the policy and strategy behind the Council have gone largely unanswered.”

The writing organisations want in. “We write to express our wish to contribute to the formation, structure, purposes and activities of the BCA and to note our concern with the lack of consultation on this matter to date.”

The signatories include a large swathe of Australia’s literary community and publishing industry, including the Melbourne and Brisbane Writers Festivals, Scribe, the Australian Literary Agents Association, the Queensland Writers Centre and Writers Victoria, and a number of literary magazines including Overland, Island and Griffith Review. Collectively they claim to represent 25,000 writers and “hundreds of thousands” of readers.

“Dialogue. Just dialogue, that’s all we’re after,” the Emerging Writers Festival’s Sam Twyford-Moore told Crikey.

“This is kind of an important letter for literature as a whole. We need to start standing up for ourselves. It’s on us to come together and speak for $6 million that has been left dormant for eight months. Public programs aren’t going to happen for the next two years without that money moved.”

The Book Council uncertainty adds to considerable concern in the writing community about the impact of Brandis’ Excellence raid. Smaller publishers, particularly for poetry, fiction and serious non-fiction, are under the gun, with the expectation that the subtraction of more than $105 million in Australia Council funding will lead to big funding cuts. Some small publishers will be unviable without Australia Council support.

There are also the usual problems of herding cats in a highly disparate and contentious industry. Booksellers, publishers, writers, agents and festivals are all jockeying for position in a time of massive structural change. Looming over all is the long shadow of Amazon, which has inexorably built an unassailable position in Australian digital book retailing, and which the publishers (let alone the small booksellers) have little power to combat.

Back in December, the Book Council was expected to draw on the final report of the Book Industry Collaborative Council, a Labor initiative that was set up to deal with the pressing challenges of digitalisation. As the BICC’s report makes clear, the domestic industry is at the crossroads, perhaps even in danger of collapse.

Will the new Book Council still work from the BICC template? Ten months later, we still don’t know.

Sources inside the book industry tell Crikey that the terms of reference for the new Book Council have already been set, and are sitting with the Arts Ministry. But nothing has been announced publicly.

A meeting of the successor body of the Book Industry Collaborative Council, still chaired by David Throsby, met in April. But at the time, no warning was given of the impending Australia Council funding cuts.

The Australian Literary Agents Association’s Jacinta di Mase told Crikey that those involved in discussions with the Arts Ministry didn’t know about the funding cuts to the Australia Council. “I was at the Literary Awards when the announcement was made, but the kicker was that $6 million would be taken from the Australia Council, which none of us knew would be the case. We were blindsided by that.”

“Our frustration with the BCA is a lack of any real influence in the process, even though there are industry professionals involved,” she told Crikey. “We’re in September and the money was promised in late December last year. We keep being told it’s in the Minister’s hands. If we’d known about the massive funding cuts, I think we would have lobbied for different terms of reference.”

The influence of Louise Adler continues to be highly controversial behind the scenes. A powerful figure with peerless political connections, Adler is close to senior figures in both Labor and the Coalition. In addition to her exploits publishing the memoirs of figures such as Peter Costello and Mark Latham, she is chair of the Australian Publishers Association and is currently chairing the review of Victoria’s cultural policy for Victoria’s Creative Industries Minister Martin Foley.

But Adler is also a competitor to many of the publishers the Book Council would supposedly represent, a clear conflict of interest that has been acknowledged by neither the ministry nor Adler herself.

Crikey contacted the Ministry for the Arts and Louise Adler for comment about the open letter. Neither returned our calls and emails.

Books

Sep 30, 2014

5 comments

Julia Gillard has been out of power for more than a year, but she is still dear to the hearts of Labor Party faithful. The former PM received a standing ovation, together with a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday, last night at Sydney’s Seymour Centre to discuss her book, My Story, with writer Julie McCrossin.

It was a packed house, and Gleebooks, which co-sponsored the event, said tickets had sold out within a few hours. The audience was not disappointed — Gillard was warm, funny and insightful, expertly drawn out by McCrossin. She asked the former PM, “If an 18-year-old aspiring politician read My Story, what were the key messages?” Gillard replied that the most important message was that you had to work out exactly why you wanted to be in politics because you needed a sustaining passion for public life. Another lesson was not to be deterred by tough times, pointing out that it took her 10 years and three failed attempts to finally gain preselection for a Labor seat. Would-be pollies should also nurture relationships in their lives with people who would “be there in the days that are beyond politics,” she said.

Gillard’s own family history is a “typical migrant story”. Her father had had to leave school at 14, despite gaining a scholarship to continue, because his Welsh coal mining family needed his wage. Gillard’s parents moved to Australia when Julia and her sister were toddlers, determined to make a better life for their girls. Both of Gillard’s parents found good jobs and brought the girls up with a love of hard work.

Our only female PM told some good stories about visiting political leaders. When US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was in town, Gillard decided the two of them should take a walk along the Yarra River, followed by lunch at a local restaurant. Gillard’s “advance team”, consisting of one of her staffers and a federal police officer, walked the route and checked for problems. But Clinton’s 43-strong advance team was far more thorough, and ultimately their walk was accompanied by an army of Secret Service personnel, police boats on the river and armed helicopters whirring overhead. Once inside the restaurant, officers constantly checked the sight lines for snipers. This made her grateful that she lived in a country where residents didn’t shoot their politicians, Gillard said.

“When asked about the carbon tax, Gillard spoke assuredly. ‘As a question of science, this drives me absolutely nuts … and I find it hard to work out how we got here.'”

McCrossin, who recently married her female partner in New York, said she supported Gillard’s de facto married status and asked her why she didn’t support gay marriage. Gillard’s answer was confusing, and even McCrossin said at one stage, “what do you mean by that?” The former politician denied McCrossin’s suggestion that it was due to the concerted opposition of Catholic right-wing union leaders like Joe de Bruyn, who used their numbers to vote down the issue at Labor conferences. Gillard kept repeating her age — 53 — and saying that she was of a generation that was “looking for a different way of recognising relationships that had solemnity for them but did not need to come under this rubric of marriage.” Did that really answer the question? No, but McCrossin smoothly moved on.

When asked about the carbon tax, Gillard spoke assuredly. “As a question of science, this drives me absolutely nuts … and I find it hard to work out how we got here.” When she was a teenager, everyone (except the fair-skinned redhead) lay in the sun slathered in coconut oil in order to get a tan, she said. “Then along came the scientists and said that sun exposure can lead to cancer. We have the worst melanoma rates in the world and so [in this country] people’s attitudes to the sun have completely changed.” She pointed out that building workers now wore long-sleeved shirts for protection and children went to school in hats. “This indicates that we are capable of hearing something from scientists and saying, ‘I am going to respond to that’.” She said the carbon tax would return, but the case for it would have to be better presented: “We will get there.”

On the Gonski education funding scheme, Gillard said that one of its most important elements was that it changed the familiar public-versus-private-schooling debate to one of allocating funding where it was needed. Although disadvantage is found overwhelmingly in public schools, it also exists in Catholic schools and inexpensive fee-paying Christian schools. And it wasn’t until the My School website was up and running, identifying schools with specific needs, that state and federal governments could move towards a more equitable funding model, she said. Although certain elements of the Gonski reforms have been watered down (and the legislation has not yet been fully passed), “we are never going back to the unfair funding system that we had before”.

Finally, after 90 minutes, it was time for Gillard to leave the podium and start signing some books. As I left, the queue to have your book signed stretched right around the theatre, suggesting that her birthday dinner might be a late one. Not a Kevin Rudd supporter in sight.

Comments & corrections

Jul 15, 2014

5 comments

On sales of Lazarus Rising

Shona Martyn, Publishing Director, HarperCollins Publishers Australia writes: Re. “Lazarus arriving … for free” (yesterday). Thanks for the interest in the sales of John Howard’s Lazarus Rising.  As his publisher, I am keen to confirm  the accuracy of his impressive sales through bookstores which are quite separate from the sort of peripheral subscription drive offers that news organizations such as The Australian and indeed Crikey regularly arrange. On BookScan — which measures across-the-counter-sales in Australian bookshops — the hardback edition of Lazarus Rising registered 78,660 sales; the trade paperback edition a further 17,050 sales and the b-format edition has sold 2876 copies to date in Australia. HarperCollins has sold 2743 e-books of Lazarus Rising so far. So the combined BookScan and e-book sales total 101,342 copies. In addition, copies of the book have been sold in the US, UK and NZ and into special sales markets that do not register for BookScan. I would hate Crikey readers to fear that John Howard’s splendid sales success has been in any way “propped up” by giveaways.

Absurd cultural customs

Bennet Griffin writes: Re “The tedium of the World Cup” (yesterday). I’d like Sean Hosking to expand on why he believes Irish folk dancing to be absurd.  I was never that into it myself, but I have the idea that calling another nation’s cultural traditions absurd just makes you sound, well, ridiculous.

Standardised testing is not a new thing for schools

Geoff Coyne writes:  Re. “Want to improve teaching?  Ask a teacher” (yesterday). The article asks the question of why students lose their enthusiasm for learning and suggests that the reasons lie principally in poor calibre teacher selection and the current focus on testing.  But while presenting some evidence for poor calibre teacher selection, he offers no evidence other than anecdotal that (all?) students lose their enthusiasm for learning, nor that is caused in part by a focus on testing. One only has to go to Shakespeare to see that over 400 years ago students were not enthusiastic about going to school.

As for regular testing being a reason for loss of student enthusiasm for learning, I can remember the education system as a student in Victoria in the 1950s and as a teacher in the 1960s, where the Proficiency (Year 9), Intermediate (Year 10), Leaving (Year 11), and Matriculation (Year 12) certificates were tests which students had to pass in order to progress to the next level.  For some students these might have been a cause for decrease in enthusiasm for learning, but my memory is that for most they were challenges to improve and to prove oneself.  And a principle reason for this was that each level of education led to an entree to the workforce.  Fifty years ago, the Intermediate certificate led to lower level clerical positions, the Leaving certificate led to careers in banking and nursing, while Matriculation led to higher level management or university entry.  Other states had similar pathways and gateways.

While I have much sympathy for the challenges facing teachers today, especially in secondary education, my contention is that one of the reasons for whatever student loss of enthusiasm there is for learning is that even after twelve years of education, such pathways and gateways to the workforce no longer exist.  So students go through their secondary education with no clear idea of how to access whatever career they might have in mind.  Yes, teachers do face considerable challenges in motivating in their students a love of learning, but do take into account the loss of clear workplace outcomes to their learning.

Books

Jun 2, 2014

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Books

May 9, 2014

5 comments

At the beginning of 2013, Brigid Delaney (@BrigidWD) attended a silent retreat. Bending the definition of “silent” somewhat, she tweeted the whole thing.

 

Delaney told Crikey this wasn’t cheating. “I was literally silent,” she said.

That the retreat managed to keep Delaney’s mouth shut was something of an achievement. Perhaps it would have been too much to ask that it curb her rampant tweeting, too. And it is rampant. “I tweet every day,” she said, “many times a day. I use Twitter like a stream of consciousness. It’s very quotidian. I also tweet a lot of news and culture stories.”

Her Twitter feed is thus a fairly accurate representation of her personality as a whole: Delaney the journalist jostles with Delaney the anti-death penalty activist and both have to contend with Delaney the self-styled clown. (She once locked herself in a bathroom and tried to escape by fashioning a key out of soap. She tweeted about it, of course.)

More recently, Delaney the novelist has made an appearance on the feed, following the publication of her first fictional effort, Wild Things, last month. “I’m tweeting some book-related stuff,” Delaney said, “but trying not to overload my feed with it.”

Set on the campus of an exclusive university, Wild Things follows the members of a college cricket team in the wake of a wild weekend in the mountains where a Malaysian student, dragged along for the ride, goes missing.

“I went to a university college and thought it was a fascinating world,” Delaney said. “It was a kind of halfway place — closed, secretive, with its own rituals and language — but at the same time attached to universities where new ideas and fresh thinking were the order of the day. I found moving between the two places really interesting, particularly at 18, when everything felt so new and novel.”

“As a journalist and a former lawyer, I also became interested in people who commit crimes in groups,” she said. “How is the group regulated when they are operating outside the law? How do a large group of people keep a secret? Does getting away with a crime embolden people to act recklessly and think they can be bad without consequence? Another big question was how power works in Australia. A lot of the powerful networks start at school and university.”

The book, which Delaney began in 2006, has been a long time coming. “There were technical challenges,” she said. “It was initially written in the first-person plural, which proved to be a lovely voice but too tricky to sustain in a long-form project. I had to scrap most of it and start again.”

In the meantime she wrote another book, This Restless Life, a non-fictional account of her generation’s hyper-mobile existence, hopping from job to job, lover to lover, city to city. Delaney has never quite shrugged off the restless life herself. She spent three months a year in New York City for the past two, travels to Indonesia regularly with her anti-death penalty work, and is this year planning trips to West Papua and Japan. “This Restless Life used a different part of my brain,” she said. “It was like a large op-ed, a book of ideas, not of characters.”

Delaney’s next project is a collection of interconnected short stories set in the world of Sydney media. “It’s called The Disruptions, and it takes place over the course of the NSW Labor years, roughly 2000 to 2010,” she said. “It’s about the effect of the internet on the world of print media and the lives of all these youngish journos.”

She’s now back in Australia after her latest overseas jaunt and working as director of news at the New Daily.

@BrigidWD’s #FF:

  • Virginia Lloyd (@v11oyd): For all things books
  • Alex McClintock (@axmcc): On boxing and the news of the day
  • Jessica Reed (@guardianjessica): French Guardianista
  • Susannah Guthrie (@susg91): Journalist at The New Daily, celebs and style
  • David Johnson (@_struct): Acerbic Melbourne man about town

On Australia’s media landscape…

I think now is a really good time to be a freelancer. There are some green shoots that make me feel very optimistic and excited about the future of the Australian media. The New Daily, The Saturday Paper and The Guardian Australia are three amazing new ventures that provide new outlets for journalists and more choice for readers. You pay $3 for the Saturday Paper — a bargain — and The Guardian and the New Daily are free. That’s a great deal for readers. I found the hardest years of freelancing were in 2010-11. There was a lot of pessimism amongst the big media companies and lay-offs. I saw my work drop off and word rates go backwards. These new media outlets were yet to appear. I considered leaving journalism and started studying for the bar exam. I thought it was all over.

On the Mercy Campaign and the death penalty…

I don’t think the state should have the power to take lives. It’s such a final, irreversible step, and doesn’t allow for the fact that a conviction might be wrongful. Albert Camus wrote: “But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared?” I also believe in rehabilitation. The work that Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran — two of the Australians condemned to death in Bali — do in Kerobokan is great. They are helping other prisoners learn English, have set up a computer room, and Myuran has set up art classes. Artist Ben Quilty has been into the jail to assist him with those classes. There are a lot of positive things happen there in a prison that we often hear only negative things about. I’ll disclose my involvement in Reprieve and the Mercy Campaign if I’m writing about the issue. I’ve done a lot of op-eds on the issue, because I do have strong opinions about it and feel very strongly that it shouldn’t exist.

The Bali campaign is called The Mercy Campaign. It’s a chance for people to respectfully ask the Indonesian President to spare the lives of Andrew and Myuran. I’m also involved in Reprieve, which sends Australian interns to the southern states of the US to assist attorneys there on capital cases. The program has been going for around 11 years and has assisted in getting prisoners off death row. I’m immensely proud of the work young Australians do over there, on their own time and their own dime. It says something about how poorly funded the American capital defence system is when you have Aussie volunteers propping it up. Reprieve has also started working closer to home, on death penalty cases in Asia. I don’t believe that fighting against the death penalty is a lost cause. The Asian countries that we have started working in are mostly keen to modernise and engage with human rights. Indonesia in particular has shown a waning appetite for the death penalty. Particularly when their own residents are facing it abroad in countries such as Saudi Arabia. As for Andrew and Myuran’s plight, I would encourage anyone who cares to sign the petition. The pair has supportive families and a great legal team. They are keeping busy in prison and trying to be positive. I’m hopeful for them.

Crikey’s Follow Friday series:

Books

May 7, 2014

5 comments

The doyen of Australia’s climate sceptic movement, Ian Plimer, has a new book — and this time he’s broadened his attack to the entire environmental movement.

Not for Greens: He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon is coming out this month via boutique Catholic publishing house Connor Court. It’s a polemic that argues that environmentalists harm the environment, have their facts wrong, want to control your money and have a “totalitarian approach”.

Plimer, a mining geologist, has cachet in Coalition circles. His 2009 book Heaven and Earth argued that human-induced climate change is not real, sold 40,000 copies and graces the bookshelves of many Coalition MPs. It is often cited among MPs and has been influential in party room debates. The new book will be well-read within the Abbott government and aligned business elites and will embolden those who dislike greens. Expect to hear it quoted in Parliament, and to see Plimer lauded on climate sceptic blogs (Andrew Bolt is already onto it) and hosted on Tory radio shows.

Not for Greens uses the allegory of a metal teaspoon to conclude that modern life depends on fossil fuels and that environmentalist policies would deprive us of cutlery and reduce us to cave people.

This is how Plimer sums up his message: “If you’re a green, and you’re criticising the coal industry, then you should not use cutlery, you should go out into the bush and starve.”

In a sympathetic recent interview associated with a mining conference, as dogs howl in the background, Plimer said this to environmentalists:

“Go out in the bush, live your sustainable life, don’t bother me. And if I want some advice from you, I’ll go to your cave and see how you’re going with your sustainable living. But until then get out of my life, because I’m very comfortable …”

Plimer says the humble teaspoon was created through mineral exploration, mining, smelting and refining, and without coal it would not exist. This apparently proves that a modern, middle-class life is incompatible with environmentalists.

The 200-page book, RRP $29.95, claims wind farms and solar panels use more energy to build than they will ever generate. Plimer, an academic at the University of Adelaide with a background in mining and energy, says renewable energy policies have left hundreds of thousands of people in “fuel poverty”. He says greens have a “totalitarian approach … the greens are not interested in environmentalism”.

The book may prove popular. Plimer claims it “will be a very good seller because the average punter is not a fool, they’re treated like fools by the greens and many others”. It’s already No, 1 on Connor Court’s bestseller list, beating out a 1970s book on sex in Christian marriage with a moving foreword by a Catholic priest, and the memoirs of B.A. Santamaria’s brother Joe (B.A. was a Democratic Labor Party identity and Tony Abbott’s mentor). The Institute of Public Affairs (of which Plimer is an associate) is promoting Not for Greens as a gift idea.

Last month academic Clive Hamilton named Plimer as one of Crikey’s “dirty dozen” who have done the most to block action on climate change. Plimer has some high-profile allies. Former PM John Howard launched his last book How to Get Expelled from School: A guide to climate change for pupils, parents and punters. Gina Rinehart has put Plimer on two of her boards.

Connor Court publisher Anthony Cappello has ordered a print run of 10,000 copies of the new book. The small Ballarat-based publishing house, which specialises in climate scepticism and religious works, is confident. “The signs are good,” Cappello told Crikey. “All his books are controversial, he’s not afraid of a fight.”

Cappello said it might not sell as well as previous works because “Heaven and Earth was a bit of a freak … and the timing was perfect”. Plimer will tour nationally in June (he has previously toured with Lord Christopher Monckton).

The book has a foreword by Patrick Moore, a Canadian spin doctor for nuclear power and the mining and energy industries who was an early member of Greenpeace. While Plimer claims Moore “started Greenpeace”, Greenpeace denies this, saying Moore did not found or start the organisation but joined the year after it started.

While Heaven and Earth was a success, it may have been overhyped as a bestseller. Connor Court claims the book sold 40,000 copies worldwide and it’s the publisher’s biggest-selling title. Research by Crikey has found it failed to make the top 20 list for best-selling non-fiction books in Australia in 2010-11 or 2011-12. (To be fair, those lists are dominated by cookbooks and memoirs, while books on politics and science often end up in the bargain bin.)

At any rate, Heaven and Earth has been a cash cow for Connor Court, assisting it to publish some works with limited appeal. Sex Love in Christian Marriage, written in 1973 and with a foreword by Father Anthony Percy ($9.95) may not be a big seller, while Cory Bernardi’s Conservative Revolution is more contemporary. There’s Joe Santamaria on Catholic values and Liberal MP Guy Barnett’s guide to lobbying. Mark Lawson, a senior journalist at The Australian Financial Review, has published A Guide to Climate Change Lunacy. Cardinal George Pell has four titles with Connor Court, one of which allows readers to “feel closer to Christ”. And there’s tracts by noted climate sceptics James Delingpole and Donna Laframboise.