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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22731

Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) (3:49 PM) —That sounded rather like Hansonite xenophobia, I thought, in that we will get to the point in Australia where we are going to stand up against Halloween and basketball, because Halloween is supposedly an American idea. Actually, Halloween, from recollection, is a celebra-tion of All Saints' Day and its derivation is European, not American. Let us just think about this: if Australia is to be one of the world's major content producers we cannot unduly restrict access to our own market. Does the honourable member agree with that statement? Does the honourable member agree that the best way to promote Australian content is to enhance innovation, investment and skills formation in the new information economy and not restrict foreign access? Does the honourable member agree with that?

`Australia must take an open approach to the information technology revolution'—these are the words of the member for Melbourne. The member for Melbourne was in favour of these things when he wrote Open Australia in 1999, but now he is apparently promoting a closed Australia—we must not have Halloween or basketball. It is a pretty sad reflection—

Mr Tanner —I didn't say `basketball'.

Mr DOWNER —No, but basketball is American. This kind of anti-American tirade reflects a deep sentiment in the modern Labor Party—not in the Labor Party of Bob Hawke but in the modern Labor Party. There is a deep anti-American strain and it comes through over and over again. There is no point in trying to hide it. Substantial elements of the Labor Party do not like America, and that is what this is about. When the government negotiated the free trade agreement with Singapore that was fine, apparently. When we were negotiating the trade agreement with Thailand there was no controversy and there were no questions asked. I do not think a single question was asked by the opposition in the parliament about the trade agreements with Thailand and Singapore. I may be wrong, but I do not think any questions by the opposition were asked about any aspect of those free trade agreements, but when it comes to negotiating a free trade agreement with what the opposition apparently regard as the `Great Satan'—the United States—then this is a matter of enormous controversy.

This debate is an enormous beat-up, as the opposition knows only too well. Our trade negotiations with the United States pose no threat to Australian culture. Claims by the opposition and some people in the film industry simply misrepresent—deliberately, in the case of the opposition—the government's position. We are not going to compromise Australia's ability to support, promote and protect Australian culture. The government's direct support for our culture—including support for film producers and public broadcasting and grants for writers, artists and musicians—will not be affected by these negotiations. We will continue to use local content rules for commercial television programming and advertising, to ensure our viewers are able to see Australian stories told in Australian voices. As participants in the Australian film industry said the other day, the United States has been very clear that it is not even seeking changes to existing local content rules covering free-to-air television and pay television.

This is an absolutely enormous beat-up by the opposition, and I have a bit more to say about that. First of all, I noticed that some people at the AFI Awards—and I think the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts was at the AFI Awards; I was unable to go unfortunately—

Mr DOWNER —I would have enjoyed going; you are right. The honourable members were probably not there, the Labor Party being rather culturally bankrupt these days—at least, according to cultural communities, they are. A lot of the claims that were made in speeches at the AFI Awards were frankly wrong. In some cases claims were made that the Australian film industry was going to collapse or in fact was already collapsing, even though we have not even completed free trade agreement negotiations with the United States. Some of those claims were made by people who have made millions out of Hollywood. They have made millions out of America, but they apparently do not want Australians to be able to watch American films, except perhaps for the ones they are in. Maybe they would be happy if we watched those.

We should reflect on the fact—not that the government has ever had or now has any intention of changing our local content rules—that this country, according to the government, has a very strong and positive culture. This is an interesting debate, because part of the opposition's entirely spurious argument—part of the leitmotiv of what the opposition is saying—is that our culture is weak, that we do not much like our own culture and that the only way we will show any interest in our own culture, the only basis of us participating in our own culture, is if the government cuts off foreign imports, otherwise our culture will just collapse. If ever there was an example of the cultural cringe, that is it. If ever there was a political party that lacked confidence in our own country, in our own people, in our own creativity and in our love of our own culture, it is the Labor Party. It is absolutely extraordinary. The proposition here is that Australians are not interested in Australian productions—and that could not be further from the truth.

Let us turn to the case of books. I do not know how many books are produced every year in the United States but presumably thousands and perhaps tens of thousands are published. When you compare that to the number of books that are published in Australia every year, it would obviously be massively more. A lot of books are produced in the United Kingdom as well. The United Kingdom's population is three times the size of Australia's, and the population of the United States is 15 or so times the size of Australia's. That gives you some idea of how many more books published in the English language are published in those countries. We do not have local content rules at the Matilda Bookshop in Stirling. People can buy what books they want. One of the interesting things about the Australian book industry is that approximately 60 per cent of all books sold in Australia are published in Australia. That is what I have been told. I would be happy to be contradicted if that figure is wrong, but that is what I have been told.

That says something pretty obvious about Australia: we have good writers and publishers, we produce good products and we like them. These are people telling our stories to us in all sorts of different ways, as books do. We do not have a great wall of protection to protect a pathetically weak publishing industry. We have a good publishing industry. We like our books. And I think we like our films. The Australian film industry has been well supported by the government, and in recent years it has been very well supported by the government, as have the advertising industry, production industries and so on. I think it does a good job. It is true that the film industry has apparently had a bit of a downturn over the last year, but it does reflect the fact that film producers have a challenge—like our writers have a challenge to produce good books that people want to read—to produce films at least a percentage of which the public would like to see. We have good years and bad years. Some years we have produced wonderful films which have made an enormous impact around the world; other years, like last year, frankly have not been quite so good. My plea to the Labor Party is: do not always undersell Australia and present Australia as a country with some sort of dreadful postcolonial cultural cringe.

Mr Tanner —You're a living example of it!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Melbourne is warned!

Mr DOWNER —I think that comment is exactly my point: there is something about the way that different people speak that really upsets you. You say that you believe in multiculturalism, but everyone has to speak like you do, do they?

Mr Tanner —I hope not!

Mr DOWNER —You as well.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The minister will address the chair.

Mr DOWNER —It is an extraordinary proposition. The Labor Party put forward this idea of conformity in society, apparently, and the Labor Party also put forward the idea that we are so desperately inferior that we could never compete with United States or the United Kingdom. On this side of the House we say to you: `Don't worry. We're not about to change the local content rules and the Americans aren't arguing for us to change them.'

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Melbourne will remove himself from the chamber under standing order 304A!

The member for Melbourne then left the chamber.

Mr DOWNER —And we say to them: `Don't worry; the government recognise the strength of Australian culture. We have great confidence in our film and television producers, our actors and our writers and our artists.'

I said earlier that one of the things that strikes me about the Labor Party's approach to this issue is that they had no argument about a free trade agreement with Singapore and they had no argument about a free trade agreement with Thailand, but they have an enormous argument about a free trade agreement with the United States. At the end of the day, the Labor Party are opposed to a free trade agreement with America because it is America—it is all part of this notion of inferiority the Labor Party have. They feel inferior to America; they feel overwhelmed by America. However, this anti-Americanism is not pervasive through all of the Labor Party. Someone like the member for Kingsford Smith has always been happy to go to America and has an interest in America—he even has some knowledge of American history, I think. The Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, has an enormous enthusiasm for America. And let me tread on a toe with a corn on it: the member for Brand is a great Americaphile as well. But I am afraid the construction of the current frontbench exhibits all the hallmarks of the old 1950s and 1960s anti-Americanism and of the terrible Labor oppositions in those eras. We are now seeing more and more of that.

In conclusion, it is very seldom we have an opportunity to talk in this House—in MPIs or any other way—about the arts. I want to make the point that the government has increased base funding to the 31 major performing arts companies by $31 million over a four-year period from the year 2000, and I am pretty proud of what we are doing by supporting those major performing arts companies. The Myer report into contemporary visual arts and craft has resulted in additional funding of $19½ million over four years in that sector, as announced in this year's budget. We have also maintained a strong commitment to cultural activity in regional Australia. Yes, I am a bit biased here: my wife is the President of Regional Arts Australia and she does a fantastic job. She was elected to that position, I hasten to add. The government has provided strong support for the regional arts—for the contemporary music touring program and for Playing Australia—and we can be proud of what we have done to help develop the arts in regional Australia.

We built the National Museum, which was opened in 2001. It was a $150 million investment and it attracted more than one million visitors in its first year of operation.

Mr DOWNER —Yes, I am afraid it was; I am afraid it was the Howard government that did that.

Mr DOWNER —Perhaps you are not telling your constituents? Maybe you are spinning them a little bit of a line? The government implemented several recommendations from the Gonski review into the film industry, most notably by introducing the Film Licence Investment Company pilot scheme to raise private sector investment for Australian film. It has made a significant contribution to the national production slate, resulting in over $19 million of investment in 11 feature films and several animation and documentary productions between 2000 and 2002.

It disappoints me that the Labor Party has not asked questions about the arts—I suspect in all the time we have been in government—or shown the slightest interest in the arts. I remember when I was in my early 20s and Don Dunstan was the Premier of my own state and Gough Whitlam was the Prime Minister of Australia. They were not guys who could run an economy, I can tell you, but in their defence they had a great interest in and a passion for the arts. They supported the arts with all their heart and soul, and it was a great credit to them. But the current opposition has no interest in the arts; it asks no questions about the arts and suddenly there is all this mock indignation about an FTA which has not even been negotiated yet—we are in the process of negotiating it—and the putting up of some canard about how the Australian film industry is going to close down. All this is because the Labor Party has a cultural cringe. Don't worry; we will look after the industry. Don't you worry about Australians being inferior, they are not. You may feel they are, but they are not.