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Thursday, 9 May 1985
Page: 1917


Mr CONNOLLY(10.38) —The Opposition supports this legislation for the introduction of a public lending right in legislative form. The public lending right is a scheme designed to compensate writers for multiple use of their works held in Australian public lending libraries. The scheme was originally pioneered in the Scandinavian countries of Denmark and Sweden in the early 1950s. In those countries payments to writers were based on annual returns made by each library showing every book by a native writer either on its shelves or in storage. Books with more than one writer are, in some countries, not eligible for the scheme.

Australia and New Zealand were the first English speaking countries to implement the public lending right. The campaign for this began in 1966 when it was led by the Australian Society of Authors. A survey at the time showed most writers' income to be well below the average minimum wage in Australia. Some writers believed that they were regarded as public property, like parks, gardens or public utilities with the notable exception, in the case of the writer's product, that the public did not have to pay.

Although the public library system has helped considerably in exposing Australian writers to the Australian public prior to the public lending right being introduced, they effectively received no recompense from that source. This situation was obviously unfair to writers because comparable artists, such as composers of music, did receive a royalty every time their work was performed in public. By depriving writers of book sales, the library system made it difficult to earn a living from writing in this country. This must have proved a major disincentive to aspiring writers and in 1973 the then Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam, directed the Literature Board of the Australian Council for the Arts to implement this program. A committee of inquiry was established, convened by the Literature Board's Chairman, Geoffrey Blainey, a noted Australian historian. The committee included representatives of the Board, writers' organisations and publishers and librarians, as well as an observer from the Department of the Attorney-General.

In 1974 a PLR committee began to implement and administer the scheme through a body called the Australian Authors Fund. The first PLR program began in 1975, and the following year its administration passed to the Australia Council-the successor to the Australian Council for the Arts-with members of the existing committee continuing under a new chairman. The scheme was transferred to the predecessor of the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment in 1980, following changes to the Australia Council Act.

In order to be eligible for payment under the public lending right a writer must be an Australian citizen resident either in Australia or elsewhere, or must be normally resident in this country. The writer should have his work registered in the Australian National Bibliography entry. Australian writers are eligible even if their works are not published in Australia. When a writer registers for PLR he or she is paid 70c for each book held in public lending libraries, while publishers of Australian works receive 17.5c in the dollar. In 1984 the PLR scheme cost $1,435,000, of which $1,156,000 went to 3,910 writers and $279,000 to 255 publishers. It will be seen, therefore, if that is averaged out, that the actual amounts involved are very small. In January 1985 there were approximately 5,800 claimants, and 21,600 book records are being held.

Unlike the payments made in some Scandinavian countries, payments to Australian writers are not based on borrowings; they are based on annual book stocks held in public libraries surveyed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Approximately 60 libraries are surveyed and the data gathered from the survey is consolidated and used to produce estimates of holdings throughout the country.

The PLR represents a public acknowledgment of the writers who bring so much pleasure and learning to the Australian community. The scheme should be regarded as a right, not as a gift. It is a means of which Australian writers can achieve greater financial independence. Authorship must become a profession like any other, subject of course to market forces and public interest, and it should be, wherever possible, less vulnerable to the changing climate of sponsorship or grants. We are seeking to develop a system of reward for writers of excellence. Their success should thus be tied directly to public appreciation through sales of their work.

Writers have long decried their insecure status in the Australian society. Henry Lawson, for example, gave aspiring writers depressing advice when he recommended that, before beginning to write, they should shoot themselves carefully with the aid of a looking glass. The position of the creative writer in Australia's early history was in fact a difficult one. Lawson became a hopeless alcoholic, Adam Lindsay Gordon shot himself-taking that earlier advice-while Barcroft Boake hanged himself with a stock whip.

While one hopes that the situation has improved, the question has to be asked: Is today's writer much better off? A popular misconception is that Australian writers are the recipients of great fortunes. Some people believe that if a writer has one best seller his future is assured. On the contrary, statistics gathered by the Literature Board of the Australia Council indicate that most Australian writers may be better described as being an acutely impoverished minority. For example, for the average novel selling some 2,500 copies, the 10 per cent royalty for the author comes to about $3,250, and that may be for two years work. An Australia Council report claimed that only 5 per cent of writers surveyed made more than $6,000 from royalties in 1982, while a further 4 per cent made more than $6,000 from grants and fellowships. Such earnings do not exactly represent a realistic income, let alone a fortune.

Another popular misconception is that good writing requires little time or mental effort. In truth, it probably takes at least six months-usually longer-to complete a full length novel of any virtue. We still have 10 Australian Prime Ministers, for example, for whom no biographies have been written. A major biography such as that may require three years to research and complete. It is worth noting that most work of this nature has been done by academics who are already receiving subsidies through the institutions for which they work. We can hardly expect an independent writer to devote approximately three years and probably the equivalent of $90,000 of otherwise employed time to a biography for which the rewards are uncertain.

The sad fact is that for the overwhelming majority of writers it is impossible to exist as a full time writer in Australia under the present conditions. The Literature Board attempts to redress writers' problems by providing direct assistance through writers' fellowships, research grants and emeritus fellowships, formerly known as literary pensions. The Board allocated 62 per cent of its 1983-84 funds to programs supporting initial creativity. It aims to help writers buy time to pursue their work from gestation through to the completion of manuscripts.

In 1984 the Board awarded grants to 131 individual writers through the aforementioned three programs. For these some 692 applied, with a success rate of 19 per cent. The Board admitted in its 1983-84 annual report that under current funding levels it cannot even provide writers with income parity relative to those professions it believes comparable, such as journalists, teachers and mid-range public servants. It is worth noting, I think, that in 1973 a fellowship was worth $9,000. In retrospect that was probably too high compared with relative wages. At the same time a Federal parliamentary backbencher's salary was $9,500. By June 1983 a fellowship was worth $18,750 and a backbencher's salary was $36,000, a level comparable to that of the lower ranks of the Second Division of the Australian Public Service. I hope the Government, in its next Budget, will consider sympathetically the difficulties faced by the Australia Council in its ability to fund adequately the Literature Board to overcome some of these problems. In 1985 the Board is providing two grants to new writers: The new writers' fellowship for developing writers, a grant of some $17,000, which requires the recipient to leave full time employment and devote themselves completely to the work of writing; and the new writers' assistance grant of $8,000, which may be regarded as a part-time salary.

If we are to develop greater cultural independence and not be subject to excessive cultural colonialism, as has been the case in the past, further consideration must be given by government and the private sector to see what additional support should be provided to encourage the development of Australian writers. The Literature Board has also provided subsidies for local publishers to ensure the availability of Australian works of literary merit. It has also contributed indirectly, through royalties, to the incomes of writers. Those of us who have ever put pen to paper-for example, the Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones) and the honourable member for Wentworth (Mr Coleman)-would be conversant with the fact that creative thought cannot be forced, that a train of thought born at midday, for example, cannot be easily resurrected by 7 or 8 o'clock in the evening after a hard day's work in one's other occupation. We expect professionally written books from part-time writers, and this is perhaps in many cases asking too much.

What is required is the political will to address the problems facing Australian writers and publishers to see what can be done to assist them both to become more self-reliant. There is no reason why government should be the writer's main benefactor. That is surely the responsibility of the market-place as a whole. The possibility of private enterprise participating in promoting Australian authorship should not be overlooked. The Americans have successfully institutionalised private enterprise support for writers through such bastions as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation. In terms of the bicentenary, I see no reason why private enterprise should not be encouraged to sponsor a bicentenary literary fund. Such a fund may follow the guidelines prescribed by the Literature Board of the Australia Council, providing grants and fellowships to Australian writers, and of course the funds contributed would be tax deductible. Until recently, culture has taken a back seat in the overall development of Australia. It is time that company sponsorship of the arts was directed to Australian writers, who contribute so vitally to our cultural development.

Many industries benefit from the product of the writer, and perhaps none so obviously as the film and television industry. The Australian author may be said to be the nucleus around which our film industry evolved. So important to the film industry is the novelist that the Australian Film Institute employs a writer to read all Australian novels and report on each one's film potential. Many of our better known and internationally successful films and mini-series have been based on Australian literature. For example My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, The Year of Living Dangerously by Chris Koch. Bliss, a new film based on the book of the same name by Peter Carey, has been invited to participate in the Cannes Film Festival. The internationally respected Australian director, Peter Weir, had his first success from Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.

It seems ludicrous that writers who are regarded as the grass roots of our film industry can frequently expect less than 10 per cent of the wages received by the scriptwriter who adapts the original work for the screen. The picture, however, is not entirely grim. An author can increase his or her income by being included as a script adviser, but it is doubtful that this would approximate the $75,000 to $125,000 often received by some script writers. This is but another example where authors are not being adequately recompensed for their work. We have to acknowledge that the written medium has been upstaged by radio and television, especially the latter in terms of mass audiences. Nevertheless, all media to a very large extent are still dependent upon the quality of the original written work. There is much criticism of the quality of Australian soap operas, usually because of the weakness of the plot and the failure to develop the characters sufficiently. Much of this can be directly attributed to our inability to develop the capacity to write good scripts, and it is worth noting that the best are often taken from works by Australian authors.

There can be no doubt that to improve the writer's and publisher's lot we need to become more competitive in the international market. It is the responsibility of Australian writers to produce material of high standard for which there will be local and international demand. It is government's role to establish secure structures through which writers can achieve their artistic and financial independence. Australia has a population of some 15 million and one of the highest literacy rates in the world, but we have a maximum potential English speaking readership about the size of the population of Sweden. However, unlike the Swedish author, the Australian author has to compete with books imported from other English speaking countries, notably Great Britain and the United States. Imported books make up 51 per cent of the Australian market. Something like 75,000 new titles a year are published in Britain and the United States and many if not most of these, are available here. Britain's publishing industry could not possibly exist in a domestic market of 56 million people. That is why they have to export, and the same can be said for the United States of America and Canada. The small Australian domestic market prevents industry from introducing economies of scale which would assist in lowering costs overall. It costs approximately 10 per cent more to produce a book in Australia than it does in some of our neighbouring countries. Fifty per cent of Australian books are currently being published overseas. However, this legislation should go some way towards encouraging change in this situation to the advantage of the Australian publishing industry.

The important fact must be emphasised that much of the cost factors in the Australian market are to be attributed to the fact that we have a regulated labour market, where the publishing industry effectively is controlled by one trade union, and it is there that the Australian industry is so different from overseas competition, especially in South East Asia. The percentage costs of publishing the average book in Australia are as follows: Royalty to authors, 10 per cent; editing, 10 per cent; design, 6 per cent; typesetting, 10 per cent; printing, 21 per cent; overheads-electricity, rent and so forth-9 per cent; transport, about 7 per cent; marketing, 15 per cent; and profit before tax, 12 per cent. The need to develop an export oriented market could be the key to establishing a mature and vital Australian publishing industry. But, as I mentioned earlier, it will require a much closer relationship between the trade unions involved in the industry, writers and publishers, to achieve what is obviously a common good, that is, to remain competitive both in Australia and overseas. Writers' earnings are limited by a small domestic market and overseas sales are thus essential if we are to see more successful authors such as Colleen McCullough with her Thorn Birds, which sold millions of copies.

The export of Australian novels is increasing, and some of our novelists have enjoyed great overseas success-this is a great credit to them-in both English and non-English speaking countries. For example, Nancy Cato's All the Rivers Run has been translated into French, with 360,000 copies being released in France alone. Rodney Hall's Just Relations has enjoyed success in the United States, Britain and France. David Malouf's novel An Imaginary Life has been translated into French and Norwegian. The mini-series 1915, based on the book of the same name by Roger McDonald, has been sold to some 37 countries.

The current economic climate will force the Australian film and television industry to rely more on local productions, and this should help the Australian author. Costly foreign soap operas and productions will soon lose their appeal for programmers, who may well have to pay in excess of 20 per cent on existing costs because of the recent devaluation of the Australian dollar. The devaluation will mean increases of between 20 to 50 per cent in the program costs of the three Australian television networks which currently commit about $US120m between them annually on the purchase of overseas programs. There may be some good news for local production houses with increased demand for Australian-made programs which rely so heavily upon the talent and creativity of Australian writers. Therefore, it should undoubtedly be in the interests of the film and television industry to encourage excellence in Australian writing.

It is obvious that we have the potential to export. The question should be asked as to how we can internationally promote our writers. The Literature Board has gone some way towards promoting Australian writers overseas with some creditable success, given the available resources. However, as the Literature Board receives only 6 per cent of total Australia Council funding, it is clear to me that the publicity industry, in particular, and the publishing industry, which usually has affiliated companies in most major English-speaking capitals, have a major role to play in this area.

The second reading speech of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment (Mr Cohen) noted that the present deficiencies in the public lending rights scheme in terms of the accountability of expenditure of public funds allocated to it 'induce great uncertainty among various literary interest groups'. We were surprised, therefore, to see that under the Public Lending Right Bill 1985 the Minister may, by notice published in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, approve the rate of payment to Australian authors and publishers. Under such arrangements there is, therefore, the risk that the rate of payment to authors and publishers may be subject to ministerial change entirely at the Minister's discretion and therefore not be subject to parliamentary review. In view of the fact that this legislation was introduced for the specific purpose of giving security to Australian writers, the Opposition believes that there is a strong case for an amendment to this clause. Therefore, at the appropriate time during the Committee stage of this Bill I shall move an amendment that clause 5 of the Public Lending Right Bill be altered to allow alterations in the rate of payment to be fixed by regulation and to be subject to parliamentary approval.