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Watchdog: Free trade or cultural freedom?

As Australian as...?

Geoffrey Atherden

Anxiety about the impact of a free trade agreement with the USA on our culture, especially on film, television, music and literature is escalating. Government agencies, like the Australian Film Commission, and peak organisations such as the Australian Society of Authors and the Music Council of Australia, along with leading artists have made clear their hostility to an agreement that puts culture on the negotiating table.

Geoffrey Atherden, acclaimed writer of Mother and Son and Grass Roots, delivered the following talk at the Small screen BIG PICTURE Conference in Perth, May 9, 2003.

* * * *

Here’s a photograph of my family. This is my grandmother and grandfather with 4 of my uncles and my mother and it was taken in the year of my mother’s birth, 1915. And this photograph was taken not far from here, in Fremantle.

There’s something pretty interesting about my family. My grandfather was born in Adelaide. My grandmother was born in Launceston. And no one in the family has any idea how a young builder from South Australia and an orphan girl from Tasmania—she was raised in a convent when her parents died and no one else in the family would look after her—managed to meet, get married and wind up over here in Western Australia.

It’s a long time since we’ve had a family saga on Australian television and I don’t see why I can’t use my family as a starting point. At least I know who’s likely to be upset.

I’m going to step slightly sideways though. In a recent survey, 86% of people said that if entering a free trade agreement with America meant giving up our pharmaceutical benefits scheme, they’d rather not have free trade agreement (Hawker Britton UMR Poll Results of telephone survey conducted by UMR Research of 1000 Australians over 18 years of age).

...As a result of this kind of survey, the government has taken the pharmaceutical benefits scheme off the table, despite it being something the American drug companies were very keen to get, not just to get a bigger piece of the Australian market, but because our PBS scheme is being copied in other countries.

How interesting that I should have come to the Small screen Big Picture conference to talk about medical drug policy.

Here’s another piece of interesting information. In the same survey, people were asked if they’d still want to be in a free trade agreement with America if it meant less Australian content on television and 71% of people said no. It seems that 71% is not enough, because at the moment, the regulation of Australian television is still on the table.

And we understand that the Americans are very keen that we agree to deregulate our television. They want it on the table. They want us to give up our content quotas, they want us to give up rules relating to cross media ownership and foreign ownership, and they want us to leave e-commerce free of regulation so that the use of the internet as a part of broadcasting remains unregulated.

I need to make an absolute declaration here. I’m going to be saying a lot about America, and even about some Americans, but this is not an attack on America. Like most people, I love American films and television programs. How could you not? It’s a very seductive culture and no wonder some people in some parts of the world are afraid of it. And with Six Feet Under and West Wing and The Sopranos and for me, one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, Punch Drunk Love, I love American culture. But I feel even more passionate about Australian culture and Australian television and Australian films and I don’t want to trade our ability to tell our stories to our own audience and to audiences around the world on a promise that we might sell more lamb or leather to the United States.

What’s wrong with deregulation?

We’re very fortunate to have, lying not far from our eastern coast, a brave little country, New Zealand, which for some time led the world in applying the principles of free market economics by deregulating just about everything. Finance ministers from New Zealand were able to puff their chests out at international trade meetings and boast about how far they were in front of the rest of the world.

One of the effects was that a lot of New Zealanders were very unhappy as their social services collapsed about them and their economy didn’t boom. And they noticed that New Zealanders and New Zealand stories disappeared from their television screens.

When their current Prime Minister, Helen Clarke was running for office, one of the things she promised was to restore regulation to New Zealand television. That proved to be very popular and was probably one of the things that got the last government thrown out and Clarke’s government voted in. Now that she is in office, she’s finding that fulfilling this election promise isn’t easy. The problem is that once you deregulate, reregulating seems to be against international trade law. And the only way you’re allowed to introduce what are seen as new barriers to trade, in order to pacify anyone who might think that you’re being unfair to them, is to offer to liberalise something else in compensation. This is a problem if you’ve basically liberalised everything.

Mexico is also worth looking at. Before Mexico entered NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico had a thriving film industry. They had chains of local cinemas and they made about a hundred films a year, Mexican stories about Mexico and Mexicans, for their own people. Only a few years after entering NAFTA the production in Mexico dropped to about 8 films a year. Why? Because, using the liberalised laws on cinema and production ownership, the American chains moved in and bought up all the Mexican cinemas and used them to show American movies. In other words, what they did was to absorb Mexico into the North American market and increase the audiences for the films Hollywood was already making.

In January this year, the Mexican government introduced a 1-peso levy on cinema tickets. The levy was part of an initiative to boost local film production and the cash raised would be channelled directly into production. The levy was hailed by local producers and directors but met a wave of heated reactions in the US. Mexico is a country that represents in volume and earnings the 4th best market for US films worldwide.

The President of the MPA, Jack Valenti, wrote to the Mexican President, Vincente Fox, and told him that, “the adoption of such a measure without previously consulting the MPA could force us to cancel our backing for the Mexican Film industry...this also would cause difficulties to our mutual relations” (, “Valenti’s Mexican Standoff”).

In late January, Steve Solot, the MPAA senior vice president, met the Mexican Minister of Culture, Sari Bermudez, and told her, “Every peso that that does not enter at the box office is a peso lost for a US film,” (, “Valenti’s Mexican Standoff”). Some years before NAFTA, the French Canadians in Quebec had tried to bring in a similar system—a small tax on cinema tickets to finance support for a French language film industry. This is modelled on the system in France, which has been successful in underwriting a considerable amount of film production in that country. But when the Americans heard about the Quebec plan, they sent in their tough guy—Valenti, and with support from the American government they threatened the Quebecois out of it. They threatened that if the French Canadians put any kind of tax on cinema tickets they would cease to supply Quebec with American films. They would get nothing. And since, in Quebec as everywhere in North America and much of the rest of the world, Hollywood films are a major part of box office, the local cinemas in Quebec couldn’t afford the boycott and so the government dropped its surcharge plan.

It was probably with this as background, that when the Canadians negotiated their way in to the North American Free Trade Agreement, with the background of the nationalism of the French Canadians and the caution of the Anglo Canadians, they took culture off the table. They wanted to protect Canadian film and television production, and in particular, to protect Canadian local content rules. I think most people know that film and television production is pretty big in Canada, even though most of what we see from Canada is made for the US market and looks, sounds, smells like US product.

In fact, there’s a great story which I think kind of sums up the Canadian US relationship. The Toronto Globe and Mail ran a competition a while ago. Everyone knows the phrase, as American as apple pie, but how would you complete the sentence “As Canadian as...”?

There were many entries, but the winner was, “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.” Canadians feel the presence of the US, even more than we do. After all, something like 80% of the Canadian population lives within 80 kilometres of the US border.

I do just want to pause here and say again, I am not anti-American. And here is one of the reasons. While the American negotiators are pushing us in the Australia US Free Trade negotiations, and almost everyone else through the GATT and GATS and the WTO to deregulate, the opposite is happening inside America. There is a very strong push for regulation of broadcasting.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is the largest body of professional screenwriters in the world. It calls on the American government to increase the regulation of television because, it argues, the free market has failed. In the February edition of the WGA (West) Magazine, their president, Chuck Slocum writes:

“TV is not something we want to produce at the lowest cost—the stories we tell ourselves are more important than that. Economics is not the best social mechanism to govern everything.”

The WGA is a member of CCC, the Centre for the Creative Community, which aims to “safeguard and enrich the vitality and diversity of our nation’s culture.”

Here is part of a submission to the US Federal Communications Commission made by the CCC. “Rapid consolidation of network and cable television ownership in the hands of a few corporate conglomerates has significantly harmed free expression, quality, and creativity in television.”

And “When 5 companies: AOL/Time Warner, Viacom/CBS/UPN, GE/NBC, Disney/ABC, Fox/News Corp both produce and distribute the programming seen by the vast majority of Americans on broadcast and cable, Americans ultimately hear only the ‘voices’ of those 5 corporate leviathans, no matter how many channels they receive.”

Unfortunately, in June this year, the US Federal Communications Commission decided not to listen to those arguments and further deregulated broadcasting in the US.

The Australian Writers’ Guild has a strong position on this. The AWG has stated that it believes firmly that cultural policy measures can co-exist with a commitment to free trade. However, given the dominance of countries such as the United States in cultural services sectors such as the audiovisual industry, cultural diversity cannot co-exist with a commitment to a completely free and open market economy. This is because the American Film and Television industries are not just big, they’re gigantic. They combine to be one of the biggest industries in the world.

The creative industries in America, that is film, television, home video, DVDs, business and entertainment software, books, music and sound recordings, contribute more to the US economy than any other single manufacturing sector.

In 2001, the copyright industries, as they’re called, contributed US $531 billion to the US economy, and achieved US $88.97 in foreign sales and exports. Here are those figures again, translated into Australian dollars—A $850 billion contribution to the US economy and A $141 billion of exports.

By comparison, in 1999/2000, our copyright industries were worth A $19.2 billion to our economy and brought in A $1.2 billion in export sales. In the same year, we spent A $3.4 billion on our imports of foreign copyright goods and services, almost 3 times as much as we export.

The American population is roughly 15 times bigger than ours. So you’d expect a bit of a difference between the size of our industries and the size of theirs. But their copyright industries are more than 40 times bigger than ours and their exports are almost 120 times bigger than ours.

The argument here is not just about free trade. It’s about fair trade. When they are so much bigger than we are, is it reasonable to expect that free trade can ever be fair? Would we ever send a little Aussie wrestler, weighing in at 19.2 kilos, and put him in the ring with an American who weighed 850 kilos and expect it to be a fair contest? I don’t think so.

The support mechanisms we have in place are no barrier to trade, because our market is one of the most open in the world. The amount we allocate to Australian content when it comes to drama and comedy, children’s programs and documentaries, is only a very small part of our total broadcast time.

The local content rules require each commercial television network to broadcast about 2 or 3 hours of first release Australian drama in prime time. That works out to somewhere between 6-10% of our prime time viewing. When you look at our commercial television stations, they all have a lot of American dramas and comedies. How much more do they want?

In 2000/2001, almost 60% of new television programs were from foreign sources. This compares to about 8% of foreign programs in the United States. You see, it’s not about free trade. Americans just don’t watch foreign programs. They just don’t. Never have, never will. So by allowing the Americans to grab that last 6 to 10% of our prime time programming, we stand to gain nil in access to US markets. As a further comparison, in the UK, foreign sourced programs count for about 10% of the total. As I said, Australia is already an open market.

In film, the picture is just as dramatic. Every year in Australia about 250 new films are released. About 10% are Australian. About 70% are American. The rest are from the UK, Europe and Asia. But with the muscle of the giant US distributors behind them, the Americans are able to turn their 70% of film releases into 83% of the Australian gross box office. How much more do they want?

The argument is that measures such as Australian content rules for free to air commercial and pay television, direct government investment in production through the FFC, the AFC and so on, indirect government investment through tax concessions, the regulation of entry of foreign entertainers, the regulation of foreign ownership and investment and cross media ownership rules are all inhibitors of free trade and should be eliminated or reduced by Australia.

The Americans are very serious about this. They’ve told our trade negotiators that without considerable concessions in the audiovisual sector, there won’t be any concessions on their side on lamb and steel and beef. According to the MPAA, “The negotiation of a Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Australia offers unparalleled opportunities for the American filmed entertainment industry” (

This is Valenti again. He is a very powerful man because he heads a very powerful organisation. The MPAA is a trade organisation representing the interests of 7 of the largest producers and distributors of filmed entertainment: Buena Vista International, Columbia Tristar, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, Warner Bros. It represents one of the biggest industries in America and is a very powerful and effective lobby in Washington. On its website, the MPAA states that it is “often referred to now as a ‘little State Department’.”

Should we be worried? After all, several of our government ministers have made strong statements declaring an intention to retain all the current mechanisms that support our film and television industries.

In July 2001, Peter McGauran, assisting the Minister for the Arts, said during a debate on the SBS Insight program, “’s a cabinet declaration that cultural identity and national interest will be prevalent and in fact dominant in any trade negotiations. ...[Trade Minister] Mark Vaile is not putting culture on the table.... And it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine when or where this government would trade it off.”

Last year, in November at the SPAA conference in Melbourne, Senator Kemp, who by that time had replaced McGauran, told the audience, and I was there to hear him, “Last year, my predecessor, Peter McGauran, gave you an assurance that cultural support mechanisms such as local content rules would not be traded away. Let me repeat his assurance here today.”

He got a good round of applause for that. It was very reassuring. But culture is on the table. And in a recent interview with Maxine McKew, reported in The Bulletin, Vaile said, “We’ve got it on the table. We’ve left it there because we want to argue the case.”

The Bulletin article also reports that when Geoff Brown, president of the Screen Producers Association of Australia met the American negotiators, they put forward an interesting proposition. Would SPAA agree to dump local content rules in exchange for increased funding for the ABC?

And when Vaille was asked by McKew whether the trade negotiations might affect our public broadcasters, or whether public broadcasting was non-negotiable, he answered, “I can’t say it’s non-negotiable.” So why not take it off the table now? He answered, “It’s tactical.”

What is the worst that could happen? Suppose our government decides that, despite its assurances in the past, given in good faith at the moment when they were given, trade in agriculture is more important than local content rules.

This is certainly the view of The Australian, expressed in an editorial on March 17 this year. It said, “Of course the US negotiators will demand a trade off in terms of improved access to the Australian market for their manufacturing, services and entertainment industries.”

The editorial went on, “Mostly it will be in our interest to concede on these areas, notwithstanding the predictable protest from the... ‘cultural’ protectionists.”

And in another edition, the date of which I’ve lost, columnist Mark Day accused us of being wimps, of not being able to see the wonderful opportunity we would have by being forced to give up our government subsidies, improve our product and make something the Americans would want to see for a change.

If we do lose our content rules and funding support and other mechanisms, what will happen? I don’t think there’ll be a cliff that the industry will fall off and in a short time, it will all be over. It’s more likely to be a long and slippery slope, but a downward slope, and after some years, the amount of Australian drama and comedy on our television screens and in our cinemas will be much less.

Existing programs which are attracting good audiences won’t be axed, at least not straight away. But new dramas and especially new comedies will be harder and harder to get up. They’re always a risk. There’s always a failure rate. And it’s much safer to buy a road tested product from America, and, more importantly, it’s a lot cheaper. This is not just a whinge about job security. We all know that in the modern world, no one has job security.

Many [of you] will have heard many of these arguments before. Some of you are already engaged in arguing the case for culture to be taken off the table in our discussion on a free trade agreement with the US.

What I would like to make is a plea for more people, for everyone to do something, even one small thing to send a message to government. We do not want our culture traded away.

We can see what can happen by looking at New Zealand. They lost their voice in their mass media. And they didn’t like it. They took it out on their government. And if we find that Australian faces disappear from our screens, and with them, Australian voices speaking in Australian accents, then we will lose something vitally important of ourselves. We lose a large part of our identity. Our children will grow up with is the idea that there are no Australian heroes. That exciting things happen to people in other countries, but not here. That we have no place in the world. And with that, we’ll lose our knowledge of ourselves.

I don’t know whether there’s a story in my family or not. But I do know that there are stories out there about other families, Australian families with ties that go back through generations, Indigenous families, immigrant families, refugee families, and all of that creates a mosaic which adds up to us.

We’re a small country in a big world. It would be very easy for us to become invisible. In many parts of the world, we are already. Try finding something, anything about Australia in the Miami Herald. But the worst thing would be if we became invisible to ourselves.

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 16-17

© Geoffrey Atherden; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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