Not for Sale-Keeping 'Australian Culture' Australian

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ON OPENING THE AUSTRALIAN Content Standard--the Commonwealth Government's main tool for 'promoting the role of commercial television in developing and reflecting a sense of Australian identity' (1)--you will find an unusual statement. Section 5(3) of the Standard proclaims, 'this standard recognizes New Zealand programs ... equally with Australian programs'. For those who are confused, this statement means that the Australian Content Standard counts programmes produced in New Zealand as being Australian. Consequently, Australian commercial networks can theoretically broadcast only New Zealand programming and yet still satisfy their obligation under the Standard to broadcast a certain amount of 'local' programmes.

This strange qualification always makes me uncomfortable when I try to explain to overseas visitors the bi-partisan stand taken by consecutive Australian governments to protect and promote local culture. It is included in the Standard because of the Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement (CER), a free trade agreement between Australia and New Zealand which requires New Zealand and Australian goods to be treated equally, even in legislation designed to protect Australian culture.

Of course, the CER hasn't resulted in our screens being swamped by New Zealand content, mostly because New Zealand's production industry is much less developed than our own--it withered away after the New Zealand Government removed local content quotas in the 1980s, opening the country to a deluge of foreign programming. But imagine if the Australian Content Standard said 'this standard recognizes New Zealand programs and United States programs ... equally with Australian programs'. Then the ramifications would be very different. Australian programmes would be competing against a far stronger opponent to reach Australian screens, and the Australian film and television industry would be careening towards the same cliff that New Zealand's industry ran off a decade earlier. Something like this scenario could become a reality this year, as representatives of Australia and the United States of America sit down to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement.

Two rounds of negotiations of an Australia/ US Free Trade Agreement have been held to date, and an optimistic deadline of year's end has been set to conclude the deal. At the top of the shopping list of concessions sought by Australia is removal of current US restrictions on the sale of Australian fast ferries and agricultural products, such as beef, cheese and sugar. But the price likely to be asked by the Americans for these benefits is considerable. Come the next round of negotiations in July, discussions will shift for the first time to the audiovisual sector, and the US is expected to seek the abolition or limitation of regulation within Australia's film and television industry. What is at stake is not just the future of the regulations, but the future of the industry, and of Australian culture itself.

Australians have repeatedly demonstrated that they want to see Australian stories onscreen. Australian television has a proud history of local comedies and dramas topping the ratings, with Postcard Bandit, The Secret Life of Us, Kath & Kim and perennial favourites Blue Heelers and All Saints among the most recent examples. At the box office, blockbusters such as the Spider-Man, Matrix and Harry Potter franchises dominate, but Australian films like Crackerjack, The Dish, Lantana, and Wog Boy regularly achieve respectable returns, despite being made on budgets that are miniscule in comparison to the Hollywood heavyweights they slug it out with.

Popularity is not enough to guarantee survival in an industry with the peculiar economics of the film and television world, as a quick comparison of licence fees paid by television networks demonstrates. Most television dramas produced in the United States are fully financed by their domestic broadcaster, allowing them to be sold into Australia at a fraction of the cost required for an Australian broadcaster to commission a local series. …