Would the last person leaving Australia please switch off the lights ...
I've always been an avid reader. You can't get into my study for books, some on shelves, some piled on top of others, waiting for me to find room for them. And, since the demise of the local second hand book shop, I've relied more and more on Amazon to fill out the gaps in my various collections.
It wasn't always thus. I recall an instance, almost thirty years ago, when I had to go to extraordinary lengths to obtain a single title. I would have been about seventeen, and I'd been reading the 'Dragonlance' chronicles from Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis since their release some five years earlier. The main titles were simple enough to get - our local bricks-and-mortar bookstore stocked those - but when it came to some of the spin-off titles by other, less well known authors, it became more difficult. Nine times out of ten, that didn't worry me - I was happy to wait. The eighties were a more patient decade, after all. But this one title was different though. I was desperate to read Kevin Stein's 'Brothers Majere' novel, and there were no plans to stock it locally anytime soon, so I had to take what now seem like extraordinary measures.
I recall going down to the Post Office, and purchasing an international money order (those were a thing back then, something like a cross between a cheque and a postal order, but hell, you probably don't remember those either - just think of it as being like PayPal only on paper), and then sitting down to write a very nice letter to my godmother, who was living in Virginia at the time. I sealed the whole lot up, and posted it off, first class. Then I waited. I waited for quite a while, as it happens.
My letter, meanwhile, made its way slowly across the Atlantic. This was 1989, and the internet, while it might have been in the throws of invention, wasn't a thing for most ordinary folks, and email was unimaginable. We wrote letters. And we waited.
It took this particular letter a couple of weeks to reach my godmother, who then had to cash the international money order, and go out to her own local bricks-and-mortar book store in Virginia, and hope against hope that they had a copy of the book I was after. Having picked it up, she then had to package it, complete with a short note, and mail it back to me.
Six or eight weeks later, I was one of the first people to get their hands on 'Brothers Majere' outside of the US, and I had friends lining up to borrow it once I'd read it myself.
I can't help but feel that it's about to become 1989 all over again. The Turnbull government is in the process of flicking a switch, and sending us all back to the bad old days.
As of 1 July, the imposition of GST on internet purchases under $1,000 (which has long been the acknowledged watershed) means that Amazon will block delivery to Australian addresses from its international sites.
But we have Amazon Australia, right? Surely it's just a case of logging on there, and Bob's your antipodean uncle?
Well, no. For anyone who has used the Australian site for anything other than the purchase of Kindle titles (for which it was basically designed a couple of years back), it will have been glaringly obvious that the variety of content is sadly lacking. Don't take my word for it - go on while you can still access both sites, and compare for yourself.
I did a couple of tests over the course of the last few days. I picked three titles that I was keen to purchase, and checked availability on the American, UK and Australian sites. The results will not surprise you, and did not surprise me.
I've been meaning to pick up the first volume of Larry Correia's 'Monster Hunters' series for a while now. The first three titles originally came out in paperback, but were later rolled together into an omnibus hardback edition that matches the others I already have on my shelves (I'm a little retentive the way, I admit). I've never seen that particular volume for sale here in Australia, so I'd settled to buy it online, possibly for my birthday. Sure enough, there were a number of copies available on the US Amazon site, starting at US $47 (about AUD $60, given our current crappy exchange rate). Abe Books options started at US $55, which was quite a difference. And Amazon Australia? They had one copy available for purchase. The price? AUD $815. Even with free delivery, I thought that was a little steep!
Maybe I'd just picked a difficult title, though, eh? So I gave it another couple of tries.
I've been meaning to pick up a hardback copy of Katherine Kurtz 'Lammas Night' - my paperback copy is getting a little worn, and I'd like something that matches the other hardbacks in my collection (you're seeing a trend here, right?). I lucked out with Amazon in the States, but Amazon UK could let me have a copy for AUD $135. Amazon Australia? No listings.
But I'm not one to give up easily - let's throw the dice one more time, said I ...
It's Claire's birthday next month, so I might want to buy her a book - heaven knows, it happens from time to time. She's still missing a few titles by Lisa Gardner, but since I like my little jokes, I might order her 'The Perfect Husband' this year. It's kinda fitting, don't you think? Ok, Amazon in the States can send me a hardback copy for US $5.02, but that's only in 'acceptable' condition. I'm not that tight. They list a 'like new' edition at US $45. That should do the trick. Amazon UK comes in at about the same price. Amazon Australia? Only one available, and that will set me back AUD $110.72, and only in 'good' condition at that. Hmm. I perhaps might buy her dinner instead.
I'm sorry, Mr Turnbull, but Amazon Australia just doesn't cut the mustard - not in my book, anyway.
And that's before we look at the small print on the Liberal government's latest GST brain fart. The difficulty of administering a GST proponent on low value online purchases is going to blow out admin costs and overheads for sellers to the point where many simply won't list, even on Australian sites. It's also been suggested that the cost from the government's perspective is likely to outweigh the revenue raised.
The irony is that Turnbull himself made his millions in IT. He's been at the cutting edge, and taken advantage of technological advances. He's now decided to bow to pressure from one prominent local retailer, Gerry Harvey, and deny those technological benefits to the Australian people. He's rolled us back to 1989.
Now let me be clear - I'm not slamming this proposal because it was introduced by a Liberal government. I find it hard to believe that a party that claims to believe in small government, low taxes, and business freedom would even contemplate such a move. But I've stood as a Liberal candidate in the past, so I don't come to the discussion with any particular bias. I'll tell you this for nothing though - the Federal Liberal Party are dead to me after having the temerity to mess with my bookshelves. They won't be getting my vote again until they restore my right to shop online without restriction.
Or there is one other solution we could entertain. Hell, let's fire the lot of them, and invite Amazon to run the country. We at least know that Amazon can deliver - all Turnbull and Morrison are likely to deliver at this rate is a Shorten Labor government, at which point, would the last person leaving Australia please switch off the lights ...