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Union Roundup – June 2004

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Out From (Down) Under: Suddenly, it’s tough being Australian. Not because of the rumblings about greenhouse-effect-spawned brushfires and droughts in the bush, or the fallout from “coalition of the willing” Prime Minister John Howard caught, er, stretching the truth about torture in Iraqi prisons, but smack dab in the Aussie film industry.
Yes, that same smart, self-assured filmmaking community that gave us Peter Weir, Judy Davis, Bruce Beresford and The Road Warrior. Suddenly, that industry threatens to simultaneously shut itself down over an above-the-line issue while mulling how to organize to respond to a debilitating below-the-line issue.
That latter conundrum is one familiar to readers of this paper: production job-flight abetted by an alleged “free trade” agreement (the salient question always being: “free” to who?). What U.S. readers may be surprised to learn, however, is that the enemy/bad guy/heavy in this particular job-hemorrhaging spat isn’t Canada or Ireland or Eastern Europe or even a bunch of ones and zeros in a computer. Instead, it’s us.
Shall we use the word “salient” twice in one column? The salient facts are these:
• On May 18, Aussie trade minister Mark Vaile and U.S. trade rep Robert Zoellick signed the “Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement” in that sanctuary of fair-mindedness, Washington, D.C.
• The Aussie parliament, headed by the conservative Howard, is now racing to pass around a half-dozen pieces of “enabling” legislation to cement the deal, during summer months, so it can start taking effect by January 1.
• Although the “show biz” aspects of the agreement appear to affect television more than film, initially, the reason Oz-based cinematographers, for example, have joined with their Down Under directing and writing counterparts, is because said agreement calls for a radical reduction in the amount of “local”—that is, Australian—content on pay/satellite airwaves. Which means that global media conglomerates will export their shows to desirable “first world” markets like Australia. And Australian writers, directors—and crews—will be S.O.L. if they want to work. Or if they want to stay home and work.
They could, of course, emigrate to America, like Fox-owning Rupert Murdoch. (One suspects Murdoch is not too worried about anyone’s “indigenous culture”—including his own—being affected by a trade agreement.) Or they could just get with the program and tune in American Idol and repeats of the Friends finale, like everyone else.
At the moment, Aussie film and TV workers, along with folks from the country’s other affected industries, including the ranching, farming and pharmaceutical sectors, are hoping that the aforementioned “enabling” bills can be derailed in parliament. The Big Picture stuff is that Howard has lost a lot of “cred” over the Iraq issue, and if there’s enough rumbling in the street, perhaps some MPs and Senators can be convinced to “go off the reservation” as far as ceding to Howard’s wishes.
On top of that, an Australian election looms, and on top of that, many Down Under below-the-liners are already pissed because of an agreement there to give actors a guaranteed chunk of a film’s net profits—yes, they actually have verifiable net profits there. They’re pissed—and we don’t mean “drunk”— because, of course, they get no such guarantee, and many producers are threatening to shut down film production altogether if they can’t negotiate a compromise—creating a concurrent crisis just as the “free trade” legislation worms its way through Parliament.
And on the L.A. Front: IATSE Local 44—those set decorators, prop masters, greensfolk, etc.—are still trying to get their election straightened out, having discovered a new glitch in the mailing out of replacement ballots that has necessitated a one-week extension in getting those “rerun” ballots sent back, for contested offices. This is ongoing as you read this, and has left their runoff elections for the positions-in-question currently relegated to a “TBA” calendar date. Union Roundup will keep readers and electoral junkies apprised of ongoing developments.

By Mark London Williams

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