By Bronwen Beechey
MELBOURNE — The existence of yet another basic community service is being threatened by the Victorian government. The latest target for privatisation is public libraries.
The Kennett government has abolished local councils and replaced them with unelected commissioners. Under new local government legislation, commissioners are required to submit all local government services to "compulsory competitive tendering" (CCT). Already services such as rubbish collection and Meals on Wheels have been contracted out.
Now, in a move that will be repeated throughout Victoria over coming months, commissioners of Melbourne and Yarra have begun contracting out library services. Commissioners will not guarantee that branch libraries will remain open beyond 12 months, and have refused to take part in meaningful consultations with library staff and users. Already the Armadale library has been closed.
A campaign by residents and unions has included public meetings, protests at commissioners' meetings and the formation of a number of local library support groups.
The Australian Services Union, which covers public library staff, has undertaken rolling stoppages and "user-friendly" actions such as bans on collecting fines. Richmond's Carringbush library recently held a "work-in" when staff kept the library open all night and provided refreshments and children's activities in addition to normal services.
Defend Our Public Libraries — an umbrella organisation representing the local user groups and ASU members — was a prominent participant in the 10,000-strong anti-privatisation rally held on June 25.
On July 16, around 200 people attended a rally outside the State Library of Victoria, next to a sculpture that depicts the library sinking into Swanston walk. The mood of the rally was summed up by a large banner reading "Libraries for people, not profit".
Hannie Rayson, playwright and author of Hotel Sorrento, told the rally that the right to read was fundamental. "What sort of mind is it that tries to put a value on knowledge and creativity?", she asked. Actor Sigrid Thornton read The Tale of the Pudding Thief from The Magic Pudding, which she described as "a cautionary tale for those who try to take things that aren't theirs".
State ALP leader John Brumby pointed out that even Margaret Thatcher stopped short of privatising local libraries. "Melbourne is the only place in the world where libraries are being subjected to CCT", he said.
John Sawyer of Friends of Carringbush Library, which organised the rally, told Green Left that the rally had made an impact. "The mainstream media is now taking it up as an issue."
He pointed out that the implications of contracting out library services go beyond the possibility of service cutbacks and charges for books. "Access to information and ideas is fundamental in a democratic society. It is dangerous to put the choice of what books we read in the hands of private suppliers whose sole aim is to make money."
Defend Our Public Libraries is demanding that the state government exempt libraries from its CCT legislation. For more information contact John Sawyer on (03) 9428 2063.