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This is more like extortion

19 June 2009 743 views No Comment

Censorship in Australia did a reverse pike with double twist last month as yet another coalition of the feminist left and the religious right made its move.

‘Kids Free 2 B Kids’, a group of grammatically challenged McMoralists from Melbourne, managed to get the former superannuation executive and Pentecostal senator Steve Fielding to take up the cudgel for them.

The issue was whether and to what extent raunchy, trailer park and lads’ magazines should be sold from petrol stations and milk bars in our Great Southland (or Terra Australis, if you prefer).

In a senate estimates hearing in May, Senator Fielding put strong pressure on the federal Attorney General’s departmental head, Roger Wilkins, and Classification Review Board director Donald McDonald. He wanted them to create a federal ‘pornography police’ squad that could raid milk bars and service stations for selling so-called porn.

On the face of it, Fielding was fielding just another moral panic argument. And yet his call did have some underlying merit. He was absolutely correct in asking Rudd’s censorship officers to use federal instead of state police to look after Australia’s censorship issues.

Even though we have a Federal Censorship Act, the enforcement of moral codes like book and film censorship is still under state government control.

More to the point, the internet has effectively smashed any form of state government control over what people want to see, even if each state’s little enforcement act might say something different from the Commonwealth Act.

Currently, the states are given a portion of all classification fees to enforce the federal act. In fact, these monies should be given to the federal police to enforce a ‘national classification scheme’. Ridiculously, all states currently have different censorship laws — different from each other and also from the Commonwealth.

This absurd situation implies that there are different community standards operating in Sydney and Canberra compared with Brisbane or Melbourne or Perth. These days, with Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Henry Bolte not longer with us, this suggestion is demonstrably untrue.

In recent years in Australia, the publication of books and magazines has rarely come under attack from prohibitionists. All the major censorship battles since the 1980s have been to do with films and the internet. Most of us thought that this debate was over in the early 1970s when Australian author Richard Neville was acquitted of obscenity in the London Oz magazine trial. And this benchmark outcome spread to the Land of Oz.

However, were it published in Australia now, Neville’s racy 1970 ‘Schoolkids’ edition, with its 15-year-old ‘jailbait of the month’ pictorial, would land him in jail. I can even hear do-gooders out there thinking I should be prosecuted simply for having written about it! In fact, the mere possession of this issue of the magazine in Australia today could, under the right circumstances, see readers and distributors taken away by the plods. What does this fanatical overreaction to the so-called sexualisation of children say about Australia at the moment?

Well, for a start, having a Prime Minister who can’t help himself when it comes to public discussion on sex and morality does not help the censorship debate. Kevin Rudd’s pronouncements on Bill Henson’s photographs and the recent Cronulla Sharks Rugby League scandal, neither of which led to any criminal conviction, have given do-gooders and morals campaigners the opportunity they had been waiting for. Yet when, a few decades ago, leading morals campaigner and former Queensland opposition leader Keith Wright was jailed for rape, the silence from Australia’s Christian politicians was deafening.

The truth is that in 2009 Rudd needs to show some real leadership on these matters. This means canvassing and representing the views of the many Australians who actually live in trailer parks and university halls of residence, as well as those at the church fête and on the middle-class cocktail circuit.

The rise of ‘book burning’ is a by-product of a classification system that is hopelessly broken and in need of a major overhaul.

Australia no longer has a simple system for looking at and classifying books and magazines. What we have is a monstrously unfair ‘taxation’ scheme imposed on publications before they can be sold. This has lead to the ludicrous situation where it can cost Australians $520 just to classify a business card.

Even more galling is that Bibles, Korans and Talmuds are exempt from classification altogether, but contain all sorts of material that many people find highly offensive. But that’s the overgoverned and overmoralistic nation we are living in. If you own an adult nightclub or run an abortion clinic and you have a business card that you hand out to another person that has a drawing of nude dancer on it, or a sex education message, you are required under the federal classification act to send it, together with a cheque for $520, to the government censors so they can examine it and pass judgement.

So how many public servants does it take to classify a business card? Well, at those rates, about ten. And if, after studying said business card and submitting it to various committees, they think it’s too strong to hand to a business colleague and therefore ban it, what are the options? You have only one, and that is to appeal the decision to the Classification Review Board. Only one catch here. Before they consider it, you need to attach a cheque for $8,000! And if you lose the case and your money, the act says that the buck stops there with no further avenue of appeal.

This sort of government influence on the daily lives of average Australians is a legacy of the Howard years and yet, for grassroots Labor supporters, Kevin Rudd looks frighteningly relaxed and comfortable with it as well.

These current extortionate classification ‘fees’ are not fees in the normal sense of the word when looked at alongside Freedom of Information fees ($80) or even fees to register a political party ($500). So it’s no wonder that only about 2 per cent of all publications that should be submitted for classification are actually sent in.

In today’s marginal world of paper publishing, no one can afford this. In fact, many major book and magazine publishers in Australia publish books that, by law, should be submitted for classification but never are.

In practice, the Classification Board turns a blind eye to this. Take for example a specialist magazine importer who imports ten copies each of 200 specialist titles. These books and magazines meet the criteria for automatic classification. A classification fee of $850 would have to be passed on to the consumer. So it would be divided equally between the ten imported copies, and $80 would be added to the cover price of each one. Instead of selling for $10, the publication would now have a cover price of $90 and of course no one will buy it at that price. So the distributor has two choices. Go broke or ignore the stupid law. And that is why only 2 per cent of adult-themed publications are classified in Australia

However, without proper classification, people make mistakes, and sometimes material that is not appropriate or even legal ends up in petrol stations and milk bars and is easy prey for the morals brigade to make a fuss about. But make no mistake about who is causing this problem. It isn’t magazine distributors. The federal minister responsible for censorship, Bob Debus, needs to order an investigation into what is, in effect, a governmental extortion racket, and implement classification laws and fees that do not put people out of business. The cost of appealing a classification decision needs to be lowered from the prohibitive $8,000 to a level that is affordable. Appellants should be able to argue their cases in a court of law if they disagree with a particular Classification Review Board decision. This is all the more important given that review board members are handpicked by prime ministers

SPECTATOR AUSTRALIA 19 June 2009