Home » Columns

Outdated state attitudes verge on the obscene

13 March 2010 2,012 views No Comment

KEVIN Rudd’s threat to force “co-operative federalism” on to the states on the issue of health sees him reading the electorate very well.

The PM is keenly aware of how long a memory can last when you’ve been forced to wait for five hours in casualty with a sprained ankle, or how deeply personal the political becomes when you’re forced to endure the grinding pain of a worn-out hip for 12 months before you can get a replacement.

If he hasn’t fiscally hammered the states into an agreement, Rudd may well get his majority of voters in a majority of states, if forced to a referendum. Health issues are deeply personal ones and a lot of people are very upset.

Although it may be hard for Rudd to win a referendum with the opposition advocating a “no” vote, this one could be different. The 1967 referendum, on whether discriminatory references to Aborigines in the Australian Constitution should be removed, was overwhelmingly supported for a number of reasons. One of these was that, at the time, discrimination against Aborigines offended the deeply held views of many Australians. This was unlike, for example, the question of whether we want Australia to be a republic, or whether we have a queen or a president, which for most people is still about politics and is not all that deeply felt.

The states still retain some deeply divisive and outdated attitudes that are at least partly responsible for the present crisis in health care. These attitudes also help form the basis of their enforceable moral codes that differ markedly from state to state.

The fact is that each state still retains a sense of public morality that is different from the other states, and also often different from the commonwealth. How a state-based morality can somehow be different from an Australian morality is beyond most people’s reasoning, especially those who have come to this country in recent years.

To say that people living in the Commonwealth of Australia can embody quite different sets of moral values is, on one level, nonsense. In fact, when migrants come to this country and want to become Australian citizens, they are asked to put away the moral and political values of their home countries and adopt ours.

Yet when they move from state to state, say from Victoria to Queensland or South Australia, they are faced with different moral values enshrined in legislation.

State and commonwealth laws undermine each other on a range of moral and ethical issues.

Laws relating to pornography, prostitution, public nudity, obscenity and abortion, for example, are the canaries in the coalmine when it comes to state v commonwealth legislation and that of other states.

Thus our art galleries are subject to classification and obscenity laws, which are disparate and contradictory from state to state. When well-known Western Australian artist Jeremy Holton entered a clothed portrait of his wife, entitled The Sweetest Smile, in a local art exhibition in Perth a few weeks ago, he was shocked to be told that the piece was “pornographic” and had been removed. The local gallery owner claimed she was upholding moral standards. In a state well known for its tolerance of illegal brothels over the past 100 years, it seems that public art exhibitions are a different matter in the west.

A few years ago internationally recognised photographer Karron Bridges had her depiction of ghostly themes in brothels censored and withdrawn from Kalgoorlie’s Goldfields Art Centre. The work had already been exhibited at the Sydney Opera House without incident but, surrounded by actual brothels in Kalgoorlie, it was suddenly unacceptable to the “reasonable adult” in Western Australia.

In Victoria if you want to run an ad for a legal brothel it has to be a specific size and cannot include an ad for sex workers or even ancillary staff. It can only contain head and shoulders images of people. No problem advertising cars and soft drinks with semi-naked bodies in Victoria, though.

In Victoria and NSW, brothel owners have to inform the authorities if they go overseas and how much money they are taking. Remarkably, in Queensland, brothel owners must report to the authorities if they “alter their appearance”, for example grow a beard or shave one off!

In South Australia, Tasmania and WA, prostitution is banned altogether.

Under commonwealth law it’s legal to bring an X-rated film into Australia and to possess it in any state. They are also legal to sell in the ACT and the Northern Territory, but in most states you can go to jail for selling them.

In Queensland it’s illegal to sell a category-one magazine that is available from a newsagent in all other states and territories. Yet under the commonwealth intervention it is illegal to even possess one of these magazines in parts of the Territory. These magazines were said by John Howard to “fuel sexual assaults”, but this law only seems to apply only if you’re black and living in an Aboriginal community!

In all states it is legal to sell category-two restricted magazines from adult shops, except in WA and Tasmania, where minors can sell them from newsagents, as long as they covered by a curtain. This strange law acts like a metaphor for the “old times” when lace-curtain coverings were used to stop prying eyes. It’s certainly not relevant in this techno age.

R-rated films are legal to sell and display anywhere except in SA, which is more old-fashioned than the other states in this regard and where the frilly curtain rule has to be applied.

State laws on burlesque and tabletop dancing are so different and bizarre it’s as though aliens created them.

In NSW you used to have to order food to watch erotic dancers but now there is “a defined space” rule where there must always be a certain distance between the dancer and the audience. However an audience member may touch a dancers’ thigh, but only to place a tip in her garter. The dancer cannot touch an audience member.

In Queensland a dancer can touch the audience but can only be touched above her waist. Yet in Victoria any non-violent touching is allowed by an audience member or dancer.

In a similar confused way, abortion is illegal in Queensland and NSW without a doctor’s consent, yet is legal and semi-legal in other jurisdictions.

But the real benchmark for state lunacy surely concerns the age of consent. You would think that with so much emphasis in the media these days concerning so-called “pornography” and the “sexualisation” of children, the states would simply create one age of consent that involved all consenting sexual activity. This would make understanding the law easier and to make enforcement more efficient. Not even a recommendation from the state and commonwealth attorneys-general in 1999 that the states all adopt a common age of consent has been implemented.

Just as there was a need to standardise our rail gauges throughout the country, surely the time has well and truly come to standardise our nation’s moral laws and to give co-operative federalism a new and proper meaning.