It’s been a week of mostly depressing news, so the story of an anti-graffiti stunt gone wrong in Canberra has come as welcome light relief.

Steve Pratt, the colorful Liberal MLA whose resume includes army officer, aid worker and alleged spy, apparently spent four hours last weekend removing what he claimed was unsightly graffiti from a cemetery wall in the Canberra suburb of Woden.

Alas, it turned out to be commissioned artwork paid for by a local sporting club. ACT police are now investigating, and Pratt faces possible charges of vandalism.

Particularly unfortunate, since the federal arts minister had just signed a funding partnership with the ACT government, emphasising “sustainable, community-related cultural development.” Makes it difficult to get community-based art going if some joker’s going to come along and scrub it off.

Still, it’s a mistake anyone could make (although there is dispute as to whether Pratt was told beforehand). An immediate apology and offer of compensation probably would have stifled the story. The interesting thing is Pratt’s reaction.

Instead of apologising, he defended his actions, saying the graffiti was in “an inappropriate place” and “the community does not want that stuff there.”

The other day it was underage drinking, this time it’s graffiti, but in each case the logic of puritanism is the same. Illicit pleasure is the problem, not its results, so it’s entirely consistent for Pratt not to care whether the property owner wanted the graffiti there or not. Consent is no defence: if anything, it makes things worse by diffusing responsibility.

For the puritans, the real enemy is not the harm caused by drugs, graffiti, p*rn or whatever, but the fact that people are using them for pleasure. Prohibition is designed first of all to send a message that personal pleasure (which they label “hedonism” or “self-indulgence”) is a bad thing.

What most people care about with graffiti is not having their walls defaced. But what the puritans care about is that young people might be having fun.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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