Prime Minister John Howard used last night’s webcast to Christian groups across the country to announce a $190 million “crackdown” on p-rnography, terrorists and child s-x predators online.

When politicians equate p-rnography with terrorism and child abuse, you know they aren’t approaching the matter soberly. The “think of the children” mindset is a powerful drug.

P-rnography is consensual and legal. Terrorism and child abuse are reprehensible violent crimes. From a public policy perspective they require two distinct approaches.

Terrorism and child abuse require strong police action – trying to compel internet chat room to “detect” child predators is a remarkably feeble defence against child abuse. Chat room operators lack the expertise and resources to detect possible future illegal activity. It is, after all, the role of government to protect people from harm, not the role of private companies.

Anti-terrorism should also be the focus of law enforcement, not communications regulators and ISPs. The government has been telegraphing this announcement for some time.

After hearing that a school child had been suspended for downloading p-rnography onto his 3G phone, Communications Minister Helen Coonan last year condemned the technology as “pipelines for p-rversion”. Unsurprisingly, yesterday’s Telstra results show a dramatic increase in 3G phone sales.

But until today, the Liberal Party had been much more sensible about online p-rnography than the Labor Party. In the 2004 election, the relatively measured approach adopted by the Coalition contrasted well with Mark Latham’s ambitious and misguided SafetyOnline filtering program.

Now ISPs are going to be compelled to offer consumers a “family friendly” broadband package, which will filter out sites that do not meet the approval of the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Such ISP-level filtering will be powerless against pornography distribution over peer-to-peer networks, chat sites or even email. Teenagers eager to get their hands on some p-rn will not be at all deterred.

For this reason, parents have to bear the primary responsibility for monitoring their children’s online activity. They already have a remarkable array of tools to do so. Many internet service providers already offer their customers free or subsidised content filters as part of their broadband package.

Terrorism and child abuse are the responsibility of governments, but monitoring the exposure of children to p-rnography should be the responsibility of parents and guardians.

It appears that online content regulation is another example of the general jettisoning of good public policy that has characterised the government’s last twelve months.