Despite the departure of Howard-era Attorney-General’s Secretary Robert Cornall last year, it appears the dead hand of Phillip Ruddock still grips free speech in Australia — with some help from South Australia’s Attorney-General.

Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus, who operates within the A-G’s portfolio, has responsibility for censorship and classification matters. His predecessor in this role was of course Phillip Ruddock, who mounted one of the most persistent and successful campaigns against the basic rights of Australians in decades as part of the Howard Government’s national security state agenda and its predilection for moral panics.

One thing Ruddock rarely did, however, was intervene in relation to the regular workings of the Classification Board. The list of his applications for reviews of decisions dating back to 2002 shows that, while Ruddock inflicted severe damage on free speech on several high profile occasions — successfully seeking the banning of Philip Nitzschke’s Peaceful Pill Handbook in early 2007, Islamic books in 2006, the Contents Under Pressure and GTA computer games, the film Baise Moi in 2002 — he rarely applied to the OFLC to overturn film classification decisions and when he did it was usually by referring a complaint from South Australian Attorney-General and censorship enthusiast Michael Atkinson.

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The Commonwealth Attorney-General is required to forward applications for reviews from State Attorneys-General to the Classification Review Board. Atkinson is a strong Christian and a product of the right-wing SDA union in South Australia, led there by hardline Catholic Don Farrell, now installed in the Senate.

Last year, Debus asked the Classification Review Board to review four Japanese anime p-rn films, which revelled in unsubtle titles like Bondage Mansion and Holy V-rgins (the delight Western p-rnographers seem to take in devising droll names for their product doesn’t seem to have reached Japan).

The films had already been classified R 18+ but, following media attention, Debus used his power as relevant Minister to seek a review, which decided to ban Holy V-rgins and leave the rest with the same classifications. Stephen Blanks of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, who participated as an Interested Party in the review opposite the Australian Family Association, told Crikey that, in essence, Holy V-rgins had been banned because one of the female characters was shorter than the others, suggesting child s-x.

Debus’s office defends the review process as being part of a robust and effective classification system.

While hentai may not be everyone’s cup of green tea, Debus also asked the Board in January to review its classification of Charlie Wilson’s War, which had come and gone from cinemas long before then. This time, it wasn’t Debus who initiated the application, however — it was Atkinson, again.

Although the really objectionable part of the film was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s moustache, the Board decided to amend its consumer advice to include reference to some “partial nudity” spotted early in the film. Universal Pictures, which distributed the film, will have to amend the DVD cover to ensure the consumer advice is correct.

Blanks also pointed out that Debus had managed little progress on reversing some of the Howard Government’s more extreme censorship positions. While the attempt to establish an R 18+ classification for adult computer games foundered on Atkinson’s opposition last year, the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (Censorship) did agree last March to enable academics and other legitimate researchers to access RC (Refused Classification) material under appropriate circumstances.

This requirement arose as a consequence of Ruddock’s successful attempts to have several Islamic books banned on the basis that they promoted violence, halting the work of Melbourne academics who were actually using the works in research on terrorism.

A spokeswoman for Debus said a SCAG working group was developing model provisions to implement the agreement, which would be discussed with academics. They are likely to go to the second SCAG censorship meeting this year, which will be in November. The earliest the provisions could become law is therefore 2010.

Veteran adult industry lobbyist Robbie Swan of the Eros Foundation says he has found the Rudd Government more difficult to deal with than its predecessor on the issue of better regulation of interstate trade in p-rnography via a national X rating. The Foundation has been unable to secure a meeting with Debus and was brushed off in its attempts to persuade the Government of the virtues of a national X classification.

What intrigues Swan is that this represents a significant turnaround from Debus’s period as NSW Attorney-General, when he was supportive of the Foundation’s efforts to push the issue via a private member’s bill in the NSW Parliament. The bill was ultimately blocked by then-Premier Bob Carr despite strong support from female Labor MPs.

“At least we were able to get in to meet with the Coalition,” said Swan. “We had two meetings with Ruddock and we met with Mal Brough on the NT intervention issues. We can’t get in to see Debus and Jenny Macklin wasn’t interested in evidence about the ban on p-rnography in the NT.”

But no one is under any illusions where the overall tone of the Government is being set from: the strongly-religious Prime Minister.


Every Wednesday, Crikey Editor Jonathan Green and Crikey’s Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane will talk the week’s events in the national capital.

Visit the podcast page on our website at 4pm AEST to download or listen.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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