I can’t remember the last time there was any good news for the New South Wales Labor Party. Today is no exception, with one of its senior parliamentarians — Amanda Fazio, president of the Legislative Council — being suspended from caucus  yesterday and facing possible expulsion for crossing the floor to vote with the Greens on Tuesday evening on an amendment to censorship legislation.

It’s necessary to provide some background (which of course you won’t find in this morning’s media) to understand why the NSW government’s actions are so appalling. in the 1980s, Commonwealth and state Attorneys-General agreed on a new scheme of film censorship under which violent p-rnography and other extreme material would be prohibited, or “refused classification” (RC), but there would be a new category — the X rating — to allow non-violent erotica. The states, however, in thrall to their religious fundamentalists, ratted on the deal and banned the sale of X-rated videos, which remained legal only in the ACT and the Northern Territory.

This prohibition is so far out of step with community standards that most of the time, at least in Sydney and Melbourne, it has been only sporadically enforced; X-rated videos have been sold in adult shops fairly openly. But of course the owners of such shops remain in legal jeopardy, and unscrupulous police and prosecutors have a powerful weapon of intimidation.

Now New South Wales is tilting the balance even further in favor of the fundamentalists and against freedom of speech by effectively giving the police power to make their own classifications. If videos have not already been classified, the police can simply proceed on the basis of their opinion that they would be rated X or RC. A defendant can dispute that decision and get them officially classified, but only at the risk of having to pay the costs of doing so — several hundred dollars per title — if they lose out in court. A moderately-sized library of adult videos (and don’t forget, we’re talking about everyday non-violent s-x) could bankrupt a business.

The Greens in the upper house moved to delete this provision, and Fazio, alone among the other parties, supported them (the Hansard debate is here: right at the end). According to the Sydney Morning Herald, she is the first Labor MP to cross the floor in NSW for 23 years.

But spare a thought in all this for the Liberal Party, almost certain to form the next government in NSW. It has none of Labor’s excuses.

The Liberals have no binding caucus; none of their members could be threatened with expulsion for crossing the floor. They are not in government, and have no reason to do the government any favours by backing its legislation. Facing an election in five months, they might not unreasonably have thought it worthwhile to be building some bridges with the Greens. And even failing any of that, they might have remembered their party’s name, or its founding principles, which are supposed to promote personal freedom and the rights of the individual.

But no. Labor at least had one defector who was prepared to stand up for basic liberties and willing to pay the price. The Liberals had none.

Peter Fray

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