Classification And Internet Censorship As An Election Issue

When was the last time someone went to jail in Australia for a censorship crime? 1870? 1926? 1947?

Try… May 2010.

That’s right. In May of this year, the NSW Labor government sent a 40-year-old gay adult-shop owner to jail for selling non-violent, erotic X-rated films. He has just been released and from all reports is a broken man.

Make no mistake about what really happened here. This man went to jail for selling films that had been classified by a federal Labor government as legal to sell, legal to purchase and legal to possess at a Commonwealth level. They were legal to bring into the country through Customs in Sydney and they were legal tender in western democracies around the world. But in the moral backwater that Australia has become since the mid 1980s, politicians are in our bedrooms like never before. The religious right have quietly transformed this once free nation into a country of censors and moral puritans.

Last week a 40-year-old Sydney woman who ran an adult shop in Sydney’s southern suburbs was hauled before a magistrate and fined $5000 for selling adult films that were legal at a federal level and was told by the magistrate that if she was convicted again she would immediately go to jail. This happened in a state where the Police Commissioner is a regular Hillsong Church worshipper and who recently ordered bibles to be printed with NSW Police monograms on them. Whatever happened to the notion of separation of church and state in Australia?

Last month, Australia’s largest producer of non violent erotica, a Gen Y Melbourne website operator called, was convicted and fined for making X rated films by a state Labor government. He used Gen Y models who often filmed themselves in their own homes and many of these 18 -25 year old men and women received visits from the police in trying to convict the website operator. Rather than wait around for a jail sentence on a second offence and for proceeds of ‘crime’ legislation to bankrupt him, he packed up his entire business and staff and migrated to the Netherlands where his business is perfectly legal.

A couple of months ago the federal Labor government changed the Customs regulations to force people to declare whether they had any ‘pornography’ when returning to Australia. It didn’t matter if the material was legal. If you had anything that could possibly fit the definition of ‘pornography’ such as a Playboy magazine, a lesbian journal, a photo of your partner naked or, worse still, an image of the two of you making love on a mobile or a laptop, you had to declare it or risk prosecution. Customs officers now have the right to search your browsing history and iPhoto for the catch-all reason of investigating ‘pornography’.

Suddenly the tide has turned. Morals groups and religious bigots have infiltrated both the Labor and Liberal parties to such a degree that they are now jailing people for censorship crimes and forcing companies to leave the country. Even the Greens have chosen not to make an issue of this increasingly alarming situation.

It is against this backdrop of the most sinister censorship regime in years, that the federal Labor government has launched its new internet filtering regime and now an equally sinister online data retention proposal. Although the Coalition have hedged their bets on these proposals they unequivocally back the moral agenda behind them even more than Labor. The Greens, through Scott Ludlam, have strenuously and publicly opposed these on line proposals but have done nothing to address the creeping censorship that underpins these crazy schemes. The fact that they preselected Clive Hamilton, the architect of the government’s online filtering proposals, to contest the by election for the seat that Peter Costello vacated in December last year, meant that they were, at best, confused about their approaches to censorship in general.

It was this sudden faltering of the Greens on the issue that caused me to run against them in that election. In the Higgins by election, the Labor, Coalition and Greens candidates all backed an internet filtering scheme and only the Sex Party stood against it. To understand the real intent and nature of the internet filtering scheme requires an understanding of how the Christian right has infiltrated politics in Australia and how they deal with Labor, the Coalition and the Greens.

Internet filtering and changes to the Classification scheme in Australia cannot be isolated from the incredible power that religious and morals groups now have in Australian politics. The most telling statistic about this is that 38 per cent of federal parliamentarians are members of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship. This means they get down on their knees to pray before each day’s parliament opens, they go to church at least once a week and they read the bible at home, say grace before meals and bring their children up to be the same. In the last census, only 9 per cent of Australians professed religiosity to this degree. Which means that politicians with a strong religious agenda are four times more likely to show up in the federal parliament than they are at the local shopping centre, night club or footy game. And they are guaranteed to be in all political parties except the Secular Party and the Sex Party.

Internet filtering, data retention schemes, bans on R-rated and X-rated computer games and on X-rated (non-violent erotic) films will continue in this country as long as politicians who support the ideals of political parties like Family First and lobby groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, are in such numbers in our parliaments.

Not only can you now go to jail for breaking moral censorship codes, but if you disagree with them and try to prove your point in an official forum, you are now hit with charges that only multinational companies can afford. At present if an amateur film maker wants to appeal against a classification that the government has applied to their film, it will cost $8000 to do that. In fact the federal government has issued a draft paper that will see that fee raised to $10,000 later this year. We have just seen the makers of a zany zombie film have it banned from an independent film festival in Melbourne because the Classification Board was of the opinion that the film would have been higher than an R-rating. Why this should stop film makers from screening their films to a sympathetic audience of like-minded buffs is another matter again but the point is that if the film maker wanted to test the ‘assumption’ that the film would be X or RC it would have cost them perhaps as much as it cost to make the film for an appeal. Will websites that have been blocked by the government’s filter be expected to pay $10,000 if they want to appeal those decisions? If the government changes the fee for review for a website, they will have to change it for all other media as well. This would be a small mercy at least and something that the Sex Party has been calling for. It simply wouldn’t make sense to keep the appeal fee for a film, computer game or publication at $10,000 but allow appeals for websites that could easily feature the same content, at a different rate.

Who makes these stupid rules anyway and why? Public opinion is clearly not part of the equation. Since 1988 the adult industry has conducted 10 professionally run public opinion polls with reputable pollsters like Roy Morgan, Newspoll and AC Neilson. In every one they found that an average of 75 per cent of the population in all states wanted to see X-rated films legal and properly regulated. But instead, governments are now sending people to jail for acting in accord with this public opinion.

So what makes anyone feel comfortable about the sanctions that a Liberal or Labor government would put around breaches of online censorship laws? Labor governments are already sending people to jail and bankrupting their businesses for selling X rated films in the real world so why would you trust Stephen Conroy to not apply these same sanctions to people doing the same thing online after the election? On an SBS Insight program last year I managed to extract a promise from Conroy that he would not include legal X rated films in the filter. Program host Jenny Brockie commented that we appeared to be witnessing a new policy being announced and since then the Minister has maintained that only RC or Refused Classification material will be caught up. But can you believe someone from a party that sends people to jail for selling legal erotica? Can you believe someone who is so influenced by the church that he gave the Australian Christian Lobby a special briefing on how and why he would postpone the internet filter without talking to any other stakeholder? No.

Stephen Conroy has announced that he will review the RC classification after the election as part of instituting his internet filter. This will be fascinating. If this means that some material that is currently rated RC (R-rated and X-rated computer games, most adult websites, drug use sites, euthanasia sites, etc) will have to be allowed in one of the other categories, then this will require a change to the whole classification scheme. Something that the Sex Party has been constantly lobbying for. This scheme is broken beyond repair. Notwithstanding the anomalies in the system that I have outlined above, classification is now seen as a joke by those in the entertainment and information sectors. The best example of just how ‘broke’ is that the government now says that if you have a nude drawing or picture on your business card it is said to be (in the jargon) a ’submittable publication’ and if you don’t send it in to be classified you are committing a crime. If you do send it in you are charged $500 for someone to look at it for five seconds and classify it. How utterly unfair and ridiculous. George Orwell would turn in his grave.

The Liberals are no better in this respect and in others they are worse. In 2006, the Liberal government signed off on the first draft of a new Online Content Services Bill which handed down two year jail sentences and $200,000 fines for anyone in Australia who uploaded X rated or above content to a website anywhere in the world. You just had to based in Australia and seen to be in some way authorising or facilitating adult content onto the world wide web and you were done. Fortunately that first draft was leaked to me and soon I had engaged a number of large publishing houses in Australia who do quite well from adult content, as well as mainstream material. We formed a punchy little business-based lobby group. Within about six weeks it was put to the Howard government that they would have millions of emails going out amongst the online community saying vote NO for the Liberals at the 2007 election. That electoral threat was successful in getting them to remove these appalling penalties. The only proviso was that the deal remain secret until after the election as the Liberal’s partner in the Coalition, the National Party, would have tried to reinstate the penalties if they found out. Can you believe that these political parties are so inept and so out of touch?

The Liberals agree with the concept of filtering but just disagree over the technology that Labor is using to do it. The Greens disagree with internet filtering through their spokesperson Senator Scott Ludlam, yet they still pre selected the architect of the government’s internet filter to run against me in the Higgins by election last year. The Sex Party appears to be the only party in this election with a policy on censorship that is uniform in message and uniform across all mediums. It says that there are very few things in society that need to be officially censored and that the internet is not just another technology but is in fact a living breathing community of minds. It represents a more radical shift in human consciousness than the development of stone axes, the taming of fire or the industrial revolution. It is a revolution in consciousness in its own right and political parties who seek to censor parts of it might as well try and put physical gags in people’s mouths and actual blindfolds on them.

The Sex Party and the Secular Party are in this election with policies to stop the underlying causes of censorship and to deal with specific problems where they bubble up to the surface. The Greens deal with censorship problems only as they rise up in the public arena. Still laudable but they could do much more. Censorship is not really a priority for them.The Democrats are philosophically on side. All other parties and most independents running in this election have no interest in censorship issues or actively support more online and offline censorship.

If you’re sick of the nanny state at this election – you know what to do.

Fiona Patten has over 20 years experience in the adult goods and services industry as a lobbyist and advocate. She has been the CEO of Australia’s national adult retail and entertainment industry association – the Eros Association – since 1992. In 2008 she launched the Australian Sex Party in an attempt to win Senate and state Upper House seats and to challenge the balance of power positions that Steve Fielding’s Family First and the Rev Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats, currently hold.

She started her career as an AIDS educator with ACT sex workers through the local advocacy group, WISE. Since then she has held positions on the Board of the AIDS Action Council, AFAO, ACT Attorney General’s Sex Industry Consultative Group and the National Sex Worker organisation the Scarlet Alliance.

In 2007 she was a consultant to Foxtel’s Showtime, advising on the making of the brothel industry program, Satisfaction. In 2002 she was a regular sexual health commentator on Channel 10’s Beauty and the Beast.

Her work frequently sees her meeting with state and federal Ministers over a range of adult industry issues from immigration to censorship.

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