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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 3476

Senator BIRMINGHAM (10:59 AM) —I am pleased to speak on the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts inquiry into the sexualisation of children in the media. In doing so, I am mindful that it is one of several inquiries that I have participated in recently. As Senator McEwen mentioned, one related to the effectiveness of the broadcasting codes of practice and another related to an inquiry conducted by the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs into the Alcohol Toll Reduction Bill 2007.

Each of these inquiries related to issues of culture, issues in our society and very much to issues of individual responsibility. These are great challenges for government and for this parliament to consider in trying to balance individual responsibility, choice and freedom in society with concerns about the direction that our culture may be taking and how we may influence it. The Alcohol Toll Reduction Bill looked at restrictions on alcohol advertising and was very focused on the potential impact of such advertising on young people and their drinking habits, and it is commensurate with the current national debate on binge drinking. The broadcasting codes of practice inquiry looked in particular at the use of language on television, the type of language that young people and children may hear and how that can influence them, and the effectiveness of the broadcasting codes.

The inquiry into the sexualisation of children in the media looked at the very broad issue of how children are sexualised, how they are portrayed, how this influences them as they grow up and at what age they may become sexualised and whether or not that is too early. These are all incredibly complex issues, and the last one has been the most complex of all for us to tackle. The committee found it a challenge to initially define what is meant by ‘child sexualisation’. The report that has been handed down does attempt to do that, borrowing from an overseas task force which looked at this issue, but the community debate about it is wide ranging. The report touches on advertising, on what is shown in the media, on the types of toys that exist and the marketing that surrounds them, and on art—as we saw when the Bill Henson controversy erupted during the course of this inquiry. This issue really is all-encompassing in the modern media environment. With such a complex issue, there were limits to what we could achieve in a relatively short period of time; nonetheless, I think the report does go some way to try to tackle these serious issues.

In particular and most importantly, the report makes a statement to the community at large that this parliament and this Senate take this issue seriously. For that, I recognise Senator Allison in particular. I know that Senator Ronaldson also played a role in helping to establish this inquiry but I note that Senator Allison has driven this for some period of time and I praise her for helping to put it on the national agenda, because making that statement is probably the most important thing we can do. When it comes to changing culture, no amount of regulation and no amount of recommendations by a Senate inquiry will necessarily hit home with the community in achieving that cultural change. Cultural change has to be adopted by the community at large. It requires the whole gamut of people out there—mums, dads, grandparents, advertisers, television executives, others in the media and those who manufacture, market and produce toys—to be mindful of this issue of early childhood sexualisation when they are developing products or making decisions in their day-to-day lives, in their businesses and in their homes.

The committee have attempted, with this report and the other reports, to strike the right balance. It is not in my nature to support tighter restrictions on what people see, hear or think—I believe that, in a free society, people should be able to make free decisions and free choices—nor do I think it is right or, indeed, possible for us in this place or for other groups to define and set community standards, because community standards are an ever-evolving thing. They are changing constantly and it differs from household to household and from person to person as to what people believe is acceptable for them, for their children and for their family circumstances. As such, in this report, as in the other reports, we have very strongly backed self-regulation—self-regulatory approaches and co-regulatory approaches that put the responsibility back on industry, advertisers, marketers and others who make the decisions about what is seen, what is heard, what is marketed and what is sold in society. Some of those systems are not living up to all that they should and these groups need to toughen up their act, get it together and ensure that they better reflect what appears to be, and genuinely is, an increased level of community concern.

As Senator Allison mentioned, I am also mindful of Senator Kemp’s contribution to this report. We have put the broadcasting and advertising industries on notice that this Senate should reconsider this very important issue in 18 months to two years and look at how the recommendations of the report have been adopted and also the proactive approach that should be taken by those who have a collective responsibility in society for such an important issue. This is, in a sense, a warning to industry—a yellow card, to use soccer parlance—that the Senate takes this issue seriously, that the industries need to lift their game and be mindful of this issue and not push the boundaries too far, whether it is in the types of girly magazines that are published, the types of toys that are sold and marketed or the types of images that are shown on television. Industry needs to take responsibility and be ever vigilant and ever mindful and know that this Senate should, if it adopts the report’s recommendations, come back and look at this issue again in time.

Importantly, we have also flagged a review that should be undertaken into the new code of practice in television and advertising relating to children. Senator McEwen mentioned that in her comments. It is a new code that was developed just prior to this inquiry, and its effectiveness and operation need to be considered within 18 months to ensure that it is achieving what those who established it claimed it was set out to achieve—that is, providing a greater level of protection and responsibility.

The importance of alternatives is highlighted strongly in this report, and I back Senator Allison’s strong push for there to be a children’s television channel funded by the ABC. The coalition took that policy to the last election. Senator Conroy has said in estimates hearings that this is part of the triennial funding negotiations for the ABC from next year. I urge the government to adopt this. I think there is very strong community support for this. There are benefits that stem beyond children in having a dedicated children’s channel. There are benefits in Senator Conroy’s own communications portfolio in terms of the uptake of digital technology, which we have seen in the UK. But, most importantly, the ABC providing a dedicated children’s channel is something that could change the lives of parents in the way they protect their children from what they see and hear on television, in the media and in advertising. It would address many of the issues that were covered in both the broadcasting codes of practice inquiry and this inquiry into the sexualisation of media. I note that Senator Bernardi initiated the broadcasting codes of practice inquiry and a dedicated children’s channel. The opportunities that digital TV presents not just for the ABC but also for other free-to-air broadcasters to expand their coverage for children would give parents much more comfort in knowing that there would always be something appropriate for them to consider. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.