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Thursday, 14 June 1984
Page: 3034

Senator DURACK(3.37) —Mr President, you have read aloud the matter of public importance that I put down for debate this afternoon so I do not propose to delay the Senate by re-reading the matter. I appreciate the fact that it is a subject to which the Senate has given a lot of attention during the session. I raise the matter for further consideration because of the total inability of the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) to understand the nature of the problem. Despite the extensive debates on the subject in this chamber in recent weeks he still reveals an inability to understand the extent of community concern about the availability of X-rated video material.

The Attorney-General has given a very unsatisfactory response to the proposal to establish a joint committee of the Parliament to consider the problem. He seems to have completely misunderstood the matter and to have misled the Senate about the extent to which the States are prepared to go along with the new dawn of his complementary Federal-State legislation which, when this matter was first debated in this chamber some weeks ago, I described as a shambles. What has happened in recent weeks, of course, confirms that statement and emphasises the even greater shambles into which the Attorney-General's whole new scheme has fallen. I do not think it is necessary to emphasise the degree and extent of the concern in the community in regard to this situation.

As a result of the new legislation which the Attorney-General introduced on 1 February amending regulations and ordinances-I do not need to go over them again -there has been a virtual explosion of video material available in this country. People are acting on the basis that that legislative change of a State and Federal nature is in force. Of course, it is not in force. Distributors, importers and others have been acquiring this material and making it available. Indeed, I think it could be said that the floodgates have been opened. Over the months of February, March, April, May and now June it has become quite clear that there is a very grave fear in the community about what has happened and whether this will be the general situation in Australia.

One of the first people to express concern about the subject was none other than Mr Wran, the Premier of New South Wales and President of the Australian Labor Party. Admittedly, he expressed this concern when he intended to have an early election. The New South Wales Women's Advisory Council expressed concern to Mr Wran as early as February this year, I am referring to comments made by Mr Wran which were reported in the Sydney Morning Herald of 20 February this year. The article stated that Mr Wran's comments 'followed a meeting . . . with members of the Women's Advisory Council which argued strongly against any NSW legislation that allowed the sale or hire of videos depicting sexual exploitation or humiliation of women'. Mr Wran said that his concern was about films showing things such as pack rape and extreme violence. The article went on :

The Premier, Mr Wran, said yesterday that despite the Government's commitment to non-censorship, ''there are certain things that are beyond the pale''.

. . . .

But Mr Wran made it clear yesterday that the New South Wales Government would act independently if it thought the restrictions imposed in other States were not sufficiently strong.

Here we had Mr Wran, back in February this year-admittedly, he had an early election in mind-giving very clear expression to a concern which has mounted dramatically in recent weeks. The latest position is that the New South Wales Parliament, I think fairly recently, passed a motion of a Labor member of parliament acknowledging the powers of the Commonwealth Government in respect of video movies being brought into the country but calling on the New South Wales Government to examine closely the type and nature of certain classes of such movies becoming available under an X-rating with a view to action being taken to protect women and children from exploitation.

Here we had the Premier of New South Wales, one of the key States in regard to complementary legislation, expressing the same concern as is being expressed throughout the whole of Australia. I mention that simply to emphasise the nature of the problem. The Attorney-General, despite the amount of community concern and despite the debates we have had in this chamber on a number of occasions, persists in going on with his own plans as though nothing has happened. Certainly there have been some amendments to his plans-I will come back to these later in my speech. Nevertheless, the fact is that nothing that the Attorney- General has done, nothing that has been done in the States, has in any way allayed that very widespread concern. It is absolutely incumbent upon us in the Senate, even though this is a late stage of the sitting-after this sitting the Parliament will not be sitting again for some weeks-again to emphasise the problem. We need to do so because, as I said, the Attorney-General and this Government seem to be totally unable to do anything about the situation. Last week, before the House of Representatives rose for the winter recess of some weeks-until 21 August-I proposed to the Senate that a joint committee, consisting of members from both this chamber and the other place, be established . The proposal states:

(1) That a Joint Select Committee be appointed to-

(a) examine the extent to which video tapes and discs containing pornographic, violent, or obscene material are available:

That refers by and large to those which are to be given an X-rating. It continues:

(b) examine the extent to which children under the age of 18 years obtain access and are exposed to such material;

(c) investigate the effectiveness of legislative controls upon the availability of such material;

It is quite clear that it is a most important task to examine the nature of the legislative controls and the degree of such controls, particularly in the States . It continues:

(d) examine the likely effects upon people of exposure to such material and particularly upon children and emotionally disturbed persons; and

(e) examine the extent to which advances in technology might affect consideration of public policy in relation to such material.

We co-operated with the Government on this matter. We did not debate the matter last week because we felt it had been pretty fully debated. As other legislative matters needed to be considered, we did not want to take up any further time of the Senate. So we co-operated with the Government in putting that through without debate. But the response of Senator Evans was very discouraging indeed. He made this statement:

. . . I indicate formally that the Government does not accept that a full scale joint select committee inquiry of the kind here proposed is either necessary or desirable at this stage.

He went on:

We indicate our opposition to the course proposed.

That is what the Attorney-General said. The proposal was a positive proposal to do something about the community concern, about which there can be no doubt. It was intended to do something about the inadequacies of the Government's legislation, with which it has backed and filled, already amended twice and may do so again. The proposal sought to do something about the problems arising from the absence of any complementary State legislation. It was a positive proposal which the Attorney-General simply spurned. However, the motion was agreed to last week because the Australian Democrats supported it. They do not seem to be supporting it here today-they seem to be opposed to it being discussed again today-but last week they supported it. Of course, a few weeks before that, they sold out on their own motion. There are no Australian Democrats in the chamber at the moment, but last week they were happy to support the motion; so the proposal went to the other place. There, the Special Minister of State, Mr Young , took a somewhat different attitude. I have just read what the Attorney-General said. But a few hours later his colleague in another place said:

. . . the Government is very sympathetic to the proposal now that we have a joint committee to look at these matters. . . . The matter will be treated with some urgency by the Government.

What does this Government believe? The responsible Minister in this chamber wrote off the proposal; yet within a few hours his colleague in another place was saying that the Government would give urgent and sympathetic consideration to it. We are entitled to know the Government's view. We are not prepared to wait until 21 August before something is done and for the Government to give us its view on such an important proposal, supported by the Senate only a few days ago. In view of the great concern about this matter by people including a number of State Premiers, it is certainly a matter of major public importance and urgency today. The Government should clearly indicate what it intends to do about the problem and our proposal for a joint committee to monitor the problem. The Government agrees, despite its legislation which is in a shambles, that the problem needs to be monitored. In fact last week the Attorney-General indicated that he agreed that some monitoring process was required. His colleague the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator Ryan, who is the Minister assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women, made it very clear, in answer to a question I asked her several weeks ago, that she is very sensitive to this problem. She is very concerned about it and believes very strongly that the new legislation needs to be closely monitored.

Let us turn to the state of play with this legislation. As I have said, on 1 February the Attorney-General rushed in, in his usual headlong bull-at-the-gate fashion, with new legislation which he no doubt believed would establish a new complementary Federal and State system of laws and regulations to control the problem. The legislation was to introduce a new X-rating. Very little was to be intercepted at Customs barriers. Instructions would be given to Customs officers to let most material in. Under those regulations the Film Censorship Board was to be very much hamstrung in what it could ban completely. The message out from the Attorney-General and the Federal Government was more or less that all constraints were off and people could see, hear and read what they liked in their own homes, with X-rated videos freely available. That may not actually have been the wording of the legislation, although the drafters of it had done their best to convey that. The Attorney-General can say that it can be interpreted in different ways. But the fact is that the message from the Attorney-General, and presumably the Hawke Government-although Ministers are now saying other things, or seeming to-was clearly that in future there would not be any controls for private viewing of what in many cases is highly offensive material.

As I said, one of the first people to express grave concern about that was the Premier of New South Wales. I have quoted what he said. The most recent expression of concern is very interesting. The Labor Premier of Western Australia, Mr Burke, and his Minister responsible for this matter, announced last week, on 7 June, that Western Australia would not permit any X-rating in that State from 1 September. He said there would be an absolute prohibition on any X-rated material in Western Australia.

Senator Walters —I thought it was only the Festival of Light that was protesting !

Senator DURACK —This is part of the complementary scheme. It has been completely banned in Western Australia. The Western Australian Minister for Administrative Services, Mr Dans, is quoted in a news release as follows:

Mr Dans said he would not be surprised if the Western Australian Government's decision to ban X-rated movies hastened a review at national level of whether such material should continue to be so readily available throughout Australia.

We know already that the Queensland Government has said that it will not have a bar of this sort of thing. The Tasmanian Government has said that it will not have a bar of this sort of thing. Mr Wran has made all sorts of promises in his election campaign that he will not do anything that will create any degradation or humiliation of women. Three States have said no absolutely. One can bet one's bottom dollar that New South Wales will not be in the scheme after what has been said by the Premier of that State and the commitments he has already made. He would not dare to repudiate those commitments on which he has been elected, unlike what the Hawke Labor Government has done. Mr Wran made that quite clear in the New South Wales Parliament only a week or so ago. I understand there was a debate in that chamber in which no New South Wales Minister defended anything to do with this scheme. They know what a hot political problem it is. They will not touch it. I have read that the Labor Victorian Government was supposed to be coming into the scheme and has passed some interim legislation. I read somewhere that the Attorney-General in Victoria was to introduce some complementary legislation. But will he do so now? Will he do so in the light of what the Premier of Western Australia has said and done and what South Australia has said and done?

As I have said from the word go in this debate, the schemes of the Attorney- General, the Hawke Labor Government's plans, are now in a complete shambles. We have the worst of all worlds. We have the relaxing of controls at the Federal level because it was thought that there would be adequate controls at the State level, forgetting the amount of the X-rated video material. Such was the nature of the scheme that is now in complete disarray. It is a complete shambles. The Western Australian Minister is saying that he would not be surprised if there were to be a review of the whole scheme. I am sure that there will be such a review; there certainly should be. The Attorney-General and this Government should think again about this whole problem.

The Opposition believes-and the Democrats have supported this-that the proper course to take is to set up a joint parliamentary committee. Unfortunately, we cannot do so now. Time has been lost. The House of Representatives has adjourned . At least the Government could say: 'Yes, we will support the setting up of such committee'. The Attorney-General could at least give some support for what his colleague Mr Young has said. Then at least we could leave this chamber for the winter recess with some hope for the future, with some assurance that an adequate response will be made by the Government to tackling this widespread problem, to allaying this widespread concern. The Government should abandon the policies of the Attorney-General, which are in total shambles and disarray.