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Thursday, 14 June 1984
Page: 3043

Senator MASON(4.17) —Mr Acting Deputy President, I think it appropriate that the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) be mildly rebuked for the line he took at the beginning of his speech, which I thought was not terribly much to the point. It seems such a pity that a middle-aged man of such accomplishments as the Attorney-General should indulge himself in that kind of rhetoric, which I do not think got anywhere.

Senator Durack and I have crossed swords on this matter before but I concede him the point that this is an important matter in the community. He perceives that and the Australian Democrats perceive it as well. That is why the Australian Democrats supported the establishment of the Committee that the Opposition has proposed. I think that Committee has a very big task ahead of it and that the Australian community might have considerable expectations of it. Whether it can fulfil those expectations is another matter, as I shall shortly mention again.

I recall that when I spoke in our last lengthy debate on this topic, which concerned whether the current apparatus controlling X-rated videotapes should or should not be disallowed by regulations and an Australian Capital Territory ordinance, I made the comment that whatever the outcome of that issue, the whole question of R and X-rated videotapes must remain a matter of continuing debate in the society. I believe the matter is one which must closely concern the community at large and I think family people particularly would agree that it is something that certainly concerns them. I think they have a right to have some control over what children of tender ages are exposed to in the community.

Unfortunately, there has been evidence in other countries and, indeed, in Australia that children, by their very nature, tend to want to do things that they are not supposed to do. For example, they may be forbidden to look at a particular brown paper wrapped videotape which mum or dad brings home to show at 11 o'clock at night after the kids have gone to bed. When mum and dad go to work the next day if the children can get their friends together, get the tape out and put on the video machine, they will do so. I think that is a very real point of human nature which perhaps escapes the attention of lawyers of the eminence of the Attorney-General but which needs to be taken into account.

As I said, this is something that closely concerns the community at large. In decent societies, electorally speaking, such as those in California and Switzerland, such matters can be put to referendum through an initiative by the citizens. This is certainly one of those issues that the Australian Democrats would like to see put to referendum in Australia so that the community itself could make an input. As honourable senators may know, I have a Bill before the Senate which allows citizens' initiative in Australia in line with the Swiss or Californian model. This would mean that if any issue-indeed, it could be the one we are discussing today-attracted a petition of a quarter of a million signatures, that matter would have to be put to a referendum of all Australian voters together with other matters brought forward that year. A referendum would have to be held, as is the case in California, on a set day each year.

In other words, if enough people felt strongly on this matter of X rated videotapes and the standards that ought to apply to get together a quarter of a million of their fellow Australians to put their signatures on a petition to either House of Parliament, that matter would be brought forward to referendum and the results of the vote of the Australian people would become the law. I strongly recommend to the Government that it give more serious consideration to this as a means by which this sort of issue particularly could be considered by the Australian people.

These issues, in a sense, are too big for parliaments. This has been shown time and time again. I suggest that issues such as this one, abortion control and marihuana control are being ducked out of by parliaments year in and year out because they do not want to stand the electoral flak of a decision one way or another. It is proper and reasonable that an appropriate vehicle should be provided to the community itself so that it can take an initiative and then decide what it wants to do. I conclude that point by saying that I know that honourable senators will be delighted to know that with every week that passes I get more and more letters on that matter of citizens' initiative. It is steadily gaining in public knowledge and support and it will continue to do so as long as I am in this place or as long as there is an Australian Democrat in this place. The issue we are debating today is clearly that kind of community issue in relation to which this extension of democracy to the people could be used.

Much energy has been expended by some people who ought to know better in an attempt to obfuscate the earlier Senate debate on this issue. I think it is worthwhile looking briefly at what we actually have now, at what has been achieved. The Democrats have been properly concerned for some time about the whole area of imported videotapes. We decided quite early that we wanted to get some changes. We went through the operation of moving disallowance of the existing regulations so that the Government would make concessions. Indeed, it did so, at the point of the gun we pointed at it. I will deal with that a little later. Of course, the very extreme material which is now causing so much concern throughout Australia came into Australia under those old regulations which, had we disallowed the new ones, would have come back into operation. Those old regulations had proved to be imprecise and unworkable. To allow them to replace the new ones would have only renewed a situation that those worried about this matter would have least of all desired. Is that simply my opinion? I suggest not . I shall quote from an editorial in the Canberra Times of 4 June which addresses this point directly. It refers to the attempts by Mrs Bev Cains, the Family Team member of the House of Assembly, to get the regulations and the ordinance disallowed. I agree that Mrs Cains is probably sincere in this matter, although I think, as I have said, and as this editorial in fact says, that she was not pointing her gun in the right direction and may well have caused a situation which, had it come about, she would have deplored. The Canberra Times editorial states:

The real problem is not the scheme itself, as Mrs Cains might think, but its enforcement. Mrs Cains has rightly drawn attention to the laxity of enforcement of the law with respect to children. If she succeeds in getting the law better enforced, she is to be applauded. But if she had succeeded in getting the ordinance disallowed the result would have been quite the reverse of her intention. It would have resulted in a return to the old law and all the uncertainties about what is obscene and the legal difficulty for the prosecution in proving its case. Prosecution is easier under the new law because it avoids the complicated issue of proving obscenity with the rating. The offence is simply hiring a video of that rating to a child. With a decent amount of will on the part of enforcement authorities the protection of children under the new law should be easier.

I agree with the Canberra Times. The Government should do everything it can to see that the regulations as they stand now are enforced and are enforceable. The Canberra Times editorial continues:

Any attempt to ban video movies that would attract an X rating would be fruitless. They would be brought in, hired under the counter and screened in private houses with very little prospect of anyone being caught. It is better to recognise that fact, and have a system which gives an incentive to importers to get their movies rated legally so that the really evil ones, depicting child- pornography and incitement to terrorism, can be weeded out.

The vast majority in the community takes X-rated movies for what they are worth -boring, badly made junk of little or no artistic merit. None the less there is a question of balance. On one side are the questions of whether violence on video leads to violence in life, whether most pornography demeans the role of women, and the protection of women.

The editorial concerns the Australian Capital Territory ordinance. The Customs regulation applies to the whole of Australia. The Government has accepted the Democrats amendments to the Customs regulation applying to the admission of the material to any part of Australia. It has been changed in two important particulars. First, it prohibits entirely the entry of any material which depicts considerable violence or cruelty. During my discussions with the Attorney-General I made the point that the Democrats would have preferred even the word 'considerable' to have been omitted from the regulation. However, the Democrats eventually accepted the Attorney-General's view that the definition would effectively exclude significant violence but, at the same time, it would not seek to impose a ludicrous ban on what might be termed 'slapstick'. I took the Attorney-General's point there because it is bad law which cannot be enforced because of its extremism. We would have been in trouble again had we adopted such an approach.

The second change in that regulation-it is a very important change which I think needs to be listened to carefully by anybody in Australia who is interested in this matter-prohibits 'explicit and gratuitous depictions in pictorial form of sexual violence against non-consenting persons'. As the regulation stands now and as it is being enforced, it effectively bans from Australia any material which concerns itself with rape or any other sexual violence shown as being forced on an unwilling victim. So the Canberra Times in its editorial, with respect to it, missed that point. It did not appreciate at the time it wrote that editorial that it was no longer the case that X-rated material which gratuitously dwells on both sex and violence could enter this country.

Another important change has been made-the Attorney-General has mentioned it-to the Australian Capital Territory ordinance. Classification-indeed I suppose in popular parlance one might call it censorship-of X-rated and R-rated material, which was to have been purely voluntarily originally, is now compulsory. That is the second change the Democrats insisted upon which the Attorney-General and the Government agreed to in the end. If people want to sell this material or hire it out they cannot now choose whether they want it classified; it must be classified. The worst material cannot be classified at all. That means it will be illegal to sell or hire material that is not classified, with appropriate penalties. The Democrats are supporting the committee. This matter should be one of continuing debate in society. The level at which this material is not acceptable, in the broad opinion of the Australian people, is a very hard point to decide on. The key point at which the majority of people in Australia say that the material ought not to be sold at all is very difficult to determine. This has to be a matter of guidelines which are accepted and publicly discussed and which are, as I have said, a matter of community consensus-not pushed by an excessively libertarian point of view on one side or an excessively sensorial point of view on the other side. I think it is very much in the interests of the Australian people that that should happen.

That takes me back to the comment I made earlier. The Democrats wonder whether the committee will be able to fulfil the expectations that the Australian people have of it. I doubt that it will because I do not think this is a matter on which any committee could come to any sensible conclusions. If there is anything at all on which we should have community consensus it is this. Here again, without even the opportunity of initiative, I think it is something the Government ought to consider at some time putting to a referendum. I think the Australian people would appreciate something as important as this being put to a referendum in view of some of the trivia that has been put to them in referenda in the past. This is something on which I think everybody would have a view, which everybody would like to see settled.

It is probable, if it were settled by a referendum, that the Australian people, and the extremists on both sides, would be much more inclined to accept the decision of their peers, of the people at large, than they would the decision of any government. If any government makes the decision one side or the other will argue with it. I suggest to the Attorney-General, who I see is no longer in the chamber-I have no doubt that he is away somewhere smartening up the Government's action on its business-that that is something the Government might consider. This is a matter which is serious enough to be decided by the Australian people themselves. It affects every family and the standards on which we think our children should be brought up. What could be more important to people than that?

I do not propose to canvass the motion extensively. I agree that it is important. I agree about the need for the committee. The Democrats have already indicated their support for the Opposition on the need for the committee. I tend to think that Senator Evans had a point when he complained mildly and said that the Federal Government had not acted precipitately in this matter. We have had a lot of debate on this matter. A lot of changes have been very slowly and with the utmost difficulty wrung out of the Government. I think it is hardly a precipitate action. To say that it is precipitate action tends to prejudge the issue. I would prefer to think that this debate is part of a continuing process and that there will be no basic end or solution to this matter until the people themselves have established what material most people do not want any risk whatsoever of being available and accessible to their children.