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Thursday, 4 October 1984
Page: 1216


Senator DURACK(3.03) —The subject which I put down for debate today as a matter of public importance is one which has been considered in this Senate on a number of occasions in our previous sittings. Indeed, I spoke last on it at the end of those sittings on 14 June when I was particularly concerned that the Government should give a clear indication of its attitude to the proposal for a joint committee on the subject of video censorship which the Senate had passed on my motion on 7 June this year. Because of the extensive debate that has taken place both then and since, I do not propose to speak at any length today on the subject. Rather, I simply bring into focus the matter as it stands at the moment and support my complaint that the Government has failed to respond to the widespread concern about its legislation in respect of this matter.

As I said, I do not propose to speak at length because a number of senators wish to speak on this subject. Within the limited time of two hours available, I think it would be preferable if a number of them were able to speak. Since the last matter of public importance on this subject that I proposed was debated in the Senate on 14 June, there have been quite considerable developments in relation to the subject matter of the concern which I have referred to here and which I referred to before. The situation was that at the time I spoke the Western Australian Government had just announced that it would not allow X-rated video material in its State. Already, the Tasmanian and Queensland governments had indicated their opposition to that. Since the debate on 14 June, the New South Wales Government has made a clear decision to ban such material in New South Wales. At that time, incidentally, the Premier of that State had already indicated his great concern about that matter and more or less foreshadowed the decision which has now been made. He more or less foreshadowed the decision which has now been made.

Only yesterday we had an announcement from the Victorian Government that it proposed, at least for the time being, to ban X-rated material which was one of the major features of the new uniform scheme for the classification of video material generally throughout Australia under an alleged agreement that the Attorney-General had entered into with State Ministers responsible for censorship over a year ago. So that whole scheme has fallen down. The necessary State legislation has not been passed. Indeed, there is very clear opposition to some aspects of it in the States.

The concern that had already been expressed up until 14 June when I last spoke has grown even greater. It was quite clear when we debated this subject during the Autumn sittings that there was growing and widespread concern about it which , as I said, had been expressed by Premier Wran and Premier Burke. That concern had also been expressed by no less a person than the Attorney's own colleague, Senator Susan Ryan, in answer to a question I asked her on 10 May during those sittings. Indeed, it was a concern which was expressed in another place by the Special Minister of State (Mr Young) in response to the proposal from this chamber for the establishment of a joint select committee. His response even then was very different from that of the Attorney-General in this place who, when I proposed the joint select committee on 7 June, said: 'We indicate our opposition to the course proposed'. But only a few hours later in the House of Representatives his colleague Mr Young 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.

Indeed, it did appear that the Government was going to treat this matter with some urgency and that it was recognising the widespread concern in relation to it.

During the parliamentary recess there was an interesting education of many supporters of the Government, particularly Labor back benchers who discovered, after speaking to their constituents and finding out what they felt about the Government's legislation on this subject which was introduced by the Attorney- General by way of regulation and ordinance during the summer months, that there was a very great concern in the community about the effects, particularly the X- rated aspects, of this legislation; so much so that motions were passed in support of the establishment of such a committee at the Caucus meeting on 20 August this year. It looked as though this matter would be brought on very quickly because of the pressure the Government was being put under by members of its own back bench.

There could not be any greater proof of the widespread concern in the community than the expressions that were made at that time by such prominent back benchers as Mrs Elaine Darling, Mrs Ros Kelly and, indeed, I believe Senator Tate who also had something to say. I do not want to go into the details of that; no doubt other senators will. I simply want to emphasise the feeling of urgency and deep concern about the Attorney-General's legislation. The scheme that he allegedly had entered into with the States had not only become a complete shambles but also, as I said, there was great concern about the major features of the legislation within the Government party itself as there was in the community at large.

The Government proceeded in a rather strange way on 24 August in that it did not deal with the message that it had received from this chamber on 7 or 8 June just before the House rose for the winter recess. The House of Representatives did not deal with our message, which would have been the normal procedure to follow. Instead, Mr Young, the Special Minister of State, introduced his own proposal for a joint committee with terms of reference which, incidentally, are broadly acceptable to the Opposition. However, the Opposition would suggest some amendments if it is given the opportunity to debate this matter in the Senate. We would also want to change the membership. The Special Minister of State moved the motion at a very late hour on the Friday afternoon of the first week of the sitting when there was really no opportunity for proper debate in another place. When this fact was pointed out to him he indicated that an early opportunity would be given to have the matter thoroughly debated. Presumably the motion would be passed by the House of Representatives, the Senate would then have the opportunity to deal with it and the Committee could get into business as quickly as possible. It is very interesting to note some of the things that Mr Young said when speaking to his motion. He said:

The Government recognised, at the end of the last sitting of Parliament, a genuine concern on all sides of the House, and in the country, about censorship arrangements as they related to privately owned videocassette recorders.

He went on to say in another part of his speech:

. . . we have identified a number of areas which could be valuably scrutinised by a joint committee, with the object of recommending legislative action should existing provisions for the protection of children and safeguards against the exploitation of women-and for that matter, men-appear inadequate.

He went on to recognise that the wisdom of creating the X-class had been challenged on the ground that it can in practice become accessible to children. He went on to say:

The Government shares this concern, and is most anxious for the Joint Committee to assess it and to recommend reforms if any are needed.

Mr Young gave greater emphasis in the House of Representatives to the views that he had expressed back in June. The situation is that the Government has in fact failed to carry through with the concern that its Special Minister of State expressed. There appeared to be an acceptance of the urgent need for the committee to be set up, that the whole scheme that the Attorney-General had introduced earlier this year should be thoroughly looked at, that community concern should be examined, that the various proposals should be examined and, indeed, that the whole matter should be reviewed and clearly that the legislation should be reviewed and probably reformed.

However, it is perfectly clear that the Attorney-General himself has never shared that concern. I have just mentioned what his reaction was to the proposal back in June. It is very interesting to compare what the Attorney said when he announced the decision of Cabinet and Caucus on 20 August with the words I have just read to the Senate that were used by Mr Young on 24 August. The Attorney is very lukewarm to the whole thing. In fact, he is still very defensive about his legislation despite the shambles that it was in even then. The Attorney, in his Press release of 20 August, said:

There is no reason to believe that the basic principles underlying last years inter-governmental agreement . . . are misconceived or need fundamental revision , but there may well prove to be a need for some tuning of the legislation--

'Some tuning of the legislation'-that is all he thought. No doubt that is what he thinks today despite the views of his colleagues Mr Young, Senator Ryan, Mrs Darling, Mrs Kelly, Senator Tate and, indeed, the whole of the Caucus which supported the establishment of a joint committee.

His lukewarm attitude was revealed again yesterday when he was asked a question by Senator Reid as to what the Government was doing about setting up a committee . Senator Evans replied:

The Government is proceeding with the establishment of the committee. It certainly hopes to have it off and running within the next fortnight or so.

The committee could have been established four months ago, in June. The urgency of it was acknowledged then by Mr Young and again when he introduced his proposals in the House of Representatives on 24 August, which is nearly six weeks ago. All the Attorney is doing is saying: 'We hope to have it off and running within the next fortnight or so'. What a hypocritical stance that is when the dogs are barking. The House of Representatives will be dissolved within the next fortnight or so. The Government will be off and running, not in regard to the establishment of the committee but to its quite unjustified and unnecessary early election. The House of Representatives will not be able to participate in that committee. This is a typical example of stonewalling and stalling by the Attorney-General to satisfy his own ego and his determination that his brain storm scheme which is a total shambles will not be examined by a joint committee as long as he can possibly avoid it.

What could be greater proof of the need for this examination and the need for change than the meeting with the State Ministers responsible for censorship which he organised-I suppose it was another rearguard attempt to stall any further consideration of this matter-which took place in Melbourne last Friday. A statement was issued after the meeting in these terms:

Noted the widespread concern that has been expressed about the existing 'X' category . . . and the present unwillingness of a majority of State Governments to legislate to allow the commercial distribution of such material . . .

Noted further widespread concerns expressed about the extent of permissible violence in existing 'M' and 'R', as well as 'X', classified films . . .

The Ministers decided to investigate the possibility of having a new classification which would be called 'R+' and agreed to meet again in a month's time. So there we see the confession of the guilty people-the people who, over 12 months ago, allegedly agreed on a uniform scheme containing the 'X' certificate. Finally, about 15 months later they recognise that their scheme does not have widespread support; in fact, it has generated widespread concern. They are still fiddling around, trying to salvage the wreckage of their scheme. There is widespread feeling among the Government and its supporters, as well as in the community, that a parliamentary committee should be established. The urgency is apparent to all except the Attorney-General. Therefore the proper thing for this Government to do is to set up that committee without any further delay.