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Federal Ministers view a range of videos in their inquiry into lines between video violence and crime; Health Minister discusses mental health, abortion and drugs

ELLEN FANNING: Federal Ministers had a night of video nasties in Canberra yesterday evening. They sat around watching excerpts from a range of popular violent movies, including the film Child's play, the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Pulp fiction and Seven. The Cabinet sub-committee was formed in the wake of the Port Arthur tragedy to review the levels of violence in the media and any links to actual violence.

Well, the Federal Minister for Health, Michael Wooldridge, is on the video violence committee. He joins us in the Canberra studio, and to speak to him, Catherine Job.

CATHERINE JOB: Well, Dr Wooldridge, what did you see last night, exactly, and how did you react to it?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: We saw a range of movies - started off with the Lion king.

CATHERINE JOB: Why the Lion king?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Because it has a G classification and the Film and Censorship Board talked through the issues as to why it had had a G classification. There was one segment of that that had some criticism and that was discussed. And then we moved through different levels of classification up to violent films.

CATHERINE JOB: Had you seen some of these films before?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, with a five-year-old I'd certainly seen the Lion king and some others, so yes, I had.

CATHERINE JOB: Well, did you see anything that surprised you?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Not really. The more interesting thing was to look at the context in which those censorship decisions had been made.

CATHERINE JOB: Okay. So where does the committee go from here, having actually seen some of what's available?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, we'll be working over a number of months. It's under Senator Alston - he's the chair - and there's a range of issues the Prime Minister wishes us to look at and report back.

CATHERINE JOB: You didn't find last night especially disturbing?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: No, not particularly. They were all films that were available to the public.

CATHERINE JOB: But that's been one of the criticisms about the level of violence that is available on video and in arcades and so on. You didn't have a problem with the level of violence you saw last night as being available on general release?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: I was expecting it. And what we saw was more to show us how censorship decisions are made, how classification decisions are made, not to try and shock us.

CATHERINE JOB: While the Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, among others, points out that studies have consistently failed to show any link between video violence and crime, there seems to be a large proportion of the community that has a gut feeling there is a link. What's the status of that gut feeling in the community, and how does the Government respond to it, given the studies show there isn't one?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, I'm perhaps not the best person to ask, but I think the Government should respond on the basis of the best available scientific evidence.

CATHERINE JOB: Not the gut feeling of the majority of people?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, if the scientific evidence is there, I think the Government should respond.

CATHERINE JOB: And if it's not?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, I think there can always be dangers if you make decisions other than on the best available evidence.

CATHERINE JOB: So gut feeling of a majority of people isn't enough to go on?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, there are community standards. That might be different from a gut feeling. There is a community feeling there's too much violence on television, but that may be something you wish to move on because of community standards or community expectations. But if you're going to use linkage, whether it's with mental illness or violence in the community generally, you should do it on the best available evidence.

CATHERINE JOB: Now, mental illness was, of course, the third subject raised by the Prime Minister in the context of Port Arthur, after gun control and video violence. What moves are being made to explore the care of our mentally ill in the context of violence in the community?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, the overwhelming majority of people with a mental illness pose no danger to anybody. The overwhelming majority of deaths related to guns aren't people with mental illness, or not overt diagnosed mental illness. They may be people who are depressed. And there has been a move over the last 18 years or so to get people out of institutions. That's been a move that's been supported by all sides of politics. It largely happened at a State level. State Liberal governments have done it; State Labor governments have done it.

It works if you have the adequate support in the community to help people when you close down these institutions. We have a national mental health strategy. We've got a mid-term review coming up, and we'll be looking at that process as part of that mid-term review, not to put people back into institutions but to say: Are the services and things in the community adequate?

CATHERINE JOB: Well, it's widely held with the welfare section that they're not, and deinstitutionalisation has just been used as a cost-cutting measure. Indeed, the Royal College of Psychiatrists called for a moratorium on psychiatric bed closures in December, saying deinstitutionalisation had gone too far. Do you concur with that?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: I think what they're saying is that it's gone too far in that we're pushing the people out in the community without adequate services, rather than the concept itself is bad. And I think they have a valid point, and that's why we're going to formally look at it as part of this mid-term review. It's no good putting these people in the community if there aren't the psychiatric and community resources to look after them. It's a particular problem in rural and regional areas in Australia. So what they say has validity.

CATHERINE JOB: As the then Human Rights Commissioner, Brian Burdekin, pointed out, along with many others the mentally ill are amongst the worst off and least cared for in our community. Are you prepared to quarantine funds for the mentally ill from your budget cuts?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, in looking at the whole health budget we are going to be fair and we're going to be sensible and trying not to hurt people who are vulnerable or in particular need.

CATHERINE JOB: So it's a no, you're not prepared to give a quarantine.

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Beyond that, you'll have to wait till 20 August. But that gives the general direction of what we're trying to do.

CATHERINE JOB: On a separate matter, the matter of Senator Brian Harradine's Therapeutic Goods Amendment Act. It passed through the Senate yesterday, effectively banning from Australia the abortion pill, the morning after pill.

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, that's quite wrong. I do understand some people in the medical profession have been saying that, but it doesn't do that at all. All it makes is the Minister responsible not able to delegate his or her authority for that, but having to take the authority themselves. The only thing it changes is the process by which those drugs may come into the country.

CATHERINE JOB: Okay. Well, the end of my question was: effectively banning it from Australia without your personal intervention, a stricture that no other drug, as I understand it, is subject to.

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, they are banned at the moment without the delegated authority of the Secretary of the Department of Health.

CATHERINE JOB: It's got to come across your particular desk though, now, hasn't it?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: .... so all it does is change it from the Secretary of the Department of Health to the Minister. And yes, it does single out abortifacient drugs and Senator Harradine's point is that these are a special category of drugs and the Senate agreed with him.

CATHERINE JOB: Why? What's so special about this that it needs a category of its own?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, I think there's a large portion of the community that feels that issues relating to abortion should not be something that the Minister just delegates but that the Minister takes personal responsibility themselves. I've got no difficulty with that.

CATHERINE JOB: Of course most people see it more as keeping Senator Harradine, a well-known committed pro-lifer, onside in the Senate where you need all the numbers you can get, rather than a moral decision about RU486?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Both parties did support this. We had given Senator Harradine an indication that we'd support his amendments last year and there was a strong feeling that our word should be just as good before an election as well as after an election.

CATHERINE JOB: Will we ever see this drug available in Australia?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, that will be looked at on a case-by-case basis. It's available for trials in Australia. It depends on the circumstances. But it's certainly not banning it.

CATHERINE JOB: Dr Wooldridge, thanks for your time.

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Pleasure. Thank you.

ELLEN FANNING: And Catherine Job was speaking this morning to the Federal Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge.