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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 3406

Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield) (16:36): I am pleased to rise to speak on the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (R 18+ Computer Games) Bill 2012, which, as you are aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, establishes the R18+ classification for computer games under the Broadcasting Services Act. The need for this bill arises because today there is no such classification, anomalously, for video games even though there is such a classification for many other forms of content, including television, movies, magazines and so on. In effect, when it comes to video games, there is a missing rung in the ladder which exists in the case of other forms of content, and that has created a problem. Indeed, it is interesting to reflect that what we have seen here is the law of unintended consequences in operation. There was not originally an R18+ rating for computer games, I understand, because of concern about the nature of this medium and the kind of material that people might be exposed to and therefore a degree of conservatism was exercised in comparing video games to other media. As my colleague has just articulately explained, that has led, in effect, to the unintended consequence that a measure which was designed to produce greater protection, particularly to children, has ended up producing less protection. Something that all legislators could reflect on from time to time is the way that such unintended consequences can emerge.

In the brief time that I have available to me, I would like to make three points. Firstly, this bill will provide better information and better protection to members of the Australian community as they consider their entertainment choices; secondly, there is strong public support for the bill; and, thirdly, the need for policy action in this area is consistent with the broader degree of public concern in relation to online content, which the coalition is addressing through having established the Online Safety Working Group. Let me turn to the first point, which is that this bill will achieve an outcome of better informing and better protecting Australian consumers as they consider their entertainment options. This measure was supported nationally at a meeting of state and territory attorneys-general last year. The key issue which the bill addresses is the problem that, because of the missing rung, the consequence in effect is that many games, which in other jurisdictions are classified so that they cannot be seen or are not supposed to be seen by people under the age of 18, end up attracting an MA15+ classification in Australia. The reason for that, of course, is the regulator has only one option available to it right now in respect of video games if it reaches the conclusion that those games contain content which raises serious issues as to the suitability of that content for children and young people. The only option today, should the regulator decide that the game does not merit a classification of MA15+, is to refuse classification. Clearly, to refuse classification means that the relevant game is not available to Australian consumers at all, whether or not those consumers have children in their household, and it denies adults the opportunity to make a choice which they ought to have available to them. So clearly it is highly problematic that there is a missing rung in the ladder, and it is therefore sensible to establish in the classification framework for video games a rung in the ladder which is analogous to that which is available for the classification of content in other media.

As we have heard, one of the unintended consequences of the current regulatory arrangements is that games which in other countries are rated the equivalent of R18+—that is to say, they are given a rating such that they are not available to be sold to those under the age of 18—in Australia have, in a number of circumstances, been rated MA15+ either in the version which in other countries is rated such that it can be seen only by those over the age of 18 or with very minor modifications. As you heard from the previous speaker, a number of games fall into this category. He and I have spent many happy hours together playing Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto IV and The House of the Dead: Overkill—which is one of my personal favourites. We did say to ourselves as we were doing this that we were somewhat surprised that it was rated MA15+. It seemed to us, not having completed the OFLC classification training, that it was surprising that the version that we were playing was not rated R18+. I should say that in our household we have a number of games which are played enthusiastically by one teenage member. While I cannot say I have spent a lot of time playing those games myself, I have seen enough of them to recognise that there is a significant issue here as to how classification should be carried out. The animation quality of these games is quite extraordinarily high, the devices that people are playing them on in their homes have very high resolution, and the classification issues that are raised are every bit as material, significant and real as in other media—movies, for example.

The important point which must also not be forgotten here is the importance of ensuring that adults are free to make choices about the media they wish to consume. As has been pointed out in this debate, gaming is a very popular activity for adults. Adults should be free to choose to see content which they consider meets their entertainment needs, and it would be very unfortunate if the regulatory arrangements were such that, because of the absence of an appropriate rung in the classification ladder, content which adults may wish to see is in effect denied them because the regulator does not have a sufficiently finely graded set of tools such that the regulator can grant a rating of R18+ so that appropriate protection is afforded to children—those under the age of 18—but at the same time the product is available for consumption by those over the age of 18 who have made the choice as an adult to do that.

I do emphasise that the coalition does not support censorship. What we do support, as a very strong principle, a principle of the highest importance, is that consumers are fully informed as to the content of the material that they are going to be seeing or interacting with and that they are therefore able to make a fully informed decision as to whether they will consume a particular product and whether they will acquire and play a particular game, just as they should be able to make a fully informed decision as to whether, if they go to see a particular movie, it is going to have content of the kind that they are expecting or content of a kind that may come as a surprise.

I think that is a principle that is well accepted and understood in the Australian community, which brings me to the second point, which is that there is clearly strong public support for the establishment of an R18+ classification for computer games. The Attorney-General's Department has advised that when it released a discussion paper on this topic it received 54,000 submissions, 98 per cent of which supported the introduction of an R18+ category. There has been extensive consultation on this issue, the public have had a wide opportunity to express their views and there has been wide interest in this issue. The expression of views is strongly supportive of the principle that consumers should be fully informed as to the content of games or other media that they are going to be consuming and consistent with the principle that the establishment of an R18+ classification makes good sense because the absence of that classification, as has been explained to the House by a number of speakers, has led to some unintended and undesirable consequences, including material being given an MA15+ rating when, on a more considered view, it probably ought to have been given an R18+ rating and, alternatively, material which ought to be available to adults to make a choice to consume should they wish to do so, not being available to them under the current classification arrangements.

This bill demonstrates the importance of sound public policy settings in relation to the availability of content through a whole range of channels, including online channels, to consumers. Internet and online technologies are changing our world comprehensively, and the challenge for regulators is to keep up with those changes. I referred earlier to the extraordinary quality of the computer graphics and the high resolution of these games and the extraordinary improvement in the quality of the devices that people are able to view and play these games on and the wide range of locations in which they are able to do so—not just in the home but on a portable device, on a portable computer and so on.

These are issues on which the parliament, the government and the regulatory system in this area must be continually vigilant. The coalition strongly believes in that as a principle, and that is why we have established an Online Safety Working Group, exploring the whole question of content in the online world and particularly how to ensure the safe delivery of content for people under the age of 18. We have focused in our work on protecting children, particularly on ensuring that parents, schools and others with responsibility to care for children have available to them the tools to ensure that those in their care are adequately protected and are not using the internet, online channels, to engage with material which may be inappropriate. Providing informative and comprehensive ratings of games is one very important way to give effect to that principle.

In evidence that the Online Safety Working Group has received already, we have learned about the pervasiveness of the consumption of games amongst people under the age of 18—as well as, of course, amongst adults. The policy issues that raises are significant, and clearly one of those issues is ensuring that parents, who typically—not exclusively, but typically—will be making a consumption decision in relation to games for their children, particularly their younger children, are well informed and are able to assess very readily the suitability of the product for their child.

One of the issues when it comes to online consumption, online activity, by children is that it is often the case that children are better informed about the devices, the products and the tools, than their parents are. A complication in this area is that everything is converging, so devices like the Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox are not just gaming devices but also internet access devices. Many parents do not have a very clear idea of the capabilities of these devices, just as many parents, I would suggest, may not fully appreciate that when they give their 10- or 11-year-old a WiFi-enabled iPod—and the research I have conducted suggests that that was the Christmas present du jour in the Christmas just gone—they are giving their children, including 10- and 11-year-olds, unfettered access to the internet and everything that it has to offer, good and bad.

So the challenge for regulators and governments in this area will be a continuing one. In the case of gaming and in the case of the internet more broadly, these technologies offer many benefits: tremendous entertainment, which is enormously engaging and very professionally delivered, and a tremendous resource to access information and to engage in e-commerce, telemedicine, distance education and all of these good things. But, just as the roads are very useful facilities but we need to take proper care to ensure public safety on the roads, we also need to ensure that we take proper care for public safety when it comes to the internet and when it comes, amongst other things, to the gaming world. So the legislation that is before the House this afternoon has the coalition's full support, because we believe it achieves the objective of delivering better informed consumers and protecting those who appropriately need to be protected.