Bi-partisanship is rare in modern politics but on the failure of our film and literature classification system to serve the interests of children and parents, both sides are in furious agreement.
Before the election Opposition Leader Tony Abbott told an ACL web-cast audience that the classification system was “broken”.
And in a pre-election video interview with ACL’s Managing Director Jim Wallace, Prime Minister Julia Gillard responded to community concerns about the sexualisation of children saying that “there’s work to do on classifications and content” and that there would be a review in the light of the “new media environment”.
She went on to say: “I think that’s an appropriate approach, so we know that we’re dealing with classifications properly across all media and are live to this issue, about what it means to young people and what it means to children.”
The Gillard Government has made good on this promise with the Attorney General Robert McClelland tasking the Australian Law Reform Commission to review the National Classification System and report back by January 2012.
So broken is the classification system that there are five recent and on-going Government, parliamentary and Senate Inquires into problems with the system.
These do not count two Senate Inquires held during the Rudd Government’s tenure examining the sexualisation of children in the contemporary media and advertising standards.
The ALRC review is in addition to these and will examine each as it seeks to develop recommendations for a “new or reformed classification system”.
This is why the Justice Minister Brendan O’Conner’s decision this week to propose the introduction of new forms of extreme sex and violence in computer games is difficult to understand.
The extent of the brokenness of the classification system was revealed last year when the Classification Board and later the Classification Review Board granted an R18+ classification to the film Salo, a film with a long history of being refused classification because among other things it contains scenes of ‘simulated paedophilia’.
Sexual abuse of minors is prohibited by the guidelines but this did not stop the board going against their own rules to give Salo the green light.
In Senate Estimates last year, the Director of the Classification Board, Donald McDonald justified the decision saying ‘simulated paedophilia could be acceptable in the context of a particular film’.
It is against this disturbing backdrop of failure that O’Conner released draft guidelines recommending that an R18+ classification for computer games be introduced largely mirroring those of the flouted film guidelines.
There has been long agreement in Australian politics that computer games should be treated differently to film because of the repetitious and interactive nature of the medium.
The logic of this, supported by a strong body of academic research, was that extreme violence and gratuitous sexual content in an interactive medium was harmful and would inevitably fall into the hands of children.
But under sustained pressure from commercial gaming interests and extreme civil libertarians, O’Conner is flying in the face of the community concern about too much sex and violence in all forms of media which drove the establishment of the ALRC review.
Apart from a minor qualification in relation to violence, the draft R18+ computer games classification guidelines apply exactly the same standards for the classifiable elements of R18+ films to R18+ games.
This means for the very first time, computer games with sexual activity that may be ‘realistically simulated’, and games with ‘virtually’ no restrictions on language and the treatment of themes such as racism and suicide, would be legal in Australia.
What Australian parent would want an interactive, repetitious computer game on the market that contained simulated paedophilia?
Despite talk that the new guidelines might seek to tighten the existing MA15+ guidelines, the liberalisation of the upper end of the classification range demolishes the often-cited myth that the introduction of an R18+ category for computer games would protect children by merely relocating miss-classified MA15+ games to a new R18+ category.
The claim that the primary objective of an R18+ rating was to take nasties out of the hands of children by removing them from the MA15+ category might have had more validity had the new draft R18+ guidelines simply mirrored the existing MA15+ guidelines, but instead games with a higher impact than previously allowed would become legal in Australia.
O’Conner wants State and Territory censorship ministers to sign off on his new guidelines in July, seven months before the ALRC, whose brief is to also consider computer games, is to report.
With US research showing that children there regularly play ‘adult games’, nobody can honestly claim that placing an ‘R’ on the package will prevent Australian children from also accessing such material.
It is time to drop the pretence that an R18+ classification for computer games is a child protection measure.
The Gillard Government is doing a great job standing up to the interest of ‘Big Tobacco’ in the fight for plain packaging and against powerful poker machine interests in the quest for gambling reform.
It should take a similar stand on behalf of children and parents against the lucrative computer game industry.
O’Conner’s guidelines are out of step with community concern on classification and he should at least wait until the ALRC hands down its recommendations for fixing the system.