A lot is made in Australian politics of “faceless men”.
While the term refers typically to one side of politics and one feature of that side, the sentiment relies on the fact that we Australians don’t generally like unaccountable, unknown people making decisions about our lives.
We’re a tolerant bunch who have put up with some examples of mediocre government over our shortish national history, but for us to demonstrate this tolerance we seem to require a sense of recognition for who is interfering with our business. This principle is so evident that it’s become possible for one political party to point out in the media that unknowns make decisions in the other as a way to score political points.
While it’s easy to identify this stuff in the top levels of politics, this faceless regulation is evident down through the gnarled branches of statutory “arm’s length” bodies as well. One of the seemingly millions of regulatory services provided by our arm’s length bodies is censorship.
This works in a completely unique manner in Australia; we have more censorship than any country like us, and our approach to it is nothing like that of our peers. While nations around the world divide media into a binary of “suitable for kids” and “suitable for adults”, Australia has a unique additional third category that denotes that something is unsuitable for anyone. This classification, called “refused classification”, is actually the classification board’s refusal to assign a classification such as MA15+ at all. Without a classification, movies and computer games can’t be sold legally here, and if you happen to live in WA or the parts of the Northern Territory where the “Northern Territory intervention” prevails, lack of a classification forbids even possession. Particularly interesting is when we note that there is no adult rating for computer games, because the ratings top out at MA15+ despite the R18+ available for movies.
Because of this, Australia’s censorship board bans a handful of computer games from sale each year that are freely sold elsewhere. Most recent is a remake of the 1993 science fiction thriller Syndicate. In Syndicate, the protagonist owns one of the many private companies that struggle to rule the world, dispatching cyborgs to conduct corporate assassinations. This banning is the latest affirmation of our media caste system where a depiction of a head in a box as in the movie Se7en is fine, and a cardiac injection of adrenaline like in Pulp Fiction is fine, but interactive entertainment that examines a world in 2069 where “the 1 per cent” have acquired machine guns is apparently societally unacceptable.
At least the average Australian game player – an early-30s man or late-20s woman according to industry statistics – can be confident decisions such as these are made by an arm’s length body that represents the length and breadth of Australia, right?
Members of the classification board that banned Syndicate are not politicians per se, but either the Attorney General or the Minister for Home Affairs appointed each of them. They represent everyday Australians in so much as out of the 12 of them almost all are tertiary educated, white, Australian-born members of a range of other boards and community groups. Nine span from their 30s to 50s with only two members in their 20s. Teenagers or older Australians are entirely unrepresented on the board excepting the director who doesn’t disclose his age but admits to two grandchildren. Classifications (or the refusal of one, ie bans), are handed down by panels of as few as three members that the director handpicks from the board under his exclusive powers.
Perhaps in acknowledgement that a likely decision by three middle-aged, university educated community group participants might not have captured every imaginary moral dilemma facing Australian adults, there exists a classification review board. While the review board is designed to review the decisions of the classification board, I would caution against optimism that it corrects things as per the stated aim of appointees being from “a range of backgrounds”. Four of the seven-member classification review board are middle-aged women with arts degrees; of them, three combine it with law. Two have degrees in psychology. There is only one man. All of them have rather extensive community group exposure (like other boards and committees); two even served on the same board (the Young Women’s Christian Association, of which all media-consuming Australians are surely members at least in spirit).
The classification review board is as representative as the classification board it reviews; it is not only faceless but seems to share a mere handful of faces between its 19 members. Regrettably, it seems that handful of people – who most Australians don’t realise exist – reign over a uniquely broken Australian system. Politicians have commissioned current and recently completed reviews of the whole affair, but all reviews were powerless by process or design to affect change. Each great leap forward has been either de-clawed at birth or subject to goalpost shifting when community consensus on what the inquiry should report was upsettingly clear and contrary to the expectations of Australia’s fringest-of-the-fringe lobby groups.
In the short term, decisions as to whether adults may play computer games designed for them will be made by some combination of broadly identical people selected by – and responsible to – politicians. Medium to long term, the role of the Government (and its arms) will slowly become less relevant due to technological advances and the maturation of Australia’s online attitudes. Over time, more and more overseas websites will sell media they shouldn’t to people that shouldn’t be buying it under Australian law. Political attitudes to censorship will continue along the path from which they have never strayed, and thus will continue to diverge from an electorate that never once wrote to a senator for advice regarding whether it’s The Wiggles or Zack and Miri Make a Porno that is ideal for a five-year-old.
A day to look forward to is the day our censorship system and associated boards slip under the waves, and Australian adults can again read, hear and see what they want.