Censorship and Classification in Australia

Current Issues

Censorship and Classification in Australia

E-Brief: Online Only issued 19 October 2001

Kim Jackson, Analysis and Policy
Social Policy Group


Australia's censorship system is often the subject of controversy. In recent years there has been debate over the classification of films such as Hannibal, Lolita and Romance, as well as the proposal to replace the 'X' category with 'NVE' (non-violent erotica) and the introduction of Internet censorship. There have also been recent changes to the censorship legislation and a review of the classification guidelines is currently being undertaken.

This brief describes the major features of the Australian censorship system, as well as providing access to a range of relevant web sites and documents.

Background to the Current Censorship System

Under the Constitution the Commonwealth Government has the power to make laws with regard to telecommunications (including broadcasting) and imported material, but not locally produced matter. The latter is under the jurisdiction of the State governments. Censorship provisions have thus varied according to the nature of the material (TV, film, print etc.) and the state or territory. A Commonwealth Film Censorship Board was first established under the provisions of the Customs Act in 1917. In 1949 Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania signed agreements with the Commonwealth to delegate their film censorship powers and functions to the Commonwealth. The other States eventually followed suit.

By the early 1980s the Film Censorship Board had the following roles:

  • examination of imported films and video tapes under Customs regulations;
  • registering and classifying films and videotapes for public exhibition on behalf of the States/Territories in accordance with their legislation;
  • classifying imported television programs and certain locally produced television programs on behalf of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT) and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Programs produced by commercial television stations were classified by themselves in accordance with the Television Program Standards administered by the ABT.

Publications remained the responsibility of the States, which generally operated voluntary classification schemes (ie. there was no requirement to have all printed matter classified before publication). Instead, restrictions were applied to the display or sale of 'adult' publications (whether classified or not) to ensure that children did not have access to them.

In July 1983 a meeting of Commonwealth and State Ministers was convened to pursue proposals for a uniform classification scheme for publications and videotapes. The Ministers agreed on a voluntary scheme for the classification of videotapes, with the classification being the responsibility of the Film Censorship Board. Each State and territory would introduce legislation based on a model ACT Ordinance. Five classification categories would be provided for: G (General), PG (Parental Guidance), M (Mature), R (Restricted) and X.

Queensland and Tasmania had indicated at the July 1983 meeting that X classified material would not be accepted in their States. In 1984 the remaining States followed suit, so that by 1985 only the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory allowed the sale or hire of X-rated material.

In September 1984 a meeting of State and Commonwealth censorship ministers foreshadowed stronger controls on videos after acknowledging widespread concern about X-rated material and the level of violence in the M and R categories. At this stage X-rated videos could contain some limited depictions of violence, although most portrayed only explicit sex. The meeting also considered the possibility of introducing a new category for non-violent erotica. In October 1984 another meeting of censorship Ministers agreed to stricter controls on violence in the M and R categories and the replacement of the X category with a new category for non-violent erotica, although Queensland and Tasmania did not support this proposal. In November 1984 changes were made to the Film Censorship Board's guidelines to exclude any suggestion of coercion or non-consent from the X category.

In April 1988 the Report of the Joint Select Committee on Video Material was tabled. The Committee was split on non-party lines with varying majorities for individual recommendations. It recommended a new category to be called non-violent erotica (NVE) to replace the X category. It noted that many people were under the misapprehension that X videos contained violence, child pornography and bestiality. It also recommended a tighter interpretation of the guidelines by the Film Censorship Board to reduce the level of violence in all categories. It should be noted that while six of the eleven members of the Committee voted for a NVE category, only five voted in favour of transferring the existing X-rated material to the new category.

In June 1988 a meeting of Commonwealth and State censorship ministers rejected the NVE recommendation, with the States unanimously supporting the ending of the X category (ie. that X-rated material should be refused classification). However, in November 1988 the ALP Caucus voted not to accept this move.

Commonwealth Policy and Legislation

In May 1990 the Attorney-General, Mr Michael Duffy, referred the censorship legislation to the Australian Law Reform Commission, which reported the following year. The report, Censorship Procedure, made numerous recommendations, including draft legislation. This formed the basis of the Commonwealth Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, which provided for the new system. The Act contained a single National Classification Code which had been negotiated between the Commonwealth and the States. The Code sets out the principles to be followed in classification decisions and the general criteria for the various classification categories (G, MA, R, X etc.). The Act took effect on 1 January 1996 at the same time as supporting State legislation came into force.

A paper by the Attorney-General, the Hon. D. R. Williams AM QC, From Censorship to Classification provides a good description of the development of the national system and of Commonwealth censorship policy.

Recent Amendments

The Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment Bill (No.2) 1999 introduced into Parliament on the 8 December 1999 would have removed the 'X' classification for films and videos and create a new classification - 'NVE' (Non-violent Erotica). The Bill was referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee to determine the reasons for the change and its possible effects. The Committee reported in April 2000 and its report is available from the Committee's home page. The Committee recommended that the Bill be passed without amendment.

In May 2000 the Government abandoned the NVE proposal, amending the Bill so that the 'X' classification would be retained. The Attorney-General issued a news release announcing the change of policy. The Bill, which also contained a number of procedural and technical amendments, was passed on 1 March 2001. A statement by the Attorney-General explaining the changes introduced by the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment Act (No.1) 2001 is available from this page.

A detailed page on the NVE issue has been prepared by Irene Graham, a civil liberties activist opposed to censorship. The page contains arguments, links to related documents and Internet resources.

State and Territory Legislation

Under the scheme the enforcement of classification decisions is the responsibility of the States and Territories, some of which have also reserved certain censorship powers. The relevant State and Territory legislation is as follows:

The Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC)

The Office of Film and Literature Classification was established in 1988 to incorporate the following:

  • the Film Censorship Board; and
  • the literature censorship function and the censorship policy role from the Attorney-General's Department.

Under the provisions of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, the Film Censorship Board was replaced by the Classification Board. This body is responsible for the classification of films, videos, publications and computer games according to criteria set out in the National Classification Code (part of the Act) and the Classification Guidelines which are approved by the Commonwealth, State and Territory Ministers responsible for censorship.

The National Classification Code is contained in a schedule to the Classification Act. It sets out the principles to be followed in classification decisions and the general criteria for the various classification categories (G, MA, R, X etc.).

There are separate Classification Guidelines for film and video, publications and computer games. These can be accessed from this OFLC page. The Guidelines contain detailed criteria for each classification category. On 24 August 2001 the State, Territory and Commonwealth censorship Ministers announced a review of the classification guidelines. A Discussion Paper prepared by the OFLC is available from this page.

The OFLC web site also provides access to the Annual Reports of the Office and to a searchable classification database.

Community Assessment Panels

In December 1996 the Government announced that it would establish Community Assessment Panels to ensure that classification decisions reflected community standards. The scheme involves three Panels, each of around twenty people of varying age and background, who view and classify a selection of films that have already been classified by the OFLC. The Attorney-General announced an extension of the scheme in January 1999.

Broadcasting Content Regulation

The regulation of program material on radio and television is a Commonwealth responsibility undertaken through the provisions of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. Under Part 9 of the Act the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) must determine standards relating to programs for children and the Australian content of programs. Standards relating to other matters are the subject of Codes of Practice developed by the commercial broadcasting industry groups and approved by the ABA. The Codes of Practice must adhere to the criteria set out in section 123 of the Act. These stipulate that the Codes:

  • take into account community attitudes with regard to violence, sex, offensive language, drugs and the vilification of particular groups;
  • apply the film classification system administered by the Classification Board and ensure that films classified as M or MA are shown only at designated times.

The ABA is responsible for investigating and reporting on complaints regarding breaches of the Codes of Practice and other licence conditions. The ABA Internet site has pages with information on:

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) are also obliged to develop Codes or Practice under their own enabling legislation. Complaints about breaches of their Codes can also be made to the ABA. If the ABA finds that a complaint was justified, it can direct the ABC or SBS to comply with the Code or to take other action such as an apology or retraction. The Codes of Practice for the national broadcasters can be found at the following pages:

Internet Content Regulation

The legislative basis for the regulatory regime for online content is the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Act 1999. This legislation was preceded by a number of reports from the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) and parliamentary committees. A good description of this background, together with access to the reports, can be found at this ABA page.

The ABA is responsible for administering the Commonwealth's Internet censorship regime. The Authority's web page Internet content regulation provides an overview of the scheme, together with details on :

  • the complaints mechanism under the scheme;
  • community education programs;
  • research studies on online service regulation, attitudes to the Internet, and technological developments;
  • Internet Codes of Practice;
  • information about the scheme for Internet Service Providers and Internet hosts; and
  • international liaison on Internet content regulation.

Parliamentary Committee Reports

A number of Parliamentary Committees have published reports on censorship issues in recent years. The following reports are available online.

From the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee:

From the Senate Select Committee on Information Technologies:

From the former Senate Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Electronic Technologies:

  • Report on Regulation of Computer Online Services Part 2 (November 1995)
  • Report on Regulation of Computer Online Services Part 3 (June 1997)

Interest Groups

There is a substantial body of material online produced by individuals and interest groups opposed to censorship, particularly of the Internet. The principal Australian sites in this category are:

The Eros Foundation represents the Australian adult goods and services industry. Its web site contains some statistics and a list of around four hundred members of the Foundation (mostly retail organisations).

Young Media Australia is a non-profit organisation with the objective of promoting a "quality media environment for Australian children". Its web site provides access to a range of materials on the impact of the media on children and possible regulatory responses.

For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to Members of Parliament.

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