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At least the games industry wins in Abbott's war on 'red tape'

It will be 12 months this week since the Abbott government took office, and only an ungallant bludger too busy carving replicas of Stalin in ivory from a Newstart-funded safari would not pause to applaud the Prime Minister for making good on his promise to deregulate. The Coalition has untangled all sorts of red tape. There’s FoFA, which formerly deadened growth by compelling financial advisers to give advice; the carbon tax, which formerly deadened growth by compelling polluters not to pollute; and our TAFEs and universities, which formerly deadened growth by compelling ordinary people to seek an affordable education.

With hurdles like a materially sustainable future out of the way, we can now all lie down and softly moan as the deregulation engine rolls over us and wait for death. But not, it seems, before the current government has given us an accidental, if slight, moment for approval.

It’s true that what an Abbott neocon might call deregulation, a centrist might call economic brutality and some of what the current government has called “cutting red tape” is, in fact, violence done to checks and balances. But very quietly on Thursday, the Minister for Justice announced the abolition of some actual red tape. And its disappearance is likely to please producers and consumers alike.

When Michael Keenan sent news of reform to the nation’s classification process, the only community to greet it with real interest were games developers and enthusiasts. Kotaku reports the change as a major amendment. Keenan can’t claim responsibility for the commonsense reforms proposed by the Law Reform Commission back in 2012. But, he can, on this occasion, genuinely lay claim to cutting red tape.

(You can read about the reforms here.)

What the minister’s first tranche of changes allow is for games that have undergone upgrades to go straight to market without re-seeking a classification. Which is to say, no arsing around waiting every time a developer has fixed a glitch. Eventually, in my reading, it seems that Keenan intends to allow an online request for classification of a new release, which will be cheaper, faster and make Australian rating information available to parents perhaps even before their issue has climbed on the back of a corpse and searched it for wedding rings. These reforms, say the department’s statement, are the first step in ensuring that regulations remain in line with current market conditions, and bugger me, they do.

“To stop the flow of information in time for a classification board to keep up is as absurd as maintaining the primacy of Foxtel in an age of on-demand viewing.”

Anyone with muscular thumbs or a Steam account will remember the campaign for an R18+ classification for games. Not so long ago in Australia, thanks not only to the antique opinion of South Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson but an antique need for unanimity among attorneys-general when it came to some matters of classification, a grownup couldn’t buy titles like Left 4 Dead 2. The game, which required one to obliterate zombies in a dystopian fantasyland, was considered too “realistic” and so, presumably, was Sexy Poker, which was also refused classification. The Senate finally passed the new R18+ classification in 2012, and not before time for an entertainment form whose average consumer is now well north of 30.

Part of the sluggishness in changing the law had to do with community ignorance most fumblingly uttered by Atkinson. The A-G spoke of “depravity” engendered by games from which, apparently, parents were powerless to protect their children, and recommended that everyone just play nice games on Wii. His was the revulsion of the under-informed. But these first significant changes to games classification had as much owing to a respect for history as they did to a disgust for the future.

Ask Margaret Pomeranz, the late Pasolini or just about any Australian bookseller of the last century about the red tape of Australian classification. Ask Andres Serrano, the proprietors of neighbourhood video stores or James Joyce. (That one always makes me laugh. To ban Ulysses is a bit like making the study of quantum mechanics illegal. Which is to say, for most of us, a prophylaxis against difficulty.)

It is, perhaps, our view of a quarantine that must extend to the culture that saw the first books banned by the Colony of Victoria’s Customs Minister in1889. Although that didn’t explain how we produced, and then quickly banned, the world’s first feature film in 1906. Whatever the case, we had, and until recently have retained, a great fear of the invidious power of books, films and games that is upheld by an agreement of state and federal authorities and unmatched in any Western liberal democracy.

Perhaps this longstanding urge to purge of ours is changing. And not because Tim Wilson is a great guy. And not necessarily because Michael Keenan wants to cut red tape of the cultural kind. And certainly not because “free speech” is necessarily the mark of a just society — there have been plenty of dictatorships where the rights were trammelled but the porn was freely available.

Rather, it is because there is no point in doing anything else. To stop the flow of information in time for a classification board to keep up is as absurd as maintaining the primacy of Foxtel in an age of on-demand viewing. And, while government is considering throwing the biggest reel of red tape at ISPs ever seen in this nation’s history to protect Murdoch’s profits, at least it knows it can’t bind the feet of the games industry.

7 responses to “At least the games industry wins in Abbott's war on 'red tape'

  1. Like an good Australian journo, you indulge three paragraphs of metaphor and suppressed emotion, at the front end of your bit, which have little to do with the point of the rest of the article. At least yours are fun to read. The efforts of others are often not.

  2. Margaret Pomeranz!
    Its funny that you single her out as an anti censorship fighter after she and David flatly refused to review Australian film Wolf Creek 2 and barely gave it a mention. Censorship at its worst and by a publicly funded tv channel.

  3. It’s good that politicians from both sides have finally realised the futility of censorship in this area, but they took their sweet time about it. Brian Harradine came very close to forcing John Howard to impose draconian censorship rules in the late 1990s as a price for allowing Liberal legislation through the federal parliament.

    Also back in the mid-late 1990s a court case in Melbourne established that the censorship law in place at the time regarding films did not actually apply to videos, because video was not a series of pictures, but simply digital data. For about 2 years following that decision, it was legal to sell x-rated videos in Victoria. By chance I ran into a senior politician from the Kennett government and had a conversation with him wherein I explained the futility of reinstating the ban in the fast evolving internet age. He was gobsmacked at what I told and showed him, and said that in light of that he doubted that such items would be recriminalized. Within 12 months though, the Victorian Attorney General of the time, Jan Wade (surely the most incompetent person to have ever held that office) had indeed recriminalized x-rated videos.

    This was a truly pointless exercise, because the law in Victoria has almost always been ignored up to this day, by mutual agreement of the authorities and the retailers, who are all keenly aware that Australians in general want the politicians to stay out of their bedrooms, and their private viewing habits. It is a lesson that silly George Brandis seems to have never learnt.

    Back in the 1990s John Howard was dissuaded from giving Harradine his wishes by the intervention of Howards main advisor of the time, Grahame (Bam) Morris, who sat Howard down in front of a computer and showed him what was freely available to download over the Net. Howard was quite shocked by what he saw, but was also smart enough to realise what it meant for old-time censorship.

    I live in hope that a confidant of, or adviser to, George Brandis sits him down and explains to him how VPNs and proxy servers will completely negate any attempts by him to force ISPs to censor their customers. Sadly, even if they did, based on George’s ludicrous explanation of meta data, I have grave doubts that George would even understand the implications of that information.

  4. Helen

    As the principal author of the ALRC Classification Review, thanks for your nice comments about it. I can say that the desire to put limits on the “urge to purge” in this area, and to wind back a lot of the current controls, is quite bipartisan, at least in the Federal sphere.

    As you rightly observe, this is as much for pragmatic reasons about the impossibility of comprehensively regulating tsunami of media content in convergent environments as it is about J.S. Mill and the Enlightenment. But it is also reflective of key players, such as the games industry, handling the politics of reform pretty well.

  5. They see red when it suits them. Emphasis on the suit. At least it’s not “green tape” this time – that term is like blackboard screeches to me.

    Did you see Campbell Newman flip-flop over Uber? Was it as simple as vested interests? And are the left worried it could be attack on unions? In SoCal, Uber drivesr are affiliating with the Teamsters to ensure their rights.

    A great thing about L4D2 is that people setup the left4gore [dot] com mod to get-around German and Aussie censorship. Get around the crusty old Censorship Zombies. The fourteen year-olds probably love it. Is this how the free market works? Must piss of the neocons.


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