The Classification Review is now underway, with the first committee hearing taking place last Friday. Said hearing didn't discuss the R18+ issue directly, as a result of the upcoming SCAG meeting in July, but plenty of anti-R18+ campaigners, including Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby, were in attendance and commented directly on broader issues of classification.
Lyle Shelton, who represented the Australian Christian Lobby at the hearing, was typically aggressive in his approach - his statements peppered with the language we've come to expect from the ACL.
"At present the contemporary media environment is toxic for children; as the PM notes, especially for girls," claimed Shelton. "This is because our classification system is a failure. Like big tobacco before it, commercial vested interests will beg to differ with family groups, child advocates and the academic research which shows their products are harmful to children. How many more government inquiries will there be before action is taken?"
This was similar to Lyle Shelton's previous arguments with regards to the R18+ rating, claiming that "commercial interests" were being prioritised over the needs of children. Again, Lyle Shelton did not refer to any research specifically, preferring to speak in broader, emotive terms.
Later he addressed the concept of self regulation in Classification, with regards to advertising. Brendan O'Connor previously stated that some kind of self regulation may be advisable when it came to video games, but Shelton and the ACL staunchly disagreed with the concept, calling it a "'Dracula in charge of the blood bank' approach".
Incredibly, he also openly questioned the ability of parents to regulate the media usage of their own children.
"Parents, however, do not distinguish between the complex rules governing media content, whether it is film, literature, television, mobile phones, the internet, computer games or outdoor advertising, he claimed. "Parents just see the relentless mainstreaming of violence and sex pushed by vested commercial interests thumbing their noses at the standards of civil society."
Elizabeth Handsley has previously spoken out against the introduction of an R18+ rating for video games. She agreed with the ACL that self-regulation could be problematic, but whereas Lyle Shelton clearly believed the current classification scheme was a "failure", Handsley disagreed.
"Contrary to statements that have recently been made by various players in this debate," she stated, "we do not believe that the classification system is ‘broken’ Our National Classification Scheme can hold its head high in having an almost uniform set of classification categories that are easy for people to come to grips with and having many checks and balances and overall consistencies, unlike America with its different categories for different media and its self-regulatory non-enforceable system."
Handsley's main issue was with regards to the subjective nature of the guidelines themselves, a subjectivity which has allowed gratuitous material to pass as MA15+ when, in her opinion, it should have been rated higher.
"The guidelines," she claimed, "have been too subjective, lacking the more specific criteria that were in use until 2002 to 2003. In our view this has resulted in more violence at lower levels of classification, easily accessible to children and in the current community there are concerns about the very violent games now in the MA15+ category for games."
Handsley's colleague from the Australian Council on Children and the Media, Barbara Biggins, who wrote an opinion piece on R18+ earlier this week, took issue with the way media was sold and distributed in the country.
"When you are looking at the legally classified categories of MA15+ and R18+," she said, "there is certainly very good evidence that it is almost impossible to enforce the age restrictions on portable items such as DVDs and computer games. It is almost impossible to protect children despite what the law says because once those portable items are out of the retail outlet then there are very few controls."
At first glance the members of the committee appeared skewed towards the conservative side, populated with almost every outspoken opponent of R18+ we could name, but speaking to Ron Curry earlier this afternoon, he confirmed that he had, in fact, provided his own submission to those undertaking the Classification Review, and he hoped to be invited to speak to the committee at a later date.
During this specific hearing, however, Dr Sarah Ailwood, Assistant Professor at the University of Canberra, provided a strong dissenting voice.
"I just wanted to emphasise," she began, "that I was making my submission as someone who is actually experienced at playing games. I think quite a few of the people who have contributed to this debate are not necessarily aware of the nature of games and the way they are playing online, the way that massively multi-player online games work, and the way that different console systems work. I just wanted to emphasise that my submission is made from a position of experience and understanding of those things."
She also spoke extensively on the difficulties involved in classifying online content.
"The idea that content is delivered through designated specific streams, I think those days are over," claimed Ailwood. "It is being delivered on various different kinds of devices, through portable devices, through internet to computers, it is being delivered to gaming consoles, it is being delivered direct to television, and a forward looking regime really needs to take into account that convergence."
Despite the fact that this committee had explicit instructions to avoid discussing the possibility of an R18+ rating for video games, Dr Ailwood could not avoid addressing the proverbial elephant in the room.
"There is one key area in which the Australian regime radically departs from international regimes," she began, "and that is in the existence of an R18+ classification for video games. In that respect, we are quite different from most other western liberal jurisdictions.
"There are arguments that there are detrimental effects because we do not have an R18+ classification for video games," she continued. "Games here are regularly classified MA15+ when they are classified R18+ in other jurisdictions. The fact that we only have an M15+ classification, which basically requires that any game that is not suitable for minors is refused classification, sends a signal that every game that is available in Australia is suitable for minors, and anyone who is playing Grand Theft Auto would disagree with that. The fact that we do not have an R18+ classification is misleading, and that is one argument. Obviously there are various other arguments you could make about civil liberties and freedom of expression and the ability of adult gamers to be able to play games that they choose and games that are available elsewhere."
At this point, her colleague Bruce Arnold chimed in: "Why we are quarantining a particular cultural form; why are we quarantining content on the basis of its delivery?"