Wednesday 02 April 1997

The God Squad

By NIKI SAVVA,
political editor

THE NIGHT after the Senate's vote on euthanasia, the John Stuart Mill Society, the new small ``l'' liberal faction in the Howard Government, held a forum to debate censorship.

The videos were not shown as a prelude (perhaps a bit of self-censorship was at play) because some of the audience felt it was too gimmicky and instead it was decided that anyone who wanted to could view them at the end. A couple did.

They were described as educational - a compilation of erotic and violent scenes from a selection of titles.

New South Wales Senator Helen Coonan was the guest speaker, and her subject was the correlation, if any, between violence on screen and violence in the community. Her assessment was that there is no conclusive evidence to say there is a link.

There are fears among the more liberal members of the coalition that censorship has become the latest ideological battlefield and that it is already shaping as another victory for the Lyons Forum, the conservative Christian faction - Australia's answer to America's religious right.

The Lyons Forum made a submission to Cabinet in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre. Members want the Government to crack down on X-rated videos and adult soft-core porn on pay TV.

The Communications Minister, Senator Richard Alston, will take a submission to Cabinet next week closing a loophole to ban R-rated material on pay television, while the Attorney-General, Mr Daryl Williams, has asked his department for further information before implementing the coalition's pledge to ban X-rated videos.

The Chairman of the Lyons Forum, Tasmanian MP Mr Chris Miles, who is parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister, signalled a tougher line on broadcast violence after the Port Arthur massacre.

Mr Miles told The Age he had sent material to all forum members last December pointing out the coalition's pre-election commitment to ban X-rated videos, and listing definitions of X and R ratings to explain the criteria used by the Office of Film and Literature Classification.

``The attached brief outlines the facts relating to the X-rated videos issue and provides a list of arguments in support of a ban,'' Mr Miles said in a covering letter.

While it was not a formal submission to the Government to act on its promise, Mr Miles concedes that implicit in his letter was a call for action by the forum.

Also, Mr Miles counts up to 15 members of the Howard frontbench (including the Treasurer, Mr Peter Costello, and the Primary Industries Minister, Mr John Anderson) as forum devotees so they, too, were sent the material - and the hint.

(Interestingly, all three parliamentary secretaries to the Prime Minister - Mr Miles, Mr Tony Abbott and Senator Nick Minchin - are forum members.)

Mr Miles also says another forum member, Ms Trish Draper from South Australia, has been ``authorised'' to pursue pornography in teenage magazines and has made a number of statements on the issue.

Mr Kevin Andrews, who with the imprimatur of the Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, introduced the private member's bill to overturn the Northern Territory's euthanasia laws, is the secretary of the Lyons Forum, formed in 1992 with the motto: ``The foundation of a nation's greatness is in the homes of its people.''

Mr Andrews attended the censorship forum on Tuesday night and told The Age later he was surprised at the convergence of views - the need to balance free speech for adults with the desire to protect children.

``What surprised me was the relative conservatism of the views,'' this conservative MP said.

``I thought there would have been more people saying that freedom of speech was more of an absolute. I think the general view was that freedom of speech and expression of views is something that obviously has to be balanced up, especially when you are talking about children.

``Most people struggled to find where you draw the line.''

The Lyons Forum motto was taken from the maiden speech of Enid Lyons, on 29September 1943, the first woman of the House of Representatives, the first woman federal minister, and the wife of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons.

According to a manifesto issued on 30 October last year, ``Members of the Lyons Forum believe that: the family is the fundamental unit of society; the family is the prime agency for the development and primary socialisation of children; marriage provides the optimum environment for the nurturing of children.''

The forum has about 50 members and meets once a fortnight when the Parliament sits. It also organises dinners - open to all coalition MPs - two or three times a year, with guest speakers.

According to Mr Miles, it's difficult to give an exact number on members because there are ``active people who are members and others who are moral supporters who believe in the values the forum pursues but don't attend meetings''.

No list of members is published or made available, although last month when it was suggested disgraced Senator Bob Woods had been a member of the forum, Mr Andrews rifled through his papers to determine if he was.

Much to Mr Andrews' relief, given Senator Woods' extra-marital activities, he was able to deny he had been a member.

Mr Howard used to attend the dinners but according to Mr Andrews has not been since he became Opposition Leader.

Independent Senator Brian Harradine - who was instrumental in the withdrawal of the offer to Professor John Funder to head up the National Health and Medical Research Council allegedly because of his work on the abortion pill RU486 - could be described as a kindred spirit.

Membership is restricted to coalition MPs. According to Mr Andrews, the forum did not play a role in the Funder issue and did not meet while the issue was raging.

However, the successes of the members of the Lyons Forum, whether acting individually or in concert, formally or informally, have made it a powerful force within the Howard Government.

The question now after the passage of the anti-euthanasia bill is whether the Lyons Forum will be emboldened to move on medical funding for abortions. The Prime Minister has said he will not support such a move.

Mr Andrews says he has no intention of moving on this front and knows of no other member of the forum who plans to. In fact, he says he would discourage anyone contemplating it.

``It's not on,'' he said. ``It's not sustainable in the current climate.''

Mr Andrews believes it would not be passed in the Parliament and the anguish would not be worth the attempt.

Ms Chris Gallus, one of the founders of the John Stuart Mill Society that was formed to provide an alternative voice to the forum, does not quibble with the Lyons Forum's mantra, only its methods. She can't resist a dig at the fervor with which it pursues its agenda.

``I think they have a very admirable role to play in making sure that the family is fully represented and is taken account of in legislation,'' she told The Age.

``The family is important and it's a good thing we have the Lyons Forum to look after it.''

But even Ms Gallus cannot foresee the Lyons Forum moving against medically funded abortion.

The trauma that accompanied the euthanasia debate would be nothing compared to the divisions - in the Parliament and the community - that such an attempt would trigger.

While Mr Andrews is happy to see the Lyons Forum get the credit for measures taken by the Government, he modestly proclaims its influence is overstated.

He says the Lyons Forum discussed euthanasia only once and that was in the middle of last year when a minister (unnamed) raised concerns about the Commonwealth Government acting with the Northern Territory Government against a legal challenge to the pro-euthanasia bill.

The minister felt constrained about raising it in the party room and Mr Andrews says he volunteered to do it. The Prime Minister's response - that he would support a private member's bill to overturn the NT Act - spurred on Mr Andrews.

He says in the five years of the forum's existence it has only made two formal submissions to the coalition leadership - the one on censorship post-Port Arthur and another in 1995 on initiatives to help families.

On both occasions, they were successful. The 1995 submission led to John Howard's billion-dollar family tax package.

The informal approaches (Mr Miles calls it tick-tacking) plus the presence of ministers at forum discussions and the natural conservatism of the Government ensures its views are both heard and heeded.

Mr Andrews and Mr Miles say the next major project for the Lyons Forum is another submission on ways to help families.

Mr Andrews says this will not be framed for the next Budget, rather for the next election campaign.

He says the economic parameters for this term have already been set but the Howard Government will need something extra in the next campaign. The Lyons Forum will look at whether eligibility for the tax benefits should be extended or if more money should be made available to those already in receipt of it.


 

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