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section heading icon     government agencies

This page discusses content regulation agencies in Australia and New Zealand.

It covers -

  • introduction - the regulatory environment
  • policymaking - strategic directions and episodic responses
  • the OFLC and state classification boards
  • Customs and the Post Office - border control
  • ACMA and the BSA - broadcast and internet content regulation
  • policing - the AFP, NZP and other police forces
  • ACCC - trade practices

subsection heading icon    introduction

Content regulation in Australia is sometimes conceptualised in terms of action against offensive material by a single government agency, typically characterised as "the censor" or "the censorship office". In practice we can differentiate types and degrees of content regulation, with a regime that involves the interaction of a range of federal and state/territory agencies. Content regulation - including restriction of child pornography - does not involve a single agency with overarching policymaking, identification and prosecution powers.

Instead it is more effective to conceptualise content regulation regimes as an environment that features different agencies with varying capacities and priorities. Some of those agencies, such as Customs and Australia Post, have little recognition.

That environment also features the advocacy bodies highlighted on the preceding page of this profile.

subsection heading icon    policymaking

In both Australia and New Zealand there are tensions in policymaking between

  • different government ministers (or merely their departments), with varying priorities, 'capture' by advocacy groups and perceptions of what is administratively/technologically feasible
  • operational and policymaking bodies, with some operational bodies on occasion driving policy because of opportunities for institutional aggrandisement or because a corporate culture is less liberal than that of the parent department
  • regulatory agencies and advocacy groups, with for example disagreement between competing advocacy groups about policy directions and enforcement by broadcast regulators

The primary policymaking departments at the federal level in Australia are the Attorney-General's department (AGs) and the Department of Communications, Information Technology & the Arts (DCITA). They are influenced by the Prime Minister's Department (PMC) and, less directly, by various parliamentary committees. They are also influenced by intergovernmental bodies such as the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG), the federal and state/territory law ministers. Trade practices concerns fall within the Treasurer's portfolio, which includes the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission - noted below.

In New Zealand the salient departments are the Ministry of Justice (MJ) - which administers the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 - the Department of Internal Affairs (which includes the Censorship Compliance Unit), responsible for enforcement of that Act.

subsection heading icon    the OFLC and state classification agencies

The salient federal government content regulation agencies are the Office of Film & Literature Classification (OFLC) - a Sydney-based agency with administrative responsibilities - and two associated boards: the Classification Board and the Classification Review Board. In aggregate they employ around 48 staff.

The Classification Board is a statutory body consisting of the Director, Deputy Director, Senior Classifiers and other members. It operates under the federal Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, discussed in the following page of this profile. It formally classifies publications, films (including videos and DVDs), and computer games. The Board also classifies internet content referred by the ABA and provides advice to the Australian Customs Service on importation of publications, films and computer games. The Board's Director is also Chief Executive of the OFLC and of the the Review Board, which as its title suggests reviews disputed classification decisions.

In New Zealand the Office of Film & Literature Classification (OFLC) operates under the Films, Videos & Publications Act 1993. It boasts that it has classified many types of publications, including films, books, posters, video games, t-shirts, jigsaws, billboards, paintings and weekly newspapers. It is headed by the Chief Censor of Film & Literature, with around 30 staff. Decisions may be appealed to the Film & Literature Board of Review. Compliance is underpinned by the Censorship Compliance Unit (CCU) - formerly the Censorship Board - within the Department of Internal Affairs.

subsection heading icon    Customs and the Post Office

The Australian Customs Service (ACS) is a federal government agency responsible for decisions on the status of material imported into or exported from Australia. It is one of the oldest federal agencies, dating from the beginning of last century through amalgamation of the colonial customs offices at the time of Federation, and operating under the Customs Act.

The Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956 describe classes of goods that must not be imported into Australia, with the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations 1958 describe classes of goods that must not be exported from Australia.

The ACS can detain or seize any material it believes may contravene Regulation 4A of the Prohibited Imports Regulations or Regulation 3 of the Prohibited Exports Regulations. Criteria for those Regulations are consistent with the 'refused classification' criteria in the Code identified by the OFLC. The ACS may refer an item intercepted at the border to the Board for advice on application of customs regulations dealing with classification standards. Under the regulations the ACS may grant requests for permission to import/export prohibited goods.

In New Zealand the NZ Customs Service (NZ) has around 1,000 staff and a budget of NZ$79.9 million. It is responsible for restrictions on import of books, magazines, video recordings, films, sound recordings and other items that are objectionable under the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993. Enforcement occurs under the First Schedule of the Customs & Excise Act 1996.

Although they now attract little attention, for past two centuries post offices were a major regulatory choke point for interdicting and identifying the distribution and production of offensive or otherwise prohibited content.

In Australia most mail (by volume and value) is still handled by Australia Post (AP), a federal government business enterprise. Its NZ counterpart is New Zealand Post (NZP), established under the Postal Services Act 1998. As of 2005 it had revenue of around NZ$1.2 billion and some 17,000 staff. Both AP and NZP continue to intercept prohibited publications, in particular items from overseas, consistent with their conditions of service and international postal agreements.

subsection heading icon    ACMA and the BSA

The Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA), is a federal government agency established in 2005 through the amalgamation of the Australian Communication Authority (ACA) and Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA). Its content regulation powers centre on the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, which covers television, radio and the net.

As discussed in the following page, the Act establishes a 'co-regulatory' scheme for broadcast services (including radio and television). That scheme is founded on codes of practice developed by industry and registered with ACMA. In relation to content screened on television, the Act requires that codes of practice apply the film classification system administered by the OFLC , including the Board's classification guidelines and classification symbols of the Board. That is meant to ensure consistency of classification information across films, DVDs, videos and television broadcasts (whether terrestrial, by cable or satellite).

If ACMA receives a valid complaint about Australian-hosted online content it may, under Schedule 5 of the BSA, refer the material to the Board for classification. The Board then classifies the content using the Guidelines for the Classification of Films and Computer Games 2003.

In New Zealand the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) is the national agency established under the Broadcasting Act 1989. Its objectives are the determination of complaints, review and approval of codes of broadcasting practice, and communications/research about broadcasting standards. As of 2004 it had nine staff and a budget of around NZ$1.6 million.

subsection heading icon    policing

In Australia the national police force - the Australian Federal Police (AFP) is primarily concerned with offences against federal law, with most offences involving state law enforced by the state police forces. It was established by the Australian Federal Police Act 1979. As of 2005 the AFP had 4,800 employees and a budget of $1.02 billion

Across the Strait the New Zealand Police (NZP) has around 8,800 staff and a budget of NZ$900 million.

subsection heading icon    ACCC

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) is a federal regulatory body that oversees business and competition practices under Trade Practices Act 1974. It can take action on misleading and deceptive conduct by enterprises.

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version of October 2005
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