Banned Books in Australia A Special Collections-Art in the Library Exhibition

Sedition

Jenny Lee

In Australia, censorship was long a major weapon — often the only weapon — against challenges to the political order. A battery of laws prohibited seditious publications, but dissidents were rarely hauled before the courts. Instead, censorship was used to defend Australia’s borders by silencing seditious ideas, which were always viewed as coming from outside.

The pattern emerged during World War I, when anti-war publications were suppressed alongside pro-German works. This was the beginning of a campaign that ran for decades. Its main targets were communist publications, which were declared prohibited imports under the customs power.

Imported political works could be banned on any number of grounds. The terms used were vague: fostering disaffection with the government or constitution, holding the monarch up to ridicule or promoting ill-will and hostility between the subjects of the Crown. From 1926, books and pamphlets could also be banned for promoting rebellion in any ‘civilized country’ or simply for being written with seditious intent.

The climax came during the early 1930s, when the Minister for Customs was banning publications at the rate of six per month. Eager to suppress communism, the government aligned itself with the forces ranged against the Allies in World War II. Italian anti-fascist publications were targeted, and several states prohibited performances of an anti-Nazi drama.

Many forces combined to bring undone the notion that Australia could be insulated from ‘seditious’ ideas. Prohibited publications slipped through the customs net and governments were reluctant to take legal action against local editions. There was public opposition to political censorship as an infringement of free speech. By the 1940s, banning books seemed bankrupt as a strategy against political dissent.

Since that time, however, the strategy has periodically been dusted off and brought back into use, most recently as a weapon in the ‘war on terror’. As you can see in this exhibition, political censorship is still with us today.

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