by Jenny Lee
Twentieth-century Australia had the strictest censorship of any democratic nation. Publications of all kinds were kept under surveillance and thousands of books were banned as seditious, blasphemous or obscene.
Books could come to the authorities’ attention in many different ways. Police in the states monitored local publications, raiding bookshops and confiscating suspect works. A single complaint about a book could be enough to put its author on trial for obscenity.
The Customs service protected Australians from moral contamination by seizing imported titles at the wharves and the post office monitored parcels sent by mail. The Attorney-General suppressed publications advocating the overthrow of any ‘civilised’ government; for a brief, disgraceful period, this power was used to ban works attacking Nazism.
A Censorship Board was established in 1933 to assess books of ‘literary merit’, but the Minister could ignore its advice. In any case, Customs could still unilaterally ban non-literary works, from thrillers to psychology texts to political publications. All these decisions were made in secret. Even today, there is no definitive list of the books banned in Australia.
This capricious, secretive system collapsed in the early 1970s, but it has left enduring marks. Books banned in the 20th century are rarely found in libraries and private collections, or appear only in editions bowdlerised to satisfy the censors. And censorship itself has survived in the milder guise of a ‘classification’ system. This exhibition highlights two recent cases where books have been refused classification — in other words, banned.
Official moves to filter the Internet too have echoes of the old regime, where the rhetoric of protection was used to justify universally limiting access, including access to information about the censors’ own decisions. Once again, it seems, Australians are to be protected against knowing what they are being protected from.