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John Passant

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June 2011



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Seditious, sexy and serious – banned books in Australia

Banned books in Australia. A comprehensive survey of book censorship in Australia from settlement to the twenty-first century. Exhibition, conference and book. Melbourne 2010.

Closed to public view is a Customs museum, housed in the basement of its Canberra headquarters. Among the contraband objects stored there you can find ivory walking sticks, stuffed animals – and also, as leading censorship researcher Nicole Moore comments, mysterious, absurd or dangerous items.

As well, there is a small collection of books, “an odd and notionally insignificant bunch of titles”. One of these is the much banned lesbian novel, the 1949 Falcon Press edition of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, the first copy after its release from the 1928 British ban.

The British censors may have seen fit to lift the ban on Hall’s book, but Australian censors were made of sterner stuff. The ban, imposed the same time as the British one, wasn’t lifted here until 1958 – hence its presence in the Customs collection.

In fact Australia was one of the worst censors in the Western world through most of the twentieth century. Australian censors were proud to ban what was acceptable in London, Paris and New York, and while the rest of the British Empire was apparently degenerating, they described their role as a “bulwark for Anglo-Saxon standards” and the “Empire’s moral core”.

The political climate of the first half of the twentieth century – wars and revolutions, general strikes and savage anti-worker laws, depressions and booms – made the period ripe for state “thought control”.

During that period escaping the censorship laws was incredibly difficult, with state and federal laws, Customs, Post and Attorney General Departments all getting into the act. Customs in particular was able to classify goods as prohibited imports almost at will, and its Minister had the power to ban a book merely by proclamation. Under its dragnet legislation, Australian customs could seize anything “which unduly emphasise[d] matters of sex or crime” or was “calculated to encourage depravity”. And, as today, police acting on complaints from the public can visit, confiscate and prosecute publishers, printers, distributors, artists and writers.

Australian books, most of which had to find publishers in Britain or the US, were “imports” and had to run the gauntlet of censorship. No wonder author Nettie Palmer was to describe Customs as the “fog on the wharves”.

One example of the censors’ zealousness was the 1947 banning of Australian author Christina Stead’s novel Letty Fox: Her Luck. The book, a blazingly critical portrait of the American bourgeoisie, the family and the marriage market, was banned by no other country! Customs followed this up the following year with a ban on her next novel A Little Tea, a Little Chat.

Australian Communist Party activist and novelist Jean Devanny had her own copies of her book The Virtuous Courtesan removed from her bags in 1935, on the suspicion of obscenity. The book was banned until 1958 by the Book Censorship Board which termed it “pernicious tripe”. A progressive novel about human relationships, including lesbian and homosexual characters, the book has never been republished and there are only four copies held in Australian public libraries. Devanny had already had her first novel The Butcher Shop banned in 1926.

Sedition was the other major target of Australia’s censors. They struck early, with the first books seized on the Melbourne wharves in 1854 and the first play banned in 1879, when Victorian Premier Graham Berry took exception to the political satire The Happy Land. English Prime Minister Gladstone, one of the play’s targets, had already suppressed it.

Most of the books and pamphlets banned in Australia in the 1930s and 1940s – during the hey-day of the Australian Communist Party – reflected left wing opinions, and were usually published by Communist organisations in England, including Marx and Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party and the works of Lenin and Stalin. Customs zeroed in on publishers such as the left wing firm Gollancz, which had many titles, including its Left Book Club’s books of the month, either banned or held up for examination during the 1930s and 1940s.

Novels, as well as theoretical texts, were deemed seditious. Upsurge, an Australian novel portraying the conditions of the working class in Perth during the Depression years, had been selling well for several months before it became a matter for prosecution by the West Australian police. The Commonwealth government also banned it in 1934, with the Censorship Board condemning it “on the grounds of indecency. Further the author is manifestly in sympathy with certain acts of lawlessness, and displays a marked tendency to hold up established authority to contempt and ridicule.”

Opposition to censorship increased during the 1930s. There’s even a monument in Melbourne’s Brunswick commemorating artist and communist activist Noel Counihan’s 1933 campaign for freedom of speech. Protesting against the habitual arrest of speakers canvassing the topics of unemployment and home evictions, Counihan spoke from within an old elevator cage bolted to the back of a horse and cart, carrying the sign, “We Want Free Speech”. Charged with two counts of offensive behaviour and obstructing the traffic, he was convicted and imprisoned at Pentridge until released on appeal.

While today’s censors don’t boast of being the “bulwark of Anglo-Saxon values”, there’s little to indicate that governments today are less inclined to reach for the censor’s ban. This was graphically demonstrated in Melbourne University’s Baillieu Library’s exhibition of Australia’s banned books – a survey dating from settlement to the twenty-first century.

And in these days of Islamophobia, the latest exhibit on display came from Melbourne University itself.

When the London bombings were hitting the headlines in July 2005, two Sydney newspapers claimed there was an Islamic bookshop in Sydney’s Lakemba selling books “promoting radical jihad and discussing the effectiveness of suicide bombing”. At the same time, the Melbourne Herald-Sun’s Andrew Bolt claimed: “It’s time we accepted the difficult truth: many of the Muslims we invite to live in Australia want to destroy us.” Despite the rampant fearmongering from the press and Coalition and Labor Parties, the NSW Attorney-General refused to prosecute, so then Attorney-General Philip Ruddock appealed to the national Classification Board, which agreed to ban two publications in 2006.

These two books were removed from Melbourne University’s libraries, along with another book which, it was claimed, “contained like minded material” and would be censored if it went before the board.

Ruddock then broadened the law to cover the excluded books, but strangely took no further titles to the Classification Board.

What is striking about all these publications, as the Board itself made clear, is that the one thing they had in common were forceful criticisms of Western imperialism, racism and oppression alongside a call to defend and fight for Muslim lands.

And as Melbourne University Professor Richard Pennell – and whose research and lecture topics cover the material in the banned books – writes: “The extension of the law to make it easier to ban Islamist material in Australia between 2005 and 2007 demonstrates that in the final event it was not the content of the books that was at issue. Clearly five of the books in no way incited terrorism, yet the failure to ban them was still held up as proof that a change in the law was needed.”

Moreover the books that had been banned were banned under the old laws.

This and more are in this fascinating book of the Exhibition and accompanying conference. It is a book to keep you alert and alarmed about governments who continue to censor and attack freedom of thought, all in the name of national security and “preserving our democratic way of life”.

A book for these times.

This article, by Liz Ross, first appeared in Socialist Alternative.



Comment from Ross
Time June 24, 2011 at 12:25 am

The internet filter via Optus and Telstra comes into play soon and we’ll have to watch them very closely.Corporate and Govt these days are almost as one.

Comment from Tony
Time June 24, 2011 at 10:12 am

Ross: I noted, in one report, the second round of “the mandatory internet filter” we were lead to believe wouldn’t be coming in under this minority government included “international organisations”. I’m guessing this means organisations that highlight the sham nature of the government and corporate media positions will be targetted.

Here is what we see them doing: The first act is to use a front that proponents use smear to demonise those arguing against the move. The second act is to extend its reach to its true purpose, of removing dissenting positions, a kind of 21st century book burning.

Comment from Ross
Time June 24, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Yes Tony.There is much trepidation amongst people who believe in freedom of the individual to pursue self determination.
Most are entranced with the Hollywood distractions of image over substance.They don’t realise what basic freedoms we are losing.

It has already been acknowledged that just changing a single charcter on these paedophile sites will negate their filters.Also they’ve worked our a peer to peer system of communication.So what’s the point if there is not a hidden agenda?

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