"You can't raise a child in Australia," a justifiably horrified friend told me when I announced that my wife and I would be moving to her hometown of Sydney. "They've banned Grand Theft Auto 3!" -- a wildly popular video game notorious for its gore, crime, and sex. Aussie regulators had worried that the game would be a bad influence on the youth of a country whose national hero is the outlaw Ned Kelly. (Faced with the prospect of being shut out of an entire continent, the manufacturer ended up making a sanitized version just for Oz dwellers.)
As far as its officials are concerned, the nation whose ecosystem has more creative ways to kill you than any other on the planet can't handle a little R-rated electronica. In a country that produces the world's 10 most poisonous snakes, whose chief cultural export is crocodile wrestlers, and where a prime minister once went swimming and vanished without a trace (there's a municipal pool named after him), the locals are literally not to be left to their own devices.
It's not just PlayStations and GameCubes that are now considered potential corruptors in the homeland of the rock band AC/DC. In recent months, Australian legislators, pundits, and academics have become so enamored with trying to forbid anything they find upsetting that some of them would be more at home in an Oberlin College sensitivity workshop than in the country that coined the phrase, "No worries, mate."
Australia -- the rugged land of the Outback, famously shark-infested waters, and an inscrutable version of football whose basic point seems to be inflicting physical punishment -- is now threatening to become the free world's leader in restricting anything that smacks of fun.
Today, school kids aren't even allowed out at recess unless their heads are covered, lest they become future skin cancer cases, as part of the education establishment's suggestive-sounding "no hat, no play" campaign.
Many nations, including Australia, have banned cigarette advertising, and there are people everywhere, including the Land Downunder, who would like to see fast food companies get the same treatment. But Australia is hell-bent on taking things even further.
The most ludicrous of these proposals -- and one that has developed a surprising amount of traction, so to speak -- is a ban on ads in which automobiles are shown being operated unsafely (that is to say, at all). Even the kid who says "zoom, zoom" in the Mazda ads would be hauled off to Botany Bay if some state legislators have their way.
"I think our road safety message is being undermined in these ads," said Peter Batchelor, the transportation minister for the state of Victoria. After all, who knows how many rainy day fender-benders could be prevented if only drivers were barred from seeing images of their cars being driven at speeds approaching the legal limit? While the ban on car advertising has not yet been made law, automakers are considering a regime of "self-regulation."
This sort of ban is threatening to have a detrimental effect on Australian culture, which has never prided itself on restraint. "It's becoming a very bland world," one advertising executive lamented recently.
If this trend continues, it's only a matter of time before a great country that birthed the trigger-happy apocalyptic antihero Mad Max becomes a place where no one is allowed to possess anything sharper than safety scissors.
Worse yet is the likelihood that Americans will glom onto the Australian model just like it fell, however fleetingly, for Olivia Newton-John, the Bee Gees, and Paul Hogan. All it will take is one U.S. activist to declare Australia the most enlightened country in the world on the grounds that you can drive for 1,000 miles without seeing a billboard for Marlboro or McDonald's and then turn on the hotel TV without seeing a single car being operated unsafely.
And if that "zoom, zoom" kid does show up on screen, he damned well better be wearing a hat.