Blatantly false election ads provoke call for truth in advertising laws
Prompted by news that the Australian Electoral Commission found 87 cases of unlawful political advertising after being inundated with almost 500 complaints during the federal election I was prompted to look further.
I soon found that these blatantly false advertisements and commercials have provoked a call for truth in advertising laws, for when it comes to political campaigning Australia does not have “truth in advertising” laws.
This means politicians can literally say whatever they like, provided they do not “mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote” in the eyes of the Australian Electoral Commission.
However, untruths in election advertising go back further than this year. Who can forget the carbon price of Julia Gillard’s’ Labor government became under Tony Abbott the carbon tax, when in truth it was no such thing at all?
That example notwithstanding, this election was littered with claims that were either blatantly false or very exaggerated.
For example, Liberal Party fliers accused the Greens of backing an inheritance tax when in fact the party has no such plan. The Libs also repeatedly used the Coalition’s oft-repeated line that Labor will introduce a “retiree tax”. The removal of franking credit refunds is of course not a tax.
One example was certainly dreamt up by an individual candidate. Warren Mundine, Scott Morrison’s ‘captain’s pick’ for the seat of Gilmore was caught out when he spruiked a plan to “increase the age pension”, when truth is the Liberals had no such plan. Perhaps Mr Mundine was spooked by Clive Palmer’s stated plan to raise pensions by $175.00 per week?
Nonetheless most election lies apparently do most often start on social media. For example, the invention claiming Labor planned to introduce a death tax appears to have begun on unsourced Facebook pages before it spread to other users via direct messages and paid ads. It was then amplified by Coalition politicians. This certainly gives social media a particular importance that to date has received very little analysis.
Another example is the way social media was used to spread a totally false claim that Labor planned to introduce a car tax. The origins of this claim are though different, for it is clear that there were dozens of paid Liberal Party ads spreading the car tax claim into the Facebook newsfeeds of targeted users.
“Bill Shorten and Labor plan to introduce a Car Tax which would increase the cost of nearly all of Australia’s new cars,” one such ad, paid for by the Liberal WA branch, said.
Lest it appears that the Liberals and Nationals are the only ones playing this game it needs to be noted that Labor has also used blatant falsehoods in election campaigns. It is guilty of, for example, spreading the untrue ‘Mediscare’ claim that the Liberals planned to privatise Medicare during the 2016 federal election.
The use of untrue advertising is therefore quite clear, but do we have to put up with it? Reform has routinely been described as unworkable and a potential restriction of free speech. Previous attempts to regulate advertising have failed dramatically. In the 1980s, parliament attempted to introduce such laws before quickly repealing them.
But this year’s campaign has renewed calls for reform, so the answer to my question is a firm ‘No’. The Guardian Australia quoted Integrity campaigner and former New South Wales supreme court justice Anthony Whealy saying that the lies spread through the campaign, particularly through United Australia party’s advertising, were “intolerable”.
“It’s a no-brainer, to use that cliché, that we really need to clean this up,” Whealy said.
Griffith University integrity expert and Transparency International Australia board member Prof AJ Brown said that reform was now increasingly needed, particularly due to the emergence of rogue groups on social media. Brown said the opportunities for manipulation were now too great not to act.
He said reforms could be based on current rules that prevent misleading and deceptive conduct in other, non-political advertising.
It certainly is a no-brainer, and reform could happen if Mr Morrison would only use his comfortable majority to do something about it.