Ban lies from political ads: Fake news erodes trust in politicians and democracy

by Eloise Carr in The Mercury
Originally published in The Mercury on December 15, 2021

An astonishing nine out of 10 Tasmanians want truth in political advertising laws and Eloise Carr explains that there is an opportunity now to legislate against all the lying and deception

IN Tasmania it is perfectly legal for political parties and candidates to lie in their advertising during an election campaign.

Australia has laws against misleading and deceptive conduct in trade and commerce, but not in politics.

Isn’t it reasonable for Tasmanians to expect this level of protection, if not higher, when it comes to political debate?

The current review of our electoral law provides a chance to introduce such laws now.

Polling by the Australia Institute found almost nine in ten Tasmanians (87 per cent) want truth in political advertising laws. Voters across all political persuasions support the laws: 80 per cent of Liberal voters, 93 per cent of Labor voters, 88 per cent of Green voters and 92 per cent of independent, other and undecided voters.

Truth in political advertising laws are popular and offer a practical solution to misinformation that can interfere with the public’s
ability to make informed decisions. These laws already function in New Zealand, South Australia and the ACT. They are being called for elsewhere, including in Victoria and nationally.

Many Tasmanians will remember the war of words during the 2018 election over how many jobs would be lost if Labor’s then policy to take poker machines out of pubs and clubs was implemented. Liberals claimed about 5000 jobs would be affected.

ABC’s Fact Check investigated and found that figure was likely to be between 240 and 1038 full-time equivalent jobs, depending on figures from either Treasury, industry or independent economists.

The Australia Institute estimated total gambling employment in Tasmania at the time to be between 370 and 548 (fte).

Misinformation has been a concern from both sides of politics. During the 2021 election campaign Labor claimed “the Liberals want to carve up and sell Hydro piece by piece”. A claim subsequently denied.

The process to introduce a political donation disclosure regime in Tasmania has included a review to update and modernise the Electoral Act. The state government has promised to table both Bills in early 2022.

The proposed changes to the Electoral Act cover a limited range of misinformation, including misleading voters in recording their vote, the status of candidates, the use of party names, and Electoral Commission material.

However, they don’t seek to prevent false claims in general, nor do they stop dissemination of misinformation or require a retraction.

Globally, democracies are struggling to adjust to a world full of disinformation and misinformation. Political advertisements that are misleading are part of this problem because they interfere with the public’s ability to make informed decisions. Without adequate regulation, election campaigns risk sliding into a fake-news free-for-all.

Thankfully, this can be addressed by establishing an offence for misleading or deceptive political advertising and empowering the Electoral Commissioner to request the material be removed. It could go a step further and allow for complainants to go to the courts for resolution, in addition to the Electoral Commission.

In July this year the ACT’s truth in political advertising laws came into effect after unanimous support for their adoption from all sides of politics.

Like South Australian laws, in existence since 1985, the ACT law establishes an offence for misleading political advertising. It empowers the Electoral Commissioner to request the person who placed the advertisement not disseminate it or retract it in stated terms.

In September, a Victorian multi-party parliamentary committee recommended similar laws, with a particular focus on preventing the spread of misinformation on social media.

Following the last federal election, such laws were called for at the national level from all sides of politics. And in October, 39 prominent Australians echoed these calls in an Open Letter to the Australian Parliament. Their message was clear: it is unacceptable that an election’s outcome could be decided by deliberately deceptive political advertising.

Fake news and misleading claims about political opponents erode trust in politicians and democracy.

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