It all adds up for pollies, the truth is out there

by Eloise Carr in The Mercury
Originally published in The Mercury on November 4, 2022

Tasmanian MPs will continue to debate new political donations disclosure laws, and amendments to the Electoral Act, in Parliament next week. But will our elected representatives grab this opportunity to introduce truth in political advertising laws for Tasmania?

Remember the 2018 election? When Labor announced their opposition to pokies, the Liberals claimed removing poker machines from pubs and clubs “would cost thousands of jobs” and claimed the industry estimated around 5,000 jobs would be affected. ABC’s Fact Check investigation rated the claim as “Wrong”. The true industry estimate was one-fifth that amount, and independent experts said even that was a gross exaggeration.

If the Liberals and industry had told the truth to voters then, what different path would Tasmania have gone down? One with fewer problem gamblers, more money in the pockets of households, and less money funnelled to the mainland?

Nationally, “mediscare” advertisements have claimed that the Liberals would privatise Medicare, and adverts insinuated that Labor would introduce a “death tax” if elected. Then there is Clive Palmer’s “baseless claim” that the World Health Organization will use a pandemic treaty to control Australia’s health system. And Labor playing up cashless debit card fears among pensioners, to name a few.

Australia already has truth in political advertising laws in some jurisdictions and they are on the way elsewhere. South Australia has had them since the 1980s. The ACT adopted them in 2020, with unanimous support from all sides of politics. In 2021, a Victorian multi-party parliamentary committee recommended similar laws, with a particular focus on preventing the spread of misinformation on social media. Again, this received support from across political divides.

At the national level, the Labor Party now supports truth in political advertising laws, and the government has asked a parliamentary committee to consider how they might be implemented. We could see these changes legislated in this term of government, along with Labor’s election commitment to reducing the political donations disclosure threshold and creating real-time disclosure requirements.

Isn’t it reasonable for Tasmanians to expect the same level of protection against misleading and deceptive claims about politics?

Almost nine in ten Tasmanians (87%) support truth in political advertising laws. They are popular across the political spectrum: 93% of Labor voters, 80% of Liberal voters, 88% of Green voters and 92% of independent/other voters want truth in political advertising reforms, according to an Australia Institute poll taken during the 2021 State election.

Electoral Act amendments are being proposed to “modernise” Tasmania’s electoral law. While most of the proposed changes are technical updates, others will address some forms of misinformation, including misleading voters in regards to recording their vote, the status of candidates, use of party names and Electoral Commission material. However, they fail to attempt to address concerns about misinformation in political advertising.

A simple additional amendment to the Electoral Matters (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2021, now before Parliament, could make misleading or deceptive political advertising an offence. This would allow the Electoral Commissioner to request that dishonest material not be published, or be removed if already in the public domain.

We have laws against misleading and deceptive conduct in trade and commerce. Why not in politics?

During the 2021 state election campaign, Labor supported truth in political advertising laws for Tasmania, describing it as “one of the many areas where our electoral laws are deficient”.  Given the commitments made by parties across the political spectrum around Australia, these laws should receive full support in the Tasmanian Parliament next week.

Misleading claims about political opponents erodes our democracy. Truth in political advertising laws are a popular, practical and very possible solution. They have been operating well elsewhere and are ready to be adopted here and now.

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