Originally published in The Canberra Times on April 30, 2022

Before a vote has been cast, one election verdict has already been delivered. The campaign has been too light on policy and too heavy on misleading scare tactics. Our democracy is suffering for it.

In just the first weeks of the election campaign, we have seen heated accusations of misleading claims from all sides. Waleed Aly warned that Australia is importing US style “phantom campaigns”. Paul Kelly in The Australian writes that politics is killing policy debates. The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor has detailed the dangers posed by the climate falsehoods injected into the campaign. Laura Tingle says that, in the absence of substantive policy debates, we are seeing dog-whistling.

The warnings are clear. Whoever wins the election, the public’s trust in politics is being diminished.

While much is written and observed about the electorate’s disillusionment with the political process, too few practical solutions are proposed. Fixing and protecting our democracy is not easy. There are no silver bullets. But we can take practical steps that can begin the task.

One area ripe for reform is campaign advertising, where candidates and political parties operate in a kind of wild-west lawlessness.

We have entered an age of mass disinformation. The largely unregulated internet allows untruths to spread more widely and more quickly than imagined. Social media platforms profit from algorithms that reward lies and deception.

It is against this background that regulating what we allow in candidate advertising is more important than it ever was. In fact, a modern democracy now requires it.

While it is true that we cannot fix all disinformation, we can make a start. It is perfectly legal to lie in a political ad and it just should not be.

Of course, the notion of truth is difficult to determine, and many ask who gets to be the arbiter of truth. However, the reality is that courts perform that task all the time. Our legal system exists to find facts, test arguments and reach independent, objective conclusions about the true state of things.

Corporations are required by legislation to not engage in “misleading or deceptive” conduct when selling their products. Politicians and candidates should be similarly required not to engage in such conduct when selling their policies.

Political campaigning needs to be strong and robust, but as my colleague Bill Browne at The Australia Institute has found in his research, developing regulation to prevent blatant mistruths is possible, proven, and appropriate.

Political parties and candidates receive substantial public funding with almost $70 million given to parties and candidates for the 2019 election alone. It is perfectly reasonable, in fact responsible, for regulation to set out corresponding obligations for those that receive public funding. We should not be in the bizarre situation where taxpayers are essentially subsidising politicians to lie to them.

While the Electoral Act currently prohibits misleading voters on the technicalities of how to cast a valid vote, it does not have any provisions to prevent misleading advertising by political parties about themselves, their policies, or those of their political opponents.

The good news is that we have seen truth in political advertising work at a state level, with laws in action in South Australia since the 80s. More recently, Labor, Liberals and the Greens in the ACT combined to pass laws that mirror the SA scheme.

Here in Canberra during this federal election, there has been controversy around campaign material that targeted independent Senate candidate David Pocock. Some have argued the advertising was fair enough.

Mr Pocock is rightly aggrieved as he feels the advertising shows him to be from a different political party all together. But whoever’s side you are on, surely we can all agree that there ought to be an independent umpire that can sort out whether the advertising crossed the line. And, if this advertising had occurred in the same jurisdiction, but at an ACT election level, there would be.

The state regimes in place do not solve all problems, but all sides of politics have been held to account. It is clear the very existence of truth in political advertising laws have a softening effect on what political parties try to claim in their political ads.

Momentum is building for action. We have seen firsthand in South Australia how effectively this modest measure improves the tenor of our political discourse. Victoria could be on the cusp of enacting similar legislation with both the Premier and Opposition Leader in support. At the federal level too – Liberal MP Jason Falinski and independent MP Zali Steggall joined forces to call for truth in politics legislation. Meanwhile, the Labor Party 2019 federal election review by Jay Weatherill and Craig Emerson recommended truth in political advertising reforms – a recommendation also backed by Kristina Keneally.

While truth in political advertising laws are no magic solution, and more needs to be done on other disinformation threats to democracy such as exposing social media giants’ algorithms and requiring the likes of Facebook and Twitter to vet the ads they run, it remains unacceptable that an election’s outcome can be decided by deliberately deceptive political advertising.

Worse still, unless action is taken things are going further deteriorate as each passing election sees an effective arms race of disinformation and lies. Election campaigns risk sliding into a fake-news free-for-all with no bottom.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for our political leaders to be honest and transparent. It has underscored the serious consequences of public distrust and disengagement with our nation’s leaders.

The time is ripe for nationally consistent truth in politics legislation that is constitutional, upholds free speech, but brings in a measure of fairness and accountability to the political process. It is in the interest of all parties and the voting public for rules that ensure that political expression is robust, fair, and truthful. If we want to protect democracy, this is the least we can do.

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