Reform political advertising laws in the new year, RSA urges government

Si Gladman / 07 December 2022

The Rationalist Society of Australia is urging the Albanese government to prioritise reforming political advertising laws in the new year to further enhance integrity and public trust in the political system.

RSA president Meredith Doig has welcomed the government’s successful passing of a bill to establish a National Anti-Corruption Commission, but said attention must now turn to introducing truth-in-political-advertising laws.

In the House of Representatives last week, Independent MP Zali Steggall introduced her revised Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Stop the Lies) Bill 2022 to prohibit misleading or deceptive political advertising.

In her speech on the bill, Ms Steggall said there was an added sense of urgency to address the issue given the upcoming referendum on Indigenous recognition in the Constitution and Voice to Parliament. 

“As Brexit demonstrated in the UK, referenda are particularly vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation,” she said.

Before the May election, the RSA said addressing truth in political advertising was one of the key reforms needed in the new parliament to improve Australia’s democracy and ensure transparent and accountable governance.

In a recent submission to a parliamentary inquiry, the RSA said that reform of political advertising was needed to promote rational debate and allow voters to make informed decisions.

Being a private member’s bill, however, the parliament would have little opportunity to consider Ms Steggall’s legislation unless the government allowed more time. Alternatively, it could introduce its own bill.

Dr Doig said voters sent a clear message at the election that they wanted the incoming government to take matters of integrity in the political system seriously.

“In the new year, we hope to see the government build on its success in establishing an anti-corruption commission and continue working with Independents and others to achieve much-needed reform in political advertising,” she said.

Ms Steggall said her bill would not threaten freedom of speech.

Any legal remedy to address misinformation and disinformation must not violate the implied freedom of political communication guaranteed under the Australian Constitution. Freedom of political speech and expression is the lifeblood of a thriving democracy. The honest and vigorous contest of ideas in Australian political life is a value that we are wise to respect and encourage,” she said.

“The High Court has insisted that the implied freedom of political communication in Australia is to be understood not as an individual right but as a social condition. The implied freedom is concerned with the free flow of information and ideas – not with any imagined right to disseminate false or misleading material.” 

At the RSA Webinar in May, Bill Browne, Senior Researcher at The Australia Institute, warned there was a significant risk of misleading political advertising worsening and “becoming a free for all”, unless new laws were introduced requiring electoral material to be truthful.

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

Image: Zali Steggall (Facebook)

All the more reason.