RSA Webinar: Growing risk of ‘free for all’ without reforms to political advertising

Si Gladman / 13 May 2022

The problem of misleading political advertising is at risk of worsening and “becoming a free for all” without new laws that require electoral matter to be truthful, the latest RSA Webinar has heard.

Speaking at Wednesday’s webinar (see recording below), Bill Browne, Senior Researcher at The Australia Institute, said the strong public support for truth in political advertising and integrity in government reflected a broader desire for democratic revitalisation.

Mr Browne (pictured) spoke about the gathering momentum across the country for laws to ensure truth in political advertising, noting that the Australian Capital Territory had recently joined South Australia in introducing such laws.

He also pointed to the bipartisan support in Victoria for such reform and at the federal level, where Independent MP Zali Steggal proposed a bill to “stop the lies” and where Labor adopted it as part of its national policy platform.

“There are some noises that it might be more successful in the next parliament. It remains a priority for independents on the crossbench, as well as many who are running as candidates. Jason Falinksi, one of the members for the Liberal Party, joined the call initially. And the Labor Party has recently added it to its party platform. So there are promising moves there at the federal level,” he said.

Mr Browne said the current election campaign raised further concerns about potentially misleading advertising, including claims about the cashless credit cards for pensioners and suggestions that voting for a particular candidate will mean voting for someone else due to preferences.

“It’s a situation which risks becoming a free for all, a death spiral where it gets worse and worse over time. And unfortunately it can be in the business model of social media platforms to heighten the distribution of misinformation, as well as more general conflict because engagement drives revenue in their services,” he said.

“So it’s a problem that is not new – it must have existed for as long as politics has existed – but there are certain features of our current system that make it potentially more prevalent or virulent than it used to be.”

While noting that it was important to protect political speech, especially during election campaigns, he said it was possible to develop laws that could determine the truthfulness of advertising claims.

“While philosophers might have pondered this question, in reality I think it’s fairly straightforward. We have courts that exist as fact-finding institutions. And … we require the content that’s used in trade and commerce to be not misleading and not inaccurate,” he said.

“So these are problems that the courts have had to deal with in practice throughout the years. And there’s no particularly reason why they couldn’t do that for electoral matter, as well.”

With trust in government at its lowest level for a number of years, Mr Browne said it was not surprising that issues such as integrity in government and truthfulness in political advertising were growing in importance for voters.

“I think it’s connected – this growing problem with misleading advertising and general disengagement with politics all kind of accumulates into a real sense that democracy needs to be revitalised in Australia and also around the world.”

For more information about upcoming webinars and to register for them, or to watch past webinars, visit here.

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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

All the more reason.