RSA welcomes committee’s recommendation on political advertising laws

Si Gladman / 26 June 2023

The Rationalist Society of Australia welcomes the recommendation by a parliamentary committee for the introduction of federal laws for truth in political advertising to enhance the integrity and transparency of Australia’s electoral system.

In an interim report published this month on the inquiry into the conduct of the 2022 federal election, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has called for the government to develop legislation or amend existing legislation to provide measures for governing truth in political advertising.

Despite the recommendation, any future reforms will come too late to prevent lies and disinformation campaigns during the referendum on Indigenous recognition in the Constitution and Voice to Parliament.

The committee’s report, available for download on the federal parliament’s website, cites the RSA’s argument that the government should consider existing laws that operate at the state/territory level – in South Australia and the ACT – as a good starting point in developing federal laws.

In a submission to the inquiry last year, the RSA argued that laws prohibiting deceptive and misleading political advertising were urgently needed to promote rational debate and allow voters to make informed decisions.

While the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 makes it a criminal offence to mislead or deceive a voter in respect of the mechanics of casting a vote, it is perfectly legal for political candidates and parties to deploy deliberately deceptive and misleading advertising without facing legal penalties.

The RSA told the inquiry that deceptive and misleading campaigns have troubling consequences for democracy, resulting in uninformed debate during election periods and reduced public confidence and trust in the political process.

In December last year, the RSA called on the Albanese government to prioritise reforming political advertising laws given concerns – especially those raised by Independent MP Zali Steggall – about the potential use of deceptive and misleading advertising at the upcoming referendum.

In a letter to Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus in early February, RSA president Dr Meredith Doig warned that, without government action, there would be an explosion of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) tactics being used to sway voters on the referendum question.

“We’re pleased that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters agrees with the need for laws governing truth in political advertising. We hope the Albanese government will follow through on those recommendations,” said Dr Doig. 

“It is disappointing, however, that nothing has been put into place to prevent bad-faith actors from deliberately misleading or deceiving voters in the debate on the referendum question.”

Media outlet Crikey reported last month that the far-right and conspiracy theory communities are spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and hate speech in opposition to the Voice to Parliament.

In recommendation 11, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommends:

… that the Australian Government develop legislation, or seek to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, to provide for the introduction of measures to govern truth in political advertising, giving consideration to provisions in the Electoral Act 1985 (SA).

Recommendation 12 urges:

…  the Australian Government consider the establishment of a division within the Australian Electoral Commission, based on the principles currently in place in South Australia, to administer truth in political advertising legislation, with regard to ensuring proper resourcing and the need to preserve the Commission’s independence as the electoral administrator.

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Photo: Australian Electoral Commission (Flickr)

All the more reason.