Laws prohibiting deceptive and misleading political advertising are urgently needed to promote rational debate and allow voters to make informed decisions, the Rationalist Society of Australia has told a federal parliamentary inquiry.
In a submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters’ inquiry into the 2022 federal election, the RSA said this year’s election was an example of yet another campaign being marred by advertisements based on blatant falsehoods.
The submission noted that, during that campaign, there were claims that pensioners would be put on cashless credit cards and other claims that there would be a ‘retiree tax’. There were also posters that suggested that particular candidates were actually from other parties. Also, a fringe political group called Advance Australia erected posters suggesting that Labor was aligned with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and that the CCP wanted Australian voters to tick the Labor box on ballot papers.
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.
“Such deceptive and misleading campaigns have troubling consequences for our democracy, resulting in uninformed debate during election periods and reduced public confidence and trust in the political process,” the submission said.
“The RSA supports laws prohibiting deceptive and misleading advertising in the political arena so as to promote rational debate and to allow voters to make informed decisions based on factual information.”
“While there should be a robust contest of ideas, we strongly believe that lies and deception should not be part of Australian political discourse. This reform is especially urgent at a time when social media is making it easier for bad-faith actors to spread disinformation.”
The submission said that new laws should prohibit deceptive and misleading political advertising in a similar way to the regulation of advertising in the commercial arena.
Corporations are held to a high standard of truthfulness in their advertising and face legal penalties for breaching such standards.
The submission pointed lawmakers to existing models of ‘truth in political advertising’ laws in South Australian and the Australian Capital Territory as a “good starting point” in developing federal laws.
Prior to the election, the RSA said addressing political advertising should be one of the new parliament’s top priorities to restore the Australian public’s trust in this country’s democratic institutions. Read more about our campaign here.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman
Photo: Australian Electoral Commission (Flickr)