A right to be misinformed?

This weekend’s Dunkley by-election is bringing misleading political advertising down to a new low.

It is part of a two-decade trend of allowing self-interested publishers get away with lying and misleading, while truth-seeking publishers continue to be hampered by the legal system at every turn. Can the trend – which essentially coincided with the rise of easy self-publication on the internet – be reversed?

Advance Australia has taken to social media advertising in the lead-up to the Dunkley by-election with advertisements that accuse Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of letting 149 criminals “loose” and using taxpayers’ money to pay for lawyers to argue that they remain at large.

Both statements are wrong. Together with the time and money put in to making and distributing the advertisement it was not fact-checked and was negligently, if not deliberately, misleading. In short, two lies.

If a news masthead had run such as story it would face a defamation action. Sure, it is not a good look for a Prime Minister to sue for defamation, but how many lies must the progressive side of politics put up with?

These lies targeted less-informed voters’ most visceral fears: invasion by criminals and/or boat people, and blamed Labor.

Advance Australia advertisements also branded the new fuel-efficiency standards a “ute tax”. Again, it is not. Again, it targets visceral fears. In fact, the standards will save motorists money in the long term.

It hammered Albanese for breaking a promise on the tax. Ok, legitimate, but failed to put it in any context and left voters feeling that they had been cheated out of a tax cut when in fact the vast mass of them would get a much larger tax cut than under the original arrangements.

Advance Australia has $250,000 to spend trying to win Dunkley for the Coalition, according to The Australian. It raised $2.5 million in 2022-23, mostly from people and corporates who stand to lose financially with Labor’s fossil-fuel and tax policies.

In short, a selfish campaign to dupe voters into voting against their own interests by an organisation whose very name is a misnomer. It does not want to advance Australia, it wants to regress it.

It blames the rising cost of living, housing unaffordability, rising interest rates and the “smashing” of families solely on Albanese. Again, providing an easy scapegoat for less-informed who know little of the influence of international economics.

Advance Australia says it wants “to counter the left-wing activities of Get Up, Greens and Labor”.

Yes, GetUp is also a political action group, but its funding does not come from wealthy self-interested individuals and corporations seeking to influence the political process for their own ends rather than the broad public interest. 

Its funding comes from a mass of small donations from a very wide range of people. Yes, those people are well-off enough to make the small donations, but that rather proves that they are acting in the broad public interest not their own interests, because GetUp’s causes are invariably directed at the less-well-off – people who could not afford even a small donation to GetUp.

GetUp was a counter to what its founders saw as the continuing unhealthy relationship between big corporate donors to political parties and resulting policies favourable to those donors.

As it happens, the Dunkley by-election was caused by the death of Labor MP Peta Murphy who headed the parliamentary committee that recommended a series of sensible curbs on online gambling advertisements in June last year.

The Government has not yet responded. Meanwhile, the gambling, hotels, clubs, and advertising “industries” have had eight months to chew the Government’s ear to persuade it to do nothing. Presumably, the Government would be too embarrassed to do a do-nothing announcement before the by-election.

And by the way, GetUp has been campaigning for more than a decade to put curbs on poker machines and other gambling that do so much harm to people who cannot afford it. In short, a selfless, public-interest campaign. Not a greedy self-interested one.

What can be done? The parliamentary committee on electoral matters completed an interim report into the 2022 election in June last year. It recommended legislation to compel truth in political advertising; lowering the disclosure cap to $1000; including the treating of payments for meals and functions that give access as gifts; a cap on spending by third parties; and real-time reporting of donations, among other things.

The Coalition dissented. It recommended $8000; no cap for third parties; watered-down rules on access gifts; monthly reporting; and a whole lot of measures directed against independents.

Of course, the Government is worried about the effect on donations from unions which all go to Labor. Labor should bite the bullet on this. It would be far better for Australian democracy if donations from unions, like corporations generally, be severely capped or abolished. They only have one purpose: to influence the government of the day to act in the unions’ and corporations’ interests against the public interest.

All politicians should recognise that it is in their interests to severely cap or get rid of third-party gifts and to force truth in political advertising. It would free them from forever having to speak with a forked tongue: enacting “favouritism” policy to retain favour with donors while pretending to the public that it is good “national-interest” policy.

They could play it straight and sleep well at night.

And tough donation and political advertising law would easily pass constitutional muster. This is not the US where vast sums corrupting money pour into the system with the blessing of the Supreme Court under the First Amendment.

In Australia, the High Court has held the representative government under the Constitution implies a freedom of political communication so that voters can make an informed choice.

Surely, that does not mean an ill-informed choice? The court has upheld bans on donations by unions and the property industry (both in NSW). It asks whether the laws have a legitimate purpose (ending corruption) and are reasonably adapted and proportionate to that end. So, a total ban might not pass muster. But low caps on third-party donations and advertising (which must be truthful) and strict rules on timely disclosure of all donations can only improve free political communication and representative government.

Crispin Hull 

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 27 February 2024.

3 thoughts on “A right to be misinformed?”

  1. Democracies are under attack around the world and 2024 looks like even more countries will fall to right-wing authoritarian rulers who are backed by faceless ultra-capitalist oligarchs. Meanwhile in Australia we don’t even have the guts to introduce legislation that compels truth in political advertising and tightens up donation disclosure rules. Sic semper tyrannis!

  2. I cannot understand why we have any minimum disclosure cap. Surely the political parties would have to record every donation no matter how small. We have these things called computers. I would guess that to only report contributions over the disclosure limit they would have to filter those below out. Why not just report the lot in an electronic format.

  3. Truth in advertising is a battered old can kicked down the road. Who should be held accountable? The political party and third party bodies claim “opinion” in being unaccountable.
    A possible solution is to hold the media corporation accountable. Media resources are usually sufficient to conduct a fact check. Regulate what would constitute a fact check and set the fine at twice the cost of the advertising revenue gained. It just might fix itself.

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