All’s fair in love, war … and politics. Or is it?
The ACT is still three-and-a-half months out from the election and the messaging from the main parties is clear: the government is ”tired and old” and the opposition is ”inexperienced” and obsessed with playing ”university politics”.
It litters their media releases, their sound bites and Twitter accounts, and will probably populate political advertising in spring.
It may be part of the political rough and tumble, our robust democracy, to slag off at your opponents but it’s more about power than winning meaningful outcomes for the people paying their salaries and it rarely adds anything to the debate.
Obviously, just because ACT Labor has been in power for 20 years doesn’t necessarily mean it deserves to be thrown out, and just because an opposition hasn’t made it to the government benches for a while is no reason to not give it the opportunity (otherwise we would never change governments).
Thankfully for readers’ sakes, the media filters out much of this trash talk but it points to ongoing problems with political discourse, not helped by social media and the proliferation of fake news.
The ACT Greens are pushing for political truth in advertising laws similar to those in South Australia which make it illegal to disseminate political material or advertising that is factually incorrect during the election period.
They say this would only cover authorised political advertising where matters of fact were in dispute, and allow members of the public to lodge complaints.
It is well-meaning and borne of frustration at the increasing number of US-style attack ads rolled out that have little respect for facts but manage to hit their targets.
The relentless assault on Labor’s housing and retirement policies during the last Federal election come to mind.
But like truth in any kind of advertising what may seem an obvious transgression by one person could be argued as a matter of perception by another, or at least any decent lawyer. Was it a death tax or not?
And by the time you get an adjudication the campaign would be well and truly over.
It is up to the parties themselves to muster their arguments and convince voters of the merits of their policies, especially in the face of spurious claims. Labor clearly did not do that. A hard one to swallow, but that is democracy.
It could also be argued that any restraints on political advertising could be seen as stifling debate and freedom of speech, and possibly falling foul of the Constitution’s implied freedom of communication.
It must be remembered that there are advertising standards, no matter how lax, and the law of defamation stands.
The test would be whether the Greens’ laws would stop the questionable ads or merely encourage the parties to churn out even more to make the system unworkable.
Better for us all if the parties themselves showed our democracy and the voters some respect by playing the ball, not the man (or woman), and sticking to some semblance of reality.
Well, pigs might fly, but then it comes down to voters. Are we really that stupid to be taken in by such obvious overreach? And if we are, then that’s the price of universal suffrage. Intelligence can’t be legislated.
It also comes down to a vigilant, healthy media to challenge politicians and hold them to account. And for Facebook and Twitter to recognise their responsibilities.
One possibility that should be considered as a way to reduce the temptation for oppositions in particular to fling mud, even if in a good cause, is to provide more resources to make the playing field fairer.
The advantages of incumbency are all on display in the ACT at present, as the government rolls out one program and infrastructure project after another, most of which under the cover of the coronavirus, as the election edges closer.
With the full power of the bureaucracy at its disposal, the Barr Government would be a challenge for any opposition to keep up with.
Giving the opposition more resources may not only allow them to do their job properly but take away any excuses for putting out tired old media releases.