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The surging tide of censorship in the ACT

David Murtagh 7 October 2019 53
Andrew Barr featured on Liberals' election advertisement.

Andrew Barr was a regular feature in the Liberals’ federal campaign in 2019. Photo: File.

RiotACT’s report that the Greens want to introduce truth in political advertising laws should frighten every Canberran – it highlights a growing totalitarian streak running through the Greens.

Caroline Le Couteur enthusiastically jumped on the petition to remove Alan Jones from advertising on Canberra buses. The petition originated with Canberra businesswoman Peta Swarbrick, but you’d be hard-pressed to know that, considering the Greens’ enthusiasm to get rid of Jones.

Swarbrick’s petition called on “Transport Canberra to immediately remove from bus advertising all advertisements promoting people who make sexist public comments, including Alan Jones” and to ensure “that promotion of people who make sexist public comments is added to the bans in the Transport Canberra advertising guidelines”.

That’s a mighty broad brush. And highly subjective. It’s safe to assume that “sexist public comments” are just the beginning. Surely to the list of sins would be added racism and homophobia. If not, why not?

And this is where it starts to get dicey.

If you publicly opposed same-sex marriage, does that make you a homophobe? That depends on who’s making the assessment.

Ms Swarbrick isn’t a fan of Alan Jones. Fair call. That’s a big club, as the RioACT poll attests. But what if there were an advertisement for a speaking tour by Bill Clinton? Should that advertisement be accepted?

It’s difficult to decide whether this is a slippery slope, the thin end of the wedge or the thin end of a slippery wedge. But the Greens do seem to be on a roll.

As RiotACT reported last weekend, the Greens’ latest proposal is to introduce truth in political advertising laws.

How could this be a bad idea? Surely we want truth in politics! It seems so. An Australia Institute poll released in August 2018 shows that 84 per cent of Australians support truth in political advertising laws.

You might wonder why the number was so low, considering no one is arguing for the alternative or, more accurately, more of it.

The problem with the lack of truth in politics is not the politician, though. It’s us. Until we impose a cost greater on parties than the price of the lie we should expect more of the same.

There is another reason to lie: it works.

The Greens say we need truth in political advertising laws because of claims like the Liberals’ 2019 allegation that Labor wanted to introduce a death tax, a campaign in which the Chief Minister and ACT Labor were prominent features.

Under the Greens’ proposed legislation, the death tax claim could have been the subject of a complaint. The Liberals might have copped a $25,000 fine.

The ruling would have been made, we can assume, by an “independent” body. Yes, the dreaded air quotes, because the ACT has had the same party/coalition in government for five terms.

How independent would those appointees be?

Caroline Le Couteur might be happy with a Labor-Green-appointed panel but what if the tables were turned?

What if a ‘conservative’ panel were ruling on the truthfulness of Greens’ advertising? What if they ruled that claims about climate change were overblown? Hyperbolic? Or even lies?

In 2016, Labor’s health advertisement started with this line from Chief Minister Andrew Barr: “Despite Federal cuts, Canberra has one of the best health systems in Australia …”

The Commonwealth Department of Health seems to disagree with Barr’s statement.

Total Australian Government hospital funding

Total Australian Government hospital funding to the ACT. Source: Department of Health.

Does that make Barr’s statement a lie?

Let’s assume it was completely factual but a complaint was made. Even if the allegation was overturned, the news story for that day (at least) would be that Labor’s claim was a lie. The independent body could be doing the dirty work of political parties.

No one likes to be lied to, but lies are preferable to the alternative: a curtailment on political speech in which pubic servants become tools of political parties and are forced to adjudicate on hypotheticals.

David Murtagh is a Canberra writer and podcaster.

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53 Responses to The surging tide of censorship in the ACT
Camm Kelly Camm Kelly 10:53 am 11 Oct 19

Could be easily solved by forcing ads to provide links to sources for the claim

Acton 12:16 pm 09 Oct 19

A statement may be truth or opinion or a lie. Is the following statement on the Greens website factually correct, a legitimate political comment, an opinion open to challenge, a deliberate distortion, hyperbole, or a fabricated lie?

“The fact is, we are facing an existential climate crisis that threatens human civilisation – and the major parties don’t have a plan to deal with it.”

If one thinks that Greens statement is not factually correct (or any LNP/ALP/etc statement), it could be challenged and the Greens fined under the proposed legislation because it will be illegal to “disseminate political material or advertising that is factually incorrect” during the upcoming election campaign.

Political party statements are not always ‘factually correct’ and who will arbitrate the standard to be reached, if not the electorate.?

The proposed legislation will be misused to stifle political debate and intimidate opponents. It is anti-democratic and should be rejected.

Mathew Hoole Mathew Hoole 2:21 pm 08 Oct 19

Should truth in political advertising also apply to the greens?

Timothy O'Halloran Timothy O'Halloran 1:14 pm 08 Oct 19

No thanks.

Rowan Hurrell Rowan Hurrell 12:36 pm 08 Oct 19

So its "totalitarian" and "the rise of censorship" to not want blatant lies allowed in political advertising?

Liz Lyell Liz Lyell 3:01 am 08 Oct 19

Politicians telling the truth, unique idea!!!!

HiddenDragon 8:11 pm 07 Oct 19

It’s always entertaining to see that the people who love parading their passionate commitment (or words to that effect) to human rights, and who earnestly lament the fact that Australia does not have a Bill of Rights (unlike the country which they so often love to hate), are somewhat less committed to the right to free speech – for others.

Anyway, where are the demands for truth in government advertising – with policing by an “independent”……. body? It’s one thing to have candidates bending or breaking the truth during election campaigns, it’s another thing to have the elected candidates doing that on a regular basis for the next three or for years, using money forcibly extracted from taxpayers’ pockets, as they lurch towards the next election.

    Paul Murray 9:00 am 08 Oct 19

    A bill of rights is mostly an attempt to bypass democracy. Most of these stated rights sound fair, but it turns out they are freighted with hidden meaning, meanings that were not invented here in Australia. Not to mention that the whole idea of a right is problematic, seeing as no-one in the developed world outside the USA believes in God anymore. What is a right, if it’s not God-given? It’s an entitlement that we choose to recognise. Well: that’s what laws passed by our elected reps in parliament are for.

    chewy14 8:00 pm 08 Oct 19

    Paul Murray,
    “What exactly is a right if it’s not god given”

    Exactly what it’s always been, something made up that we’ve agreed on.

    The idea that they were ever special because they were “god given” is cute but laughable.

Timothy O'Halloran Timothy O'Halloran 6:56 pm 07 Oct 19

No thanks.

Michael Maley Michael Maley 6:32 pm 07 Oct 19

For a bit more on the history of legislating for truth in political advertising - and a reality check about the practicalities of same - see here:

Michael Strand Michael Strand 6:13 pm 07 Oct 19

What a stupid article. Respect for politics and politicians is at an all time low because of lies and disinformation. Oh...and to answer his question "If you publicly opposed same-sex marriage, does that make you a homophobe?" - Yes, yes it does.

    Christopher Nichols Christopher Nichols 10:15 am 08 Oct 19

    Michael Strand how does opposing same sex marriage make one a homophobe?. A person may object on the basis of their religious beliefs and has nothing to do with hating or fearing homosexuals.

    Michael Strand Michael Strand 10:17 am 08 Oct 19

    Christopher Nichols then they should mind their own business.

Billy Watson Billy Watson 5:54 pm 07 Oct 19

It’s illegal for a company to make a false claim when advertising a product for sale to the public... and integrity in politics is arguably more important. So I don’t get the problem. It’s certainly a good thing that political advertising is honest and not misleading

Lucy Baker 5:48 pm 07 Oct 19

More broadly, how would truth-in-advertising legislation have affected Geocon’s apartment complex promotions?

David Brown David Brown 5:37 pm 07 Oct 19

I think it is brilliant. Imagine an election where politicians can’t talk. 🤔

Gerard Dwyer Gerard Dwyer 4:21 pm 07 Oct 19

Go the milk

Mje Mje Mje Mje 2:58 pm 07 Oct 19

They'll be stuffed as well.

Elizabeth Ann Thurbon Elizabeth Ann Thurbon 1:18 pm 07 Oct 19

Never thought of the need for truthful facts as totalitarian?

    Joshua McTackett Joshua McTackett 1:39 pm 07 Oct 19

    Elizabeth Ann Thurbon yeah but the problem is on complex issues, who decides what is the truth? Not everything is black and white, but it needs to be up to us as a population not to fall for BS. We don't need to be coddled, we need to be educated and emboldened

    Bethany Williams Bethany Williams 3:43 pm 07 Oct 19

    Joshua McTackett facts aren’t so hard to find. If statements are based on empirical evidence, then they’re the truth. It’s really not so hard to NOT LIE.

Jason Schuster Jason Schuster 12:32 pm 07 Oct 19

very truthful signs however

    Joshua McTackett Joshua McTackett 1:38 pm 07 Oct 19

    Jason Schuster they're really not.

    Ryan Sjaarda Ryan Sjaarda 2:02 pm 07 Oct 19

    Arh yes! Portraying a idea from the early 1970's that hasn't been mentioned for 40 years as current 2019 policy is in VERY truthful......

Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 12:23 pm 07 Oct 19

We should be striving for MORE engagement in politics, not less. If treating political advertising like the ACCC treats regular advertising leads to better political engagement then that is a good thing.

Ian McLeod Ian McLeod 12:08 pm 07 Oct 19

They will meet bipartisan opposition.

What we need instead is more scrutiny over actual life experience and / or meaningful qualifications of candidates.

We have too many visionless rent seekers.

Tacky advertising (on both sides) is an expected outcome.

We need a return to the days of actual leadership - Menzies, Hawke, Keating, Howard, even the likes of Bob Brown.

Whether we agreed with them or not, few doubted their leadership, competency and sincerity of conviction. All qualities in short supply in the factional placements and career hacks we get now.

What do we have now? Staffers and offices packed with career hacks.

It's like a creche for generational welfare.

We should expect higher standards and vote accordingly.

Ban candidacy five years post political employment. Cap term limits so we don't get 20 year nobodies who's sole purpose in life is to block others and go on junkets.

Achieve, or make way for someone who will. This is standard employment practice everywhere else.

Any other reform is just lipstick on a pig.

    Paul Murray Paul Murray 9:05 am 08 Oct 19

    God save us from politicians with "vision". Hitler had "vision". Perhaps what we really need is better public involvement. Then again - aren't things going pretty ok, mostly? The streets are clean, the roads get built, I've got a job.

    Maybe what we need is to admit that the world really is divided into a hereditary ruling caste and the commons, and it always will be. It's something that I always think about when I see that statue in Garema Place of Alexander Downer and his dad.

    Ian McLeod Ian McLeod 12:57 pm 08 Oct 19

    Paul Murray sounds like a socialist conspiracy theory, which I'm not really a fan. I would rather some inequality over some forced dystopian "equality" any day. I would rather we just had some leaders with some hint of vision.

    We have public involvement, it's called elections.

    So it's up to voters to start asking the hard questions rather than mindlessly ticking boxes like we take familiar brands with colourful packaging from the supermarket. Even when we know it's not good for us.

Gabriel Spacca Gabriel Spacca 12:02 pm 07 Oct 19

“a curtailment on political speech in which pubic servants become tools of political parties”

Too late!

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