7 October 2019

The surging tide of censorship in the ACT

| David Murtagh
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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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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.

HiddenDragon8:11 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.

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.

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.

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

You are conflating a requirement for telling the truth during an electoral campaign with censorship.
Some things are verifiable. Climate change, for example, is verifiably true going by the most recent widely accepted expert research. Similarly the death taxes claim did not have a basis in verifiable fact in proposed policy.

I agree that you then need to ensure the arbiter is reasonably unbiased. However allowing or even encouraging outright lying in a campaign just because you can’t work out a way to ensure reasonable results seems like ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’.

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