The surging tide of censorship in the ACT

David Murtagh 7 October 2019 44
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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44 Responses to The surging tide of censorship in the ACT
Stephen Clively Stephen Clively 8:15 pm 20 Oct 19

Good article David. You have raised the issues of unworkability, and subjectivity.

There is yet another problem that a lot of people don't consider - the disproportionate impact on smaller parties and independents. They have fewer resources to use on fact-checking and research.

But what is worse is that during an election any of the major parties could tie up a small party or an emerging independent with meretricious complaints that tie up the minor party with masses of legal paperwork and reduced ability to campaign.

Jay Kay Jay Kay 10:53 am 11 Oct 19

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

Acton 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?

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 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 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 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.

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.

    Stephen Clively Stephen Clively 8:09 pm 20 Oct 19

    This is a pretty good article. Wishing for truth in political advertising is a great ambition but actually legislating to make it so is fraught with the dangers highlighted by David Murtagh in this article.

    I think that it would be pretty unworkable. A view supported by the people who would have to enforce it - the SA Electoral Commissioner stated that in 2015 and so did the ACT Electoral Commission in 2017.

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 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

MJ Elliott MJ Elliott 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?

    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

    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 12:07 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.

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!

Kathy Schneider Kathy Schneider 11:39 am 07 Oct 19

There are a lot of people of all ages who have lost interest in politics due to obvious politician self interest in all the leadership changes. They tune out so completely that come election time they can’t distinguish lies and propaganda from the real policies. My husband’s secretary was one. She said she didn’t vote Labor because they were bringing in death taxes! That’s the reality now while lies are permitted in campaigns.

John Moulis John Moulis 11:38 am 07 Oct 19

But what can you classify as untruths in an election campaign? Andrew Leigh, Labor's shadow Assistant Treasurer wrote papers supporting the death tax (death duties). If Labor had won death duties would have come in. Crispin Hull from the Canberra Times wrote articles supporting death duties and the Greens formulate their policies on what that newspaper says. As far as outlawing bus ads for "sexist public comments", how will that be enforced? There is no such thing as "sexism", the word was invented by a feminist in the US during International Women's Year (1975). How can you stop the promotion of something that doesn't even exist and was the invention of some airheaded bimbo across the Pacific almost 50 years ago?

    Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 11:45 am 07 Oct 19

    Your mental gymnastics are rather elaborate. Sexism is alive and well unfortunately.

    Bethany Williams Bethany Williams 3:42 pm 07 Oct 19

    John Moulis geez John, go back to your cave, love! Your comment OOZES misogyny and disrespect in general.

    Jim Jim Jim Jim 6:46 pm 07 Oct 19

    Russell Nankervis ever been to the Family Court? Damn straight sexism is alive and well!

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