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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
Robert Robert 10:17 am 07 Oct 19

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’.

Peter McDonald Peter McDonald 11:25 am 07 Oct 19

That will make it hard for the greens.

Shane Carter Shane Carter 11:29 am 07 Oct 19

So telling the truth in political advertising is a bad thing...?

That’s weird.

Bethany Williams Bethany Williams 11:29 am 07 Oct 19

No David. When politicians are allowed to tell outright lies in order to convince an uneducated voter to vote for them, it is not preferable to using the public service to do the dirty work for them.

It’s a sad time when lying has become so ubiquitous in the political discourse, and even sadder that politicians and our political system are held in such low regard that lying is now expected.

We all deserve so much better than this.

Truth in politics should be mandatory. Based on facts. Promises should be kept. And voters be respected.

Creating an independent, apolitical body to fact check claims made by politicians - particularly during an election campaign - should and can be introduced. Unfortunately, there is not much of an appetite to do this by either of the major political parties, as both sides would have to vastly change their campaigning methodologies.

Just because you are personally in favour of the free speech argument does not mean that free speech should allow politicians to blatantly lie.

And I’m not sure what your Alan Jones argument has to do with truth in advertising.

My read from your piece here is that you sit on the right, and wish for more tolerance and acceptance of the negative, conservative discourse that has permeated across many parts of the country...except for Canberra. The reason why the Liberal party have not won an election in, oh, I don’t know how long, is that we are clever, tolerant people who don’t buy into the fear-mongering tactics that has been so successful for the Liberal Party in many parts of Australia.

It’s good that the RiotACT provides a platform for both sides of the political argument. But I know that many people, both in Canberra and across Australia, would welcome truth in advertising. We are smart people in Canberra. And we DESERVE to be treated with more respect.

    Lin Van Oevelen Lin Van Oevelen 11:38 am 07 Oct 19

    And even commercial advertisers are held to the truth standard. Companies have been fined for making fake claims about their products or services. No one seems to use the free speech argument to protest against that. Yet the only harm in it is usually that customers waste money on a product that doesn't do what it claims. I'd say the stakes are higher when talking about elections.

    Robert Knight Robert Knight 3:50 pm 07 Oct 19

    Sing it sister!

    Brett Hartley Brett Hartley 4:43 pm 07 Oct 19

    Completely agree, except for making it a partisan point. Every single politician and political party in the country obscures, misdirects, omits relevant facts' and blatantly lies. It is not one party, it is every single one of the untrustworthy dirtbags.

    Bethany Williams Bethany Williams 10:20 pm 07 Oct 19

    Brett Hartley that’s too big a generalisation there. I don’t agree that every single politician is a dirtbag. I think the culture of lying has become incredibly normalised in politics. But to insinuate that all are prevaricators is unfair.

    Brett Hartley Brett Hartley 10:40 am 08 Oct 19

    Bethany Williams fair call, that was a bridge too far. I know some politicians and they're not all dirt bags.

Lin Van Oevelen Lin Van Oevelen 11:31 am 07 Oct 19

This article is confusing. Advertising for Alan Jones'has nothing to do with election campaigns.

And lying about another party's election policies is also very different to making broad and pretty vague statements like the ACT having "the best health system in Australia" or expressing a commitment to climate change action.

I would've liked to have seen the death tax advertising cracked down on because it was a straight out lie about Labor's actual policies. I would've said the same about the Mediscare campaign too. I think it wouldn't be hard to see where the line is at all.

    James Daniels James Daniels 12:09 pm 07 Oct 19

    I think the article was pointing out the claim that there had been federal cuts to health funding when it had actually increased rather than the more subjective statement about the ACT having the best health system in Australia, although I'm not sure how that could be true either given our waiting times and other problems that regularly make the news.

    James Daniels James Daniels 12:54 pm 07 Oct 19

    As for the "death tax lie", the actual advertising was much more subtle than the government saying Labor would introduce a death tax. Consider the difference between these statements: Labor will tax you to death vs Labor will keep taxing you after you're dead. The first could be construed as implying a death tax or it could be taken in the vein of the general expression of doing something to death which is how I took it. The second would be an outright claim that Labor would introduce a death tax. On the other side of the coin, Labor's claims about franking credit reform at best exaggerated the wealth and underplayed the number of people who would be impacted. Spin is so ubiquitous in political advertising that most of what is claimed by all major parties, including the Greens, contains an element of truth, but its usually cherry picked to support their position with inconvenient parts left out or glossed over. I would certainly like to see more truth in political advertising, but the line is anything but well defined and, as the article pointed out, the leanings of the person or panel making the decisions could lead to decisions about good or bad advertising leaning one way or the other.

    Anna Cohen Anna Cohen 1:01 pm 07 Oct 19

    Lin Van Oevelen I think the Alan Jones things is more about censorship, whether in politics or advertising.

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.

    Jennifer Jones Jennifer Jones 12:35 pm 07 Oct 19

    John Moulis according to your logic, nothing exists, because once there was no word for it. Bindbending.

    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 Hosie Jim Hosie 6:46 pm 07 Oct 19

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

    Jennifer Jones Jennifer Jones 11:55 am 08 Oct 19

    Prue McKay i can see the headline 'airheaded bimbo invents social movement, repercussions still being felt 50years on, and still being resisted by sexists'.

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.

Ian McLeod Ian McLeod 11:59 am 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 9:03 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 12:56 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!

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.

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......

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.

Mje Mje Mje Mje 2:58 pm 07 Oct 19

They'll be stuffed as well.

Gerard Dwyer Gerard Dwyer 4:21 pm 07 Oct 19

Go the milk

David Brown David Brown 5:37 pm 07 Oct 19

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

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?

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

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.

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:

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

No thanks.

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