Truth in political advertising laws 'unworkable', ACT Electoral Commission says
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Truth in political advertising laws 'unworkable', ACT Electoral Commission says

The ACT Electoral Commission has poured cold water on proposed truth in political advertising laws for ACT elections, saying they were difficult to enforce and easily exploited.

The ACT Greens floated the idea of introducing laws which would crack down on misleading election campaigns in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the Electoral Act.

ACT Labor's fake Medicare cards, with 30,000 distributed in the election campaign.

ACT Labor's fake Medicare cards, with 30,000 distributed in the election campaign.

Greens convener Michael Mazengarb said laws similar to South Australia's would place a "higher obligation" on candidates to check their facts.

"When people are bombarded with factually incorrect information, they lose faith in the democratic process and are left not knowing who to believe," he wrote.

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The controversial text message warning of a threat to Medicare from the Coalition before last year's federal election.

The controversial text message warning of a threat to Medicare from the Coalition before last year's federal election.

"In South Australia, truth in advertising laws have uncovered 19 breaches where advertising was found to be 'inaccurate and misleading to a material extent' which then had to be withdrawn during the campaign.

"These laws improve the community's confidence in the democratic process, and ensure that inaccuracies can be challenged before voters go to the polls."

Calls to bring political advertising laws into line with those governing individuals and companies first surfaced last July after the apparent success of Labor's "Mediscare" campaign in the federal election.

ACT Labor courted controversy when it was forced to stop distributing fake Medicare cards before the ACT election in October, after a terse letter from the Australian government solicitor.

Under the Greens model, the ACT Electoral Commissioner would be responsible for ruling on the factual accuracy of the material.

But the ACT Electoral Commission recommended against implementing the laws, saying they could be rorted in the pre-poll period and were difficult to enforce.

"The idea of legislating for truth in political advertising has been discussed in depth at both federal and state levels numerous times over the past 30 years," acting electoral commissioner Ro Spence said in a supplementary submission to the inquiry.

"When proposed, typically inquiring committees or parliaments have deemed it unworkable in practice and it has not reached legislation.

"It has been enacted once federally, where it was repealed the following year, and twice at the state level; where either there has been no appreciable effect on political advertising or it has been interpreted narrowly so as to exclude claims against policy statements and other such advertising."

The Greens also called on the committee to ban roadside corflute advertising, after their signs were routinely vandalised or destroyed.

Instead, the party wanted the 100-metre exclusion zone for political signage at polling places to be revised down to six metres as the rules created confusion" and were not enforced.

"On polling day itself, dozens of violations of the 100-metre rule were reported to Elections ACT, and to our knowledge, only one was followed up," Mr Mazengarb wrote.

"The Elections ACT main phone number was unstaffed on election day. This means that there was no clear channel to properly report a violation.

"This goes some way to explaining the Electoral Commissioner's characterisation of a 'handful' complaints in spite of widespread violations and anecdotal reports."

An electoral commission report on the last election recommended corflutes be confined to main roads outside designated areas only.

However independent candidate Marea Fatseas said that would disadvantage candidates in the electorate of Kurrajong, with the bulk of designated land in Canberra's inner north and south.

Public transport lobbyist Damian Haas said corflutes were one of the only ways smaller political parties and independents could afford to advertise.

Witnesses will appear before the committee on Thursday.

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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