While the major parties contest the election with competing policies and competing claims, an altogether different political contest is in play. This is the contest, across the political spectrum, between competing half-truths and deceptions. Ever since the Federal election in 2016, electoral disinformation and misinformation, particularly that communicated through social media, has become a blight upon Australia’s electoral landscape.
Misleading and deceptive political advertising and publicity is, by its nature, profoundly anti-democratic. Campaign tactics have furthered the spread of falsehoods and deceptions as each electoral cycle has progressed. Social media has dramatically expanded its reach. Neither electoral law nor electoral institutions have caught up. The gap is a danger.
In an effort to combat disinformation that relates specifically to the conduct of the coming federal election, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) recently established a disinformation register. The register summarises the false claims that have already become pervasive. The register provides more than 20 examples of disinformation currently in circulation. Among the most egregious of these are the following.
That the AEC has sent multiple copies of unsolicited postal votes to a single voter, so proving that electoral fraud is rampant. Postal vote applications are being submitted and processed for deceased Australians. Swathes of First Nations people have been wiped from the electoral roll without their knowledge. There will be two federal elections in 2022, including a people’s non-corporate election.
Following the USA, it is alleged that Dominion voting machines will be used to count votes and will be rigged to favour one party or the other. Australian voters who are not vaccinated will be prevented from voting. A vote of no confidence in the Parliament may cause the entire election to be re-run. There are constitutional means available to defer the election beyond 2022. The AEC is aligned to the Liberal-National coalition. The AEC is aligned to the Labor party.
Every one of these claims is false. The is taking every measure available to it to correct such falsehoods. Their invention and utilisation is calculated to undermine public confidence in the electoral process. Such conspiracy theories are electoral frauds that may have the effect of persuading not insignificant numbers of Australian citizens not to exercise their right to vote or to exercise it mistakenly. At present, however, there are insufficient legal protections available to discourage and prevent such democratically damaging interventions.
Then there are misleading and deceptive claims now almost routinely made by political parties themselves. A few prominent examples come readily to mind. The Labor party has raised the fear that cashless debit cards are to be rolled out to pensioners generally, rather than being confined to compulsory use by particular communities living in particular areas of the country. The communities most targeted have been First Nations people.
This claim had its origin in statements made by the incoming Minister for Health, Ann Ruston, in 2020. Ruston had made a suggestion that it might be a good idea to move different people on different income management programs onto a single platform, i.e. the cashless debit card. Moving pensioners on masse to income management by way of the card had never been contemplated and, in any case, would have been a form of political suicide amongst older voters.
In the 2019 election, the Liberal-National Coalition had accused the Labor Party of seeking to introduce death duties or more colloquially a ‘death tax’. The death tax claim was plainly extreme and for that reason morphed into an attack on Labor’s alleged commitment to introduce a ‘retirement tax.’ The claim was that Labor, the Greens and the Unions had agreed on a plan to introduce a 40% inheritance tax. No such plan existed.
Labor has resurrected a modified version of its ‘Mediscare’ campaign. The broad claim is that the Coalition will cut spending on Medicare if re-elected. A recent tweet by the Labor party declared that ‘At this election, you can choose Scott Morrison or you can choose Medicare. But you can’t have both’. Anthony Albanese argued that Senator Ruston’s appointment as Health Minister demonstrated that if the Coalition was re-elected, Australia would witness heavy cuts to Medicare funding. Senator Ruston countered by saying that the Coalition would make no cuts to Medicare. In fact, 2022-23 budget papers reveal that the government expects that spending on medical services and benefits will rise from 38.9 bn to 43.9 bn in 2025-2026.
The Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, generated a furore recently when he motioned the Opposition Leader and declared that the Chinese government had made a decision about whom they would back in the election and that ‘they had picked this bloke as that candidate.’ Albanese characterised Dutton’s behaviour as desperate. He pointed out that the major parties had identical attitudes to Beijing’s trade sanctions, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China sea, foreign interference and cybersecurity.
Earlier this month, the AEC and Facebook issued a warning that dangerous voter fraud narratives were spreading across Facebook.These had been seeded from minor parties, including One Nation and the United Australia Party
Amidst this plethora of claims, the question remains as to what to do about them. In a recent policy paper, the Accountability Round Table made a number of constructive suggestions. It proposed that the AEC should have an expanded role to determine claims of electoral disinformation quickly and impartially with a power to impose appropriate penalties. Independent fact-checking agencies in the media and universities should be funded to provide quick, professional advice.
A Parliamentary Code of Conduct should be introduced, applying to all candidates for parliamentary election. A Parliamentary Standards Commissioner should be appointed to hear and determine claims in relation to electoral disinformation and to supervise compliance with the code. Penalties for breaches of the code should apply. These might range from forfeiture of deposits to ‘red carding’ of parliamentarians by suspending them from office for short periods. In serious cases, following recommendations of the Commissioner to Parliament’s Privileges Committee, a local election could be declared void by the relevant House of the Parliament.
The Auditor-General should be funded adequately to more effectively conduct its role in checking for governmental malfeasance, mismanagement, misconduct or incompetence in the conduct of electoral, financial affairs.
When established, a Commonwealth Integrity Commission should be empowered to investigate ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ by any person or organisation in elections, as part of a broader definition of corrupt conduct in legislation governing the Commission’s operations.
The adoption of such measures would have, as a primary aim, to deter the proliferation of electoral disinformation and misinformation from the outset. Australian democracy relies for its integrity and vitality on an informed electorate. Its fabric is rent if deceptions prevail.