The choice that citizens – not mere “voters” – will exercise on Saturday is primarily between socially beneficial policies, a gender-equal leadership team, a leader who can pause, listen and think – up against a leader weirdly bereft of team or original thought, but ample in promises of yet more protections for corporate and wealth interests. And bursting with self-belief. That’s an opinion, of course. Yours may differ. So maybe we should also consider how this election is positioning facts, analysis and information up against misinformation – lies, con jobs – raised to an art form.
It’s not threats about boats and asylum seekers this time that are meant to terrify us. Post-Christchurch, refugees are doubly abandoned. Taxes are again the agents of fear. Waxing taxes. Unsubstantiated taxes. Fake taxes. Fake warnings offered like incantations that might make them true.
The effects of such calculated misinformation couldn’t be more serious. It’s not just trash politics in the absence of anything positive. It also distorts what’s already happened and confuses the way ahead. Crucial to trustworthiness is a respect for facts over self-interested “opinion” – or deliberately misleading lies. The con-job from Australia’s racist, divisive, climate science-denying Far Right parties could see them holding power in the Senate. The con-job from what are supposedly mainstream parties is surely even more offensive.
In Australia deliberately misleading the Parliament provokes a vote of no-confidence in that individual’s integrity. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton barely survived such a vote over his special care for au pairs (rather than his then-recent shafting of an elected Prime Minister and his all-time shafting of refugees). Yet we are expected to tolerate a free-for-all when it comes to politicians misleading the public either directly or with partisan media support. Former politician Cheryl Kernot put it bluntly on Twitter: “It’s plain wrong that any PM can guarantee front page reporting for absolutely anything uttered… Headlines should be fact-checked!”
It’s not just headlines that need fact-checking but the multiple assertions floating in a fact-free zone. In Warringah, Independent Zali Steggall continues to warn of the dangers that climate science denier Tony Abbott has called “crap”. She – like others – is also calling for reform of political advertising laws, having endured a smear campaign in her challenge of the sitting member and former Prime Minister. The ad she particularly objects to claims Steggall supports Labor’s “new seniors tax”. This is a double lie. Steggall does not (alas) support proposed changes to franking credits’ subsidies. And there is no “seniors tax”. Beyond Warringah though and throughout Australia, LNP politicians and their media mouthpieces are beating up the “tax” word in a cold calculation to mislead and frighten voters.
There’s form here. In 2017 Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, admitted she and her boss knew the vote-winning “tax” they reversed in 2014 was not a carbon tax. “It was many other things in nomenclature terms. We made it a carbon tax,” Credlin has boasted. Fast forward to 2019 and Credlin is saying of Steggall, “She’s exactly the sort of cancer we don’t need more of in the Federal Parliament.”
I find that statement breath-taking. Typing it, I am shocked by the depth of hostility it exhibits about what…a claim on power to which Credlin and Abbott feel fully entitled? It’s Credlin’s gutter tactics we don’t need more of. But can we do anything about it? Can we go beyond the slurs and slogans and patently false claims to demand regulatory, even legislative curtailing of calculated misinformation that’s fact- and evidence-free? Can we stop or curb the lying? Can we afford not to do this?
South Australia has “truth in political advertising” legislation already. Regulation nationally is trickier. Melbourne Uni law professor, Joo-Cheong Tham – who has also written for P & I – is an expert in electoral regulation. He notes it can be difficult to ascertain the truth or otherwise of campaign material during an election campaign. With matters of fact, though – as in Steggall’s case and a myriad of others – there’s greater hope. Tham suggests it’s possible to require political parties to have processes ensuring fact-checking before election material is circulated. “These processes can then be checked by the Australian Electoral Commission. And in the event that they have not been adhered to, there could be a deduction from their public funding.”
The need to curtail calculated misinformation extends beyond electoral advertising into the heart of policy announcements and the reporting of them. Yes, in 2010 Julia Gillard promised a “carbon pricing mechanism” but “no carbon tax”. Those Abbott/Credlin efforts to “make it a carbon tax” were vigorously supported by News Limited tabloids and commercial shock jocks. Evidence-based carbon pricing was effectively weaponised as a “tax”. In 1995, John Howard promised “never, ever” to a GST. The Australian newspaper suggested Howard had left open the possibility of Coalition reconsideration. Yet when asked why, if a GST was economically sound, he wouldn’t support it into the 1996 election, Howard said, “We would occasionally like to win you know.” A con-job? You decide. (In my research for this article I found not one but two exceptionally strong articles from the inimitable Alan Ramsey calling out Howard’s “tangled web”.)
We have strong defamation laws and consumer protections in Australia. We need them. They preserve public trust. How curious then that unashamedly partisan misinformation – lies – can be disseminated unchecked through our mainstream print and broadcasting media. And not just go unchecked, but are obsessively promoted.
On Twitter the hashtag #TruthInMedia helps identify claims unmoored from evidence. Trust and truth have also become one of the less expected stories in the current campaign, going to how journalism is practised within – though not confined to – News Corp. There attacks on any faintly “progressive” person or policy have become so extreme that Tony Koch, a prize-winning journalist wrote recently in the Guardian Australia,“For 30 years I worked for News Corp papers. Now all I see is shameful bias… No editor I worked for would have put up with the biased anti-Labor rubbish that, shamefully, the papers now produce on a daily basis.”
In a country where newspaper ownership is exceptionally concentrated, News Corp remains Australia’s most influential newspaper publisher. Beyond Sydney, Melbourne and neighbouring areas, it is often impossible to find a newspaper not controlled by American citizen, Rupert Murdoch. Of this, P & I’s John Menadue wrote, “We have not only a corruption of domestic public life but also foreign interference in our public life on an enormous scale.”