Parliament Updates

Why we need integrity in Federal Parliament

4 December, 2019


'The Australian Public's declining trust in politicians and in the political process'—How good is this topic, today of all days! On this day, when there are claims and counterclaims, secret deals to pass legislation, allegations in the media of foreign interference in our political system and ongoing concerns about parliamentarians' standards, it is timely to talk about the topic of this matter of public importance: the declining trust of Australians in their elected representatives and their political institutions. We live in a country with a democratic record that on the whole is to be envied. We have since Federation enjoyed regular, peaceful changes of government through open and transparent elections, and the rule of law is embedded into our political system.

But, while Australians are rightly proud of our democracy, the evidence is clear that they are becoming less likely to trust their elected representatives and our political system and are not all that inclined to engage with it. The 2016 Australian election study conducted by the ANU found that public satisfaction with our democratic processes and public trust in the politicians they elect are at some of the lowest levels ever recorded. This is a wake-up call to Australia's political leadership that Australia is not immune from the problems facing democracy in Europe and the US. The parliament of Australia is the people's house, the highest authority in our nation and the place where many aspects of how we live our lives are determined. It should be a place that all Australians respect and are inspired to contribute to, directly or indirectly. Members of the federal government have the opportunity for nepotism and favouritism in appointments and the granting of contracts, misuse of confidential information, conflicts of interest, misuse of entitlements, decisions that favour political donors and crossover appointments between industry lobbyists and parliament, yet there is no criminal sanction for any of these actions. Currently such conduct is self-regulated by parliament and rarely results in real action and investigations.

Public confidence in our political system is undermined by the absence of transparent accountability systems for dealing with allegations of corruption, claims of secret deals over legislation and ongoing reports of foreign interference. Australians have an expectation that the Australian parliament and Public Service meet the highest standards of integrity. They expect that politicians need to be held to greater account so that the parliamentary process is more honest, productive and inspiring than it has been in the recent past.

There are six things that we need to address. One is establishing a national anticorruption body that has real teeth. This must include an independent referral pathway and discretion to hold public hearings. The public must know of this. There must be accountability. We cannot have MPs and their staff held to a weaker standard than others within Australia. We need to restore the Westminster principle of ministerial responsibility. We need to return to an impartial Public Service that provides advice without fear or favour. We need fixed four-year terms of parliament. We need to establish a parliamentary fact-finding office and we need to legislate for truth in political advertising.

I would like to focus on truth in political advertising in particular because that is the starting point of how we all find ourselves in this place. There is an urgent need for this government and this parliament to address this problem. False or misleading claims propagated during recent elections have generated a great deal of public interest, and safeguarding the integrity of our political system must be a priority. According to a national ReachTEL poll conducted following the 2019 federal election, a majority of Australian voters want tougher truth-in-political-advertising laws, with 87.7 per cent of respondents calling for change. This is a critically important issue as the potential impact of misleading and false statements made in the course of electioneering is undoubtedly plentiful. Misleading and dishonest campaigns have an adverse effect on the public interest. They divert attention from substantive issues and may even distort electoral outcomes. To make matters even worse, corrective advertising seeking to clarify matters is often ineffectual, disseminated less widely and ultimately ignored.

The Electoral Act does not require truth in electoral advertising. This comes as a shock to most constituents. They can't believe that that is how low our standard is. The Australian Electoral Commission is unable to act to stop misleading and deceptive conduct during elections. The AEC can only act in relation to conduct which affects the process of casting a vote. In addition, through a number of decisions the High Court has recognised an implied right of political communication in the Constitution.

The question of whether the Australian parliament should enact truth-in-political-advertising laws is not a new one. In fact, the Commonwealth parliament considered the idea back in the 1980s, and until 2002 FreeTV Australia heard complaints against and did not permit misleading political advertising under the Trade Practices Act. Since then Australians have been subject to particularly insidious scare campaigns from both sides of the House. We've had the 'Mediscare' campaign and we've had the death duties campaign, to name just two. These campaigns have sought political profit at the expense of truth and the integrity of our political system.

Australians should be casting their vote based on genuine and factual information. Whilst we can debate competing definitions of truth, everyone can agree to an objective fact-checker, and a minimum factual basis can elevate the national conversation concerning issues that matter to Australians and cut through the fake news, fake advertising and fake political campaigning that demeans us all. South Australia already has adopted political advertising laws without major issue. It is an offence in South Australia to authorise or cause to be published electoral advertisements that are materially inaccurate or misleading. Although the Electoral Commission of South Australia is at times uncomfortable with its role as an adjudicator of the truth, the South Australian example proves that factual-accuracy-in-political-advertising laws are possible.

New Zealand, too, has a national regulation of truth in political advertising, in its case conducted with its advertising standards body. The system has been in existence for decades and over this time has successfully dealt with complicated questions of truth with nuance and transparency. The UK and Canada both have similar provisions. At a time when the confidence of Australians in our political system is at a critically low level, we must take decisive action to defend the integrity of the democracy in our country and act with the moral determination and courage that Australian people expect of us.

In 2002 the Senate finance and public administration committee recommended that some mechanism should be in place to address concerns about improper practices during election campaigns. All sectors of the economy which relate to consumers are bound by strict laws in terms of product quality and product advertising. There should also be constraints on similar activities of candidates, groups and parties in the electoral process. It's unacceptable that misleading customers is against the law but misleading voters is at best a legal grey space and at worst not considered at all. In order to help combat the confidence deficit in our democracy, taking a clear stand against misinformation is critical.

Whilst the South Australian example gives us a good indication as to what's possible, provision in favour of truth in political advertising must balance concerns relating to freedom of speech, and Commonwealth law must be designed so as to ensure it doesn't breach constitutionally implied freedom of political communication. We need to create safeguards against any legislation ensuring truth in political advertising being wielded as a political tool to shut down debate and undermine candidates and parties following due process.

Whilst finding the balance is not an easy task, as it stands today there is little to no protection for voters. This is a time when we need a robust debate concerning the country's future more than ever, a conversation grounded in facts and genuine dialogue, not political grandstanding, slogans and chronic misinformation campaigns. Technology is rapidly developing, and it allows people to literally put words into other people's mouths and promulgate, on social media, videos that are false and misleading, before anyone can correct the record. Given this, it's important that we create a legal framework for dealing with this now. This cannot delay.

I share the expectations of the Australian people that the Australian parliament and the Public Service should meet the highest standard of integrity.