Zali Steggall MP introduces her Voter Protections in Political Advertising Bill

13 November 2023

Today, I again call upon the House to protect voters from misleading and deceptive political advertising. Voters want a debate based on policy and facts, not lies and fear mongering.

We have well established laws to protect consumers from misleading advertising.

We recognise the importance of protecting consumers from scams and unfounded claims. Yet we do not have the same protections for voters.

In consumer advertising, claims in ads and promotions need to be true, accurate and based on reasonable grounds. Any claims advertised must be able to be proved.

Yet politicians and political advertising are not held to the same standard. Are our voting rights not as important as our consumer rights?

The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Voter Protections in Political Advertising) Bill 2023 will prohibit misleading and deceptive political advertising.

This bill is a practical, popular, and proven way to clean up our political advertising. This is constitutionally sound and respects freedom of speech.

This bill fills a legislative gap and vulnerability in Australia's electoral law. It is my third attempt at pushing the major parties to respect their voters' wishes.

I introduced similar legislation before the referendum, and the government declined to act. The referendum brought out some of the best and worst in political debate, with a number of paid ads containing incomplete, out-of-context and down right misleading statements.

As the referendum campaigning rolled out, there was concern from both the 'yes' and 'no' campaigners and supporters about misleading and deceptive advertising.

Exit polling from the referendum showed 83 per cent of 'no' voters and 92 per cent of 'yes' voters polled supported regulating political advertising.

Across all voting intentions, more than three in five Australians agree they are concerned about lies and misinformation circulated on social media during the referendum campaign—with Labor 78 per cent, Coalition 64 per cent, Greens 82 per cent, One Nation 61 per cent and Independents 72 per cent).

Voters want political advertising that they can trust.

Voters of all persuasions want political advertising standards brought into line with consumer advertising.

The feedback from the referendum is very similar to that received after the last election.

If we look back a little further, examples of disputed claims such as 'death taxes' during the 2019 election campaign and 'Mediscare' in 2016 spring to mind.

Currently, we have a scare campaign running on our coast, implying that, somehow, offshore wind turbines will cause whale deaths, with no evidence to support the claim—no data.

The billboards were not even authorised until questions were asked by the media from the billboard company.

A sceptic might claim that lies have always been part of politics. But research shows that the sheer quantity of false political advertising is growing.

Our elections are not just fought by political parties and candidates. We now have third-party organisations like Advance Australia secretly funded by vested interests and wealthy individuals with a financial interest in influencing policy, running smear campaigns.

These organisations are clearly politically linked, with the former member for Warringah, Mr Abbott, a director of Advance Australia.

Our democracy and electoral processes are precious and must be protected. For all those complaining about this type of protection, I say what are you afraid of?

Are your claims not valid? Can you not back your claims up or prove them? Just like any manufacturer or business cannot scam consumers, you should not be able to scam voters.

This bill:

prohibits advertising that contains a statement of fact which is misleading or deceptive to a material extent or is likely to mislead or deceive to a material extent;   

prohibits parties, candidates and campaigners from impersonating or passing off material as being from another candidate;   

provides for a complaints process through the Australian Electoral Commissioner who may order a retraction of the statement and/or apology, or alternatively the complaint can be pursued through the courts.

This has been done for many years in relation to consumer advertising. There is no reason why it cannot be done for political advertising.

The bill implements safeguards in respect to print, radio, television, telephone or internet.

It also deals with the modern threat of deep fakes.

Deep fakes are audio and video clips of candidates manipulated by artificial intelligence to make it appear they are saying something they did not.

The threat from deep fakes is growing and we need to get ahead of this new form of misinformation. This bill can help do that.

It prohibits advertising from deceptively impersonating, or falsely attributing material to, a person, candidate, campaigner, party or entity—for example, electoral matter that purports to have been published by the campaign of a candidate in an election but was in fact published by someone else.

The bill is modelled on South Australia's truth-in-political-advertising provision, which has successfully operated since 1985 and survived constitutional scrutiny.

The government says it is considering similar legislation but all too often we see major parties keep open loopholes for their own benefit.

This is an opportunity to be clear, to have legislation that is not partisan coming from just one side of politics, but coming from the crossbench, to raise the standards of our political debate.

So I urge the members in this place to debate, vote and think about the standards you are prepared to accept and endorse. Will you protect Australian voters and give their democratic rights the same protections we give their consumer rights? It's time to raise the bar.