It’s illegal for companies to advertise misleadingly, so why is it okay for political parties?

PSA: It’s perfectly legal for politicians to lie to us in their campaign announcements this election.

(It was illegal for a few months in the 1980s, but we’ll get to that.)

It’s especially perverse given that it’s been a mainstay of consumer law since 1974 that companies aren’t allowed to make incorrect statements, or even statements that could create a false impression.

For example, a real estate agent would be breaking the law if they claimed a property was beachfront when it was not.

The same goes for a jewelry store that advertised a watch that had gone down from $200 to $100 when it never sold for $200.

Just yesterday, global hotel giant Trivago was fined nearly $45 million for ‘very misleading’ adverts claiming the company could find the cheapest room rates when in fact, the most expensive rooms took first place in two-thirds of the advertisements. .

Trivago has earned $92 million from duplicity in just three years.

But a political party could make similar claims without facts to mislead voters this campaign and there would be no legal recourse.

The rewards are arguably much higher.

The keys to the kingdom lie with the winner of the election – ministerial posts, political power and, for many MPs, even the promise of a post-political career through the entrenched system of political appointments, lobbying and consultants.

Political advertisements on display at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.(ABC News: Siobhan Heanue)

Various parliaments, while debating whether to legislate honesty in advertising, have been candid in noting that people must trust the information they receive from candidates seeking to govern us in order to make an informed choice on polling day.

So why the hell didn’t this happen?

It made. For eight months.

We can’t handle the truth

In February 1984, a law came into effect prohibiting the printing or publication of false election advertisements with a maximum fine of $1,000 or imprisonment for up to six months.

A corporation would be liable for a fine of up to $5,000. It was repealed in October 1984, just six weeks before the federal election.

Constitutional lawyer George Williams said it was done on the majority recommendation of a parliamentary committee which had a number of concerns, including that mere opinions could be captured by laws and that publishers and TV stations would be disproportionately affected; need legal advice before advertisements can be shown.

So it was left to voters to decipher whether what politicians were telling us was an approximation of the truth.

South Australia cracks the code

South Australia has long been known to be at the forefront of electoral reform – just ask them.

The South Australian Parliament website helpfully enumerates its achievements over the years, such as being the first part of the British Empire to cut ties between church and state (1851), legalizing trade unions (1876) and being only the fourth jurisdiction in the world to allow women to vote (1894).

It was also undeterred by the Federal Parliament’s musings on truth in political advertising, passing its own laws in 1985, albeit with one crucial difference.

Rather than focusing on proving what is true, he focused on what can be proven false.

“A person who authorizes, causes or permits the publication of an election advertisement (an advertiser) commits an offense if the advertisement contains a statement purporting to be a statement of fact that is materially inaccurate and misleading,” reads the article. 113(2) of the South Australian Elections Act 1985.

The penalty is a fine of $5,000 for an individual and $25,000 for a corporation, and an election can even be declared void if the misleading advertising is so serious that the outcome was affected.

Importantly, it survived a constitutional challenge based on the implied right to freedom of political communication and has since been used many times, even in the last SA election campaign.

Labor was asked to pull an inaccurate campaign advert about the ambulance ramp-up that claimed it was ‘worse than ever’ when SA Health data showed it had declined.

The rules also apply to local government elections with a number of candidates withdrawn in the 2018 campaign.

But this does not apply to the current campaign.

This requires a change in the law at the federal level.

A truck with 'Labor will tax you to death' written on the sides.
Political advertisements for a so-called death tax were broadcast across Australia during the last federal election.(Provided)

So the same parties that are banned from peddling falsehoods in a state campaign have no such handbrake when designing ads in the contest for the nation’s highest parliament.

It is a puzzling situation when both sides publicly denounce so vehemently the other’s use of scaremongering campaigns.

Even Pauline Hanson was in favor of Clive Palmer because of his campaign promise to cap home loans at 3%.

“This 3% for five years – it can’t happen, it can’t be legislated… and it’s not the truth,” Ms Hanson said during this week’s ‘The Mavericks’ debate on Sky News.

A yellow United Australia Party billboard at sunset
An advert for the United Australia Party on a road in Queensland.(ABC Capricorn: Tobi Loftus)

The desire for change indeed seems to be popular regardless of the party one supports.

The Australia Institute said a survey it conducted found that 87% of Coalition voters supported truth in political advertising laws, compared to 88% for Labour, 82% for the Greens and 87 % for One Nation.

It is often said that we live in a post-truth world, but it is clear that epistemic debate does not mean that we should abandon all hope of integrity and factual accuracy.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to search, up and down arrows for volume.
Play the video.  Duration: 2 minutes 23 seconds

Scott Morrison accused of swerving amid Solomons foreign policy failure

Loading form…