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Come on parties, it’s time to tell the truth

Opinion

After an election lead-up saturated with “fear campaigns, half-truths and innuendos”, Mark Brindal argues that it’s time to demand politicians meet the same standards of honesty they enforce on others.

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The longest and dreariest election is Australian history is almost over.

Possibly the only memory Australians will take from it is their cynicism, and their re-enforced disillusionment with mainstream political parties. Even worse, it has eroded the foundations on which the stability of Australian democracy has been built.

Politicians have fallen over themselves to protect the public from any dishonest, deceptive and misleading conduct from the business sector. They have been equally rigorous in demanding due diligence and imposing duties of care on company directors.

In Australia, the courts have concluded that commercial advertisers should know that readers would include the shrewd and the gullible, the educated and uneducated, with varying degrees of experience in commercial transactions. They have ruled that prospective buyers should not have to “read between the lines”. Consequently, leaving out relevant facts can be just as misleading or deceptive as including inaccurate or incorrect information.

Politicians, however, are coy about setting limits either for themselves or for their parties.

It was 1983 before the Commonwealth considered any provision prohibiting untrue electoral advertising. The Act (section 329 (2)) stated: “A person shall not, during the relevant period in relation to an election under this Act, print, publish, or distribute, or cause, permit or authorise to be printed, published or distributed, any electoral advertisement containing a statement: that is untrue”.

The provision was never tested in an election period. Despite the paltry penalties provided, that it was repealed barely a year later.

South Australia is unique as it has Australia’s only truth-in-political-advertising legislation in force: section 113 (1) of the Electoral Act 1985 (SA).

Unfortunately, the SA legislation does not apply to Commonwealth elections.

Technological advances have given politicians unparalleled ability to present their vision to the Australian people. But they have squandered the opportunity. Our airwaves have been saturated (by all parties) with fear campaigns, half-truths and innuendos.

Many Australian electors have habitual voting patterns. Most are not gullible. They are educated and discerning, capable of sorting prejudice, half-truths and innuendo from fact.

Political parties do put effort into shoring up their voter base. However, most ads deliberately target the uncommitted or swinging voter. That group of voters also includes educated and discerning people but additionally it encompasses a high proportion of those who are disinterested or disengaged.

In a country where attendance at a polling booth is compulsory, the ads are calculated to positively influence the opinion of those voters only for as long as it takes them to mark their ballot paper.

Such advertising has neither a “fit for purpose” clause, nor any equivalent of a “money-back guarantee”. It is the most blatant example of “buyers beware.”

The only accountability mechanism for politicians is the next election. That will be at least three years away in time and at least half a million dollars away in the cost to the public purse. God only knows what the price will be in terms of senseless political compromises and stupid decisions.

The reality of a representative democracy allows us to elect others to vote and govern intelligently on our behalf. Elections should guarantee to every voter the fundamental right to make an informed choice. To do less is to undermine the foundations on which Australian democracy has been built.

The South Australian seat won by Hon Peter Lewis affords one example of the importance of this. He held the seat as a Liberal for 18 years, but after resigning from the party was re-elected as an independent at the 2000 state election. During the campaign he publicly promised, on numerous occasions, to support the continuation of a Liberal government.

When he was put to the test, he supported Labor. The matter was taken to court and it was held that he could not be bound by his promises and was free to change his mind. It was not until 2006 that his electors could replace him.

That’s why truth from those seeking to govern us matters.

No matter that most of us can see through their tawdry efforts to cast themselves as latter-day Messiahs while casting their opponents as evil, manipulative Machiavellis. We must remain vigilant and demand safeguards that prevent any attempt to compromise our right to the informed exercise of our vote.

Australian governments are changed, generally speaking, at the will of swinging and uncommitted voters. Since the nation’s governance is effectively entrusted to a relatively small sector of the population, even the most partisan of us should demand that material calculated to influence that group should be truthful and transparent.

On Saturday, one party will be elected to government. Their spin doctors and PR people will indulge in an orgy of self-congratulation because they outplayed their opponents in what seems an increasingly dishonest game. They will consider themselves winners.

Their approach is myopic and the winner deserves not government but a Mr Magoo award. I wonder if they will even spare a thought for the real losers in this, legion though they are.

They are too short-sighted to perceive even their own losses. While many Australians vote habitually, contemporary party approaches to elections are eroding their own voting bases.

A survey released this week shows that the accelerating drift towards independents is occurring because of voter dissatisfaction with the major parties.

Maybe it’s past the time when they are immolated in the bonfires of their own vanities. But we can only hope that the smoke and heat they generate does not irreparably damage the fabric from which Australia’s democracy is stitched.

It’s more than time to demand that politicians accept the same standards they enforce on others. It’s more than time to demand truth in political advertising.

Mark Brindal was a state Liberal MP from 1989 until 2006. He is now involved in academic writing and is a public policy consultant.

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