The Australian Capital Territory government has given in-principle support to enforcing truth in political advertising ahead of its coming local election.
The Greens have been pushing for the ACT to become only the second jurisdiction after South Australia to introduce such laws, and plan to test support in the territory’s legislative assembly this week.
Australian governments have traditionally avoided attempting to regulate truth in political advertising, often due to impracticalities and concerns about limiting political discourse.
But the potency of social media to spread disinformation and recent scare campaigns – including false assertions that federal Labor would introduce a death tax if elected – have renewed focus on the issue.
The ACT has flirted with the idea in recent years, but reform has not proceeded and the electoral commissioner has warned such laws would be unworkable and open to exploitation.
The Greens are attempting to bring the matter to a head again this week by testing support in the legislative assembly for a proposal to replicate South Australia’s laws. Its proposal involves amending the ACT’s electoral act and making it illegal to disseminate factually incorrect political material or advertising during the campaign.
An ACT government spokesman confirmed to the Guardian that Labor had in-principle support for the concept of truth in advertising.
He said the government would make a decision on whether to amend the act “in the near future”.
“Truthful and transparent advertising is a fundamental and important part of the political discourse,” he said. “The government will examine amendments and make a decision in the near future.”
The South Australian scheme is relatively narrow in its focus. It relates only to inaccurate or misleading factual matters contained in authorised advertisements, and relies on constituents complaining to the electoral commissioner, who can compel parties to publish corrections or remove material.
“This involves telling people the truth, basically,” ACT Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur said. “There’s been some notable examples, like claims the Labor party was going to introduce a death tax.
“Whatever you may think of a death tax, it’s not an argument that we shouldn’t have political discourse, it’s an argument that we should have truthful political discourse. And if one party says that another party is going to do something that it simply isn’t going to do, we shouldn’t be able to do that.”
Experts say such laws would help restore trust in politics and ensure voters are able to exercise informed judgment at the ballot box.
But history shows regulating truth can be fraught. The federal government brought in truth-in-advertising laws in 1983, but dumped the laws a year later.
A bipartisan committee declared them unworkable, finding political advertising involved “intangible ideas” not readily subject to a test of truth.
The laws were not able to grapple with predictions or opinions, and parliament feared the parties could misuse complaints to disrupt their opponents’ campaigns.
Asked how the Greens would approach enforcement without unfairly restricting discourse, Le Couteur said the South Australian scheme had operated successfully for years.
“We’re basically saying that our electoral commission would take the same sort of approach. We won’t be talking about opinions. We’ll only be talking about facts.”
She envisaged the electoral commission would need a small increase to its resources. But she said she believed there would be only a small number of referrals made.