Truth in political advertising laws only the first step to eliminating the spread of misinformation

Posted on 14 May 2024

By Deborah Hart

Fake news

It’s time science and facts replaced profits and power if we are to truly tackle pressing issues such as climate change, says Deborah Hart, chair of the arts-based environmental advocacy organisation CLIMARTE.

The Albanese government signalled its intention to legislate “truth in advertising” laws to identify and penalise falsehoods designed to win votes in election campaigns.

This call to penalise lies in political advertising is long overdue. Presently, under Australian law, it is perfectly legal to lie in a political ad.

CLIMARTE chair Deborah Hart
CLIMARTE chair Deborah Hart.

The misinformation and disinformation spread via political advertising over the past few years in particular has perpetuated unknown damage to great swathes of Australian society, most notably to Indigenous Australians during the Voice referendum, and in regard to the climate emergency.

If legislation penalising lies in political advertising had been enacted earlier, would we as a society now be grappling with converging climate, ecological and inequity crises?

Politically motivated disinformation should carry penalties commensurate with the wholesale damage these lies have caused to Australians.

It might seem like a case of better late than never – and it is – but we cannot allow ourselves to forget the chaos that has already been sown.

Disinformation has become the most dangerous artefact of our political landscape

Democracy depends on trustworthy, verifiable information.

As creative workers addressing the existential threat of the climate emergency, CLIMARTE wholeheartedly welcomes laws to hold to account people seeking to maintain their “business as usual” profits through divisive disinformation campaigns.

Spreading disinformation in Australia is startlingly easy. Disinformation is a deliberate tactic employed on a macro level to divide people – within and between families and communities – by distracting them from core issues by creating tribalised responses to urgent societal problems.

Disinformation has run rampant in the past 10 years particularly, as the deliberately sown culture wars have permeated sensible discussions on basic democratic processes.

For example, those who call out individuals or groups for spreading dangerous disinformation are typically met with accusations of interfering in “freedom of speech”, which is in fact a thinly veiled catch-all phrase that certain subsections of politics perceive as describing their right to tell lies.

Fake news misinformation
"Decisions made in the absence of the best available scientific facts and a social justice lens do not result in the best public outcomes."

Opaqueness of lobbying model must also be addressed

In conjunction with swiftly enacting rigorous truth in political advertising laws, Australia should be addressing the woefully opaque lobbyist landscape.

For a long time our political culture has increasingly encouraged vested interests to meddle in our democratic processes (i.e. through political donations and quid pro quo access to decision makers).

Enormous undue influence is placed on leaders, resulting in deeply compromised decisions, particularly in relation to environment and energy policies.

Decisions made in the absence of the best available scientific facts and a social justice lens do not result in the best public outcomes.

Most Australians would agree that a more equitable society is a healthier one. Most would believe that political representatives have a duty to act in the best interests of the people they represent, and that a failure to do so is a breach of that duty of care.

Yet at an industrial scale, too many politicians in Australia are mouthpiece lobbyists for harmful fossil fuel industries.

We need laws to hold to account leaders who are actively engaged in spreading disinformation in order to block progressive policies that will make Australia a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable country.

Australia does not currently have – but it desperately needs – a process by which to tell the difference between lobbyists from big coal or the gambling industry who influence public policy in shadowy ways, and funders and advocates from community-driven organisations who seek better outcomes for everyone.

Some chatter about this has begun, with Dr Monique Ryan’s call for a #CleanUpPoliticsAct, which will work at strengthening democratic processes and improve government decision-making.

Addressing the pervasive lobbyist problem and the lies in political advertising are two small steps that can be taken immediately to stop the continual weakening of Australia’s democracy.

It’s time science and facts replaced profits and power, so that we can begin addressing the dire and urgent threats posed by the climate emergency and attempt to rebuild from the damage already imposed.

Deborah Hart is a climate- and environment-focused creative producer and writer based in Melbourne. She is the founder and chair of CLIMARTE, which works to harness the power of creative arts and “performative” action to highlight the need for action to mitigate climate change.

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