To an even greater extent than previous election campaigns, this one seems to consist almost entirely of lies and grossly misleading mischaracterisations of opponents’ policies and performance. Kevin Rudd’s claim of a $70 billion Coalition black hole, his claim that Abbott has a secret plan to increase the GST, Abbott’s long-standing claim of Labor debt and deficit (when in fact our debt is quite low by OECD standards and our economy one of the strongest in the world), and so it goes on. Rudd’s attempt a couple of days ago to justify his ridiculous Northern Territory Special Economic Zone policy by asserting that Territorians are doing it tough and don’t have a level playing field, when in fact almost the opposite is the case, is a relatively minor but amusing example of the political porky phenomenon.
Former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes wrote an interesting article on Fairfax yesterday in which he drew attention to the relatively new phenomenon of “fact check” organisations (mostly associated with mainstream media groups) dedicated to uncovering and analysing political lies and distortions. Of course, Holmes’ former TV vehicle Media Watch, and another ABC program Gruen Nation, have also fulfilled that function to some extent over a considerable period of time. But PolitiFact (associated with Channel 7), ABC FactCheck and a similar service now run by the G8 universities’ site The Conversation, have a specialist focus on uncovering and analysing political lies. They certainly have their hands full during the current campaign.
This is a welcome development, at least if you accept that the truth might be a useful thing to know when exercising our democratic choice at election time. Nevertheless, as Holmes points out:
But the campaigns will go on using their talking points, because they’ve been honed to cut through to the voters who decide Australian elections – people who the mastermind of the Kevin 07 campaign, ad man Neil Lawrence, described recently as ”disengaged and hard to get to”.
Ironically, that description was fact-checked on The Conversation website in July by political scientist Sally Young of Melbourne University. She finds it is accurate. She quotes an internal Labor report from the 1980s that described swinging voters as ”basically ignorant and indifferent about politics. They vote on instinct for superficial, ill-informed and generally selfish reasons.”
Nothing has changed since then, writes Dr Young, except that in the digital age these people are harder to reach than ever.
They may well prefer their Facebook pages to the Daily Telegraph/ Herald Sun. But very few swinging voters will be poring over PolitiFact.com.au, or The Conversation, or the ABC’s FactCheck website.
So the simplifications and exaggerations, the three-word slogans and the outright lies will keep on coming.
Our politicians have always had a bipartisan determination to resist the imposition on them of the rules of honest communication that apply to everyone else …
However, Holmes’s conclusion conntains an implicit assumption that the law will never be changed to outlaw misleading and deceptive conduct in political advertising and marketing, in the same way that such conduct is prohibited generally in trade and commerce. Our politicians have always had a bipartisan determination to resist the imposition on them of the rules of honest communication that apply to everyone else, and they have some points in their favour. Nevertheless, the unremitting porky avalanche of the current campaign surely indicates that something serious needs to be done if Australian democracy is to avoid degenerating into nothing more than a contest about who can tell the most lies and get away with them with the biggest proportion of ignorant voters.
I wrote about the need for extension of misleading and deceptive conduct laws to the political arena last year, but my suggestion generated very little debate and sank without trace. No doubt Troppo readers concluded reasonably that such a policy has very little chance of ever being adopted. It certainly doesn’t suit the major political parties, nor harried journalists working on a tight deadline, nor their editors who need to fill vast quantities of pages and pixels with enough content to satisfy the voracious 24-hour media cycle. What better way to achieve this cheaply and painlessly than uncritical coverage of the endless parade of political spin and counter-spin?
However, you would think there might be some enthusiasm for the concept from Independents and minor parties like the Greens or Katter mob. Some combination of them will certainly hold the balance of power in the Senate after the election unless Labor’s two party preferred vote descends significantly further than currently seems likely. There might even be a hung Parliament, although I doubt it.
The problem is that no concerted movement to impose prohibitions on misleading and deceptive conduct on political advertising is going to occur unless some reasonably influential organisation/s sponsor it. How about The Conversation? Or Crikey and other alternative online outlets like Matilda? What about think tanks like the Lowy Foundation?11. KP: I thought about mentioning the IPA for some political balance, but associating it with the concept “truth” is too much of a stretch even for a mild-mannered centrist like me. [↩]
Come on guys! Surely restoring at least some measure of truth-telling and integrity to our political process must interest you just a little bit? I live in hope…