You can handle the truth

The battle over ‘truth in political advertising’ laws is heating up

It’s incredible that it’s even a topic for debate. Truth, in Australian politics, is such a rare commodity that anyone who dares raise their head above the parapet and speak it invariably gets inundated with an avalanche of lumpy bile from those who find truth an inconvenience in a narrative-driven news cycle. This is the world into which the “truth in political advertising” bill is being born. The proposal, which comes after teal independent Zali Steggall introduced her private member’s bill (“Stop the Lies”), is part of Labor’s suite of electoral reforms. Also among the proposed reforms are caps on donations and spending, which are likely to prove more controversial among independents and minor parties. Special Minister for State Don Farrell’s public remarks on the matter have been scant, choosing instead to brief MPs and background journalists on any proposed changes.

Fresh from his attacks on the CSIRO over nuclear energy, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has said, through gritted teeth, that the bill is “probably welcome”. Providing commentary on a foreign concept such as this is no doubt instinctively unnerving to him. Always one to hold a grudge, Dutton added, “When you look back at some of the Labor Party campaigns around ‘Mediscare’ and the rest of it, the union movement are experts at all of this … Don Farrell’s trying to put a good face on this, but I suspect he’s up against it when he’s got the union crooks telling him that they should be running all sorts of dodgy ad campaigns.” That’s Dutton mustering all the positivity he can for a sensible measure to improve the state of our democracy – one that has overwhelming support across the electorate.

Elsewhere, Clive Palmer, the living embodiment of someone with too much money, has warned the government that spending and donation caps will “silence the diversity of ideas in this country”. Indeed, a diversity of ideas is essential for any healthy democracy, but the “diversity” we currently see is funded by cashed-up zealots who are used to getting their way and think the specialness bestowed on them should be inflicted on the rest of us. Palmer spent $123 million at the 2022 election to gift us one senator in the form of Ralph Babet.

Arguably the group with most at stake when it comes to matters of democratic transparency is the teals – their hats may be distinctive, but they are all hung on the same rack when it comes to certain issues. It is the independents that have to do the most work to overcome the machinery of the major parties, and while many have welcomed “truth in advertising” laws, there are concerns among some that spending caps may disadvantage new entrants, thereby entrenching the two-party system. The teals have all called for electoral reform and warned the government not to water down its own election commitments. But speaking on RN yesterday, Curtin MP Kate Chaney implored the government not to do a deal with the Coalition to pass spending reforms that would favour the major parties, making it difficult for new competitors to get up.

The Albanese government also has much to gain by ensuring that the teals are at least seen to be getting what they want when it comes to electoral reform. After nine years of disingenuous politicking, broken promises and divisive rhetoric under the previous Coalition government, the teals offered a credible alternative in previously blue ribbon Liberal seats. It’s almost certain the Coalition will not have an avenue to victory through the leafy streets of the teals’ electorates, and this benefits Labor.

The truly worrying thing for the political establishment is that this truth business might catch on. Once political parties are required to be upfront about their campaign spends, it may place more pressure on them to ensure their words match their actions. Perish the thought.

The troublesome thing for the rest of us is that the proposed measures will not come into effect until after the next federal election. Meaning we are all going to have to live through one more campaign where bullshit can be thrown all over the place on an hourly basis, as billionaires and wannabe billionaires hide behind secretive and murky outfits that will seemingly say anything to promote or protect their interests.

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