An image of a text message saying Malcolm Turnbull will kill medicare.

Liberals are furious at a text message campaign from Labor purporting to be from “Medicare” warning that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull planned to privatise the service if he won the election last Saturday.

Late on Saturday evening and on Sunday, campaign strategists and politicians largely blamed Labor’s Medicare campaign for why we are now waiting for the Australian Electoral Commission to count the votes in just over a dozen key seats to determine the outcome of the election — likely a hung parliament, or a slim Coalition majority.

Queensland Labor has confirmed it was behind the text messages, and The Australian reports today that the so-called “Mediscare” campaign was the brain child of Labor’s digital director, Erinn Swan, the daughter of former treasurer Wayne Swan.

One text message seen by Crikey sent on Saturday morning at 10.41am with the subject/sender line of “Medicare” stated:

“Mr Turnbull’s plans to privatise Medicare will take us down the road of no return. Time is running out to Save Medicare.”

Mediscare text

Both Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis have said the matter has been referred to the Australian Federal Police for investigation. A spokesperson for the AFP said it received the referral on Saturday, and it was being assessed.

“This matter is now being evaluated and whilst this occurs it would not be appropriate to provide further comment.”

Text message spoofing is not a new phenomenon, and it is not a particularly difficult thing to pull off. While it is more difficult to pretend to be sending a message from a specific number, sending messages with a specific name as the sender is relatively simple, and is frequently used by companies across the globe for marketing and other alerts for their customers.

It’s not very expensive, either. One service, TextMagic, charges just $0.082 per text message. For 100,000 text messages across the country, this would only have cost Labor $8200.

Some had suggested it was a simple editing of the subject heading, but that does not change the sender of the message.

Labor may find itself in breach of the law for the text messages. The Commonwealth Electoral Act states that distribution of something “likely to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote” is open to a fine of up to $5000 for a corporation. The Human Services (Medicare) Act also prohibits use of the name “by an association in connection with any activity of the association with the result of implying that the association is in any way connected with the Commonwealth, the Chief Executive Medicare or the Department”.

That breach comes with a fine of up to $4000.

The party would not fall foul of the Spam Act as there is an exemption to allow messages to be sent without consent from registered political parties.

Peter Fray

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