The Australian Labor Party has said it was compliant with rules around election advertising authorisations when its name was left off text messages sent from “Medicare” during the last election, but admits the rules probably need updating.

On July 2, Labor’s Queensland office sent text messages purporting to be from Medicare stating “Mr Turnbull’s plans to privatise Medicare will take us down the road of no return. Time is running out to Save Medicare.”

The text messages outraged the Coalition, with Liberal campaign director Tony Nutt describing it as a “new low” in Australian politics, with no authorisation usually associated with campaign advertising included in the text message.

The Australian Federal Police decided not to investigate the texts in August, and Labor, in a submission to the parliament committee charged with reviewing the election, said that it had followed the rules, but they were a bit out of date:

“The ALP complies with all current authorisation requirements. Authorisation rules have been developed over time and in a piecemeal fashion. As a result, the rules are confusing and difficult to administer. There is an arguable case that the rules have not kept up with technological change, and are unfit for the digital age.”

The ALP argued that rules in law are related to print and broadcast, and haven’t kept up with the advent of texting or social media. It has said there should be a uniform, format-neutral authorisation rule that would effectively mean that the party’s “Mediscare” campaign would not work again because it would have to contain the authorisation in the text message.

The Queensland Liberal-National Party agreed in its submission, saying the text message, along with robocalls were “the worst abuse” of the deficiency in the authorisation scheme:

“The strategy behind Labor’s ‘Medicare’ text relied upon the fact that they would not have to include a Labor Party authorisation. If it had, voters would have the information they needed to judge Labor’s actions for what they were: despicable. The misleading nature of that text message blast also raises questions about what remedies parties and candidates should have to prevent the dissemination of such material. The Committee should consider expanding the authorisation requirements to cover robocalls, text messages, digital and social media, and other like forms of political messaging.”

The LNP has asked the committee to consider whether “truth in advertising” could be brought about for future elections. The ALP has argued it could have a “chilling effect on democracy” and has said it may be constitutionally invalid, contravening the implied freedom of political communication.

Communications Alliance — the organisation representing Australia’s telecommunications companies, has told the committee in response to a request on whether the telcos could “police” authorisations of political advertising over SMS that it, essentially, is not their job and would require mass surveillance of all communications.

 

 

Peter Fray

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