Australia Forges Ahead With the Politics of Lying and Getting Away With It

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Right on Christmas, the Federal Court ruled that despite official Liberal signage featured at two Victorian electorates during the last federal election being deliberately misleading, the party members who took out those seats can keep them.

The three justice bench found that “there was only a real chance of a handful of people being influenced” by the Chinese language signs that directed constituents to vote for the Liberal candidate first. So, it was unlikely to have affected the vote outcomes.

The court outlined that there could be a case for a former state party official to answer, as he authorised the misleading signs. So, what the case has revealed is that lying and getting away with it in Australian politics is something that major parties can take a fairly risk-free gamble on.

And while the fake voting signs incident had a limited reach, the Australian constituency should be concerned about these tactics, as the death tax scare that was propagated on social media by the right side of politics during the last election stung many.

Indeed, it’s this sort of online misinformation campaign that seems to be playing an increasingly influential factor in global politics, whether that be via the spreading of outright fake news or the targeting of individuals with tailored content designed to sway their votes.

Ineffective. So, who cares?

As the country turned out to vote on 18 May last year, Liberal Party authorised Chinese language signs appeared at voting locations in Kooyong and Chisholm, advising the sizeable numbers of Chinese constituents that the correct way to vote was to place a number 1 next to the Liberal box.

Not only were the signs misleading in their instructions, but they were also printed in similar colours and design to that of Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) imagery. So, it was intended that the signage would carry the authority of the independent federal agency charged with running elections.

The case was brought against the two Liberal candidates that took out the seats, treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Liberal MP Gladys Liu. But, as there wasn’t evidence to show the signs had influenced the vote, the matter of whether the pollies should retain their seats wasn’t considered.

And while the judges did find that former Liberal state director Simon Frost may face charges in the future over authorising the signage, for the moment, party members took a risk, which paid off with the desired outcome of taking out the seats.

An old game that’s growing

The death tax was the misinformation campaign of the last election with the more serious implications. It involved the spread of false assertions that Labor was planning on implementing a policy that would allow for the taxing of the inheritance people leave behind when they die.

Although the initial whispering of this featured in the press in mid-2018, it didn’t really pick up until early last year, and it’s all linked back, once again, to Josh Frydenberg. He sent out a press release in January 2019 warning voters that Labor was trying to hide its plan to introduce the tax.

One of the reasons why this misinformation campaign was so effective as it spread out over social and mainstream media is that it subtly became associated in voters’ minds with Labor’s genuine franking credits policy.

Although, the death tax was something of a payback from the Libs for the online Mediscare campaign Labor ran during the 2016 election. This involved spreading the message that the Liberals would privatise Medicare if voted back in. And it was effective in threatening the Liberal win.

So, what we have here are both the two major parties in Australian politics employing misinformation tactics to win votes. And while this sort of politicking is nothing new, what is a recent development is the scope of the impact these campaigns are having on voting outcomes.

A global phenomenon

British social activist George Monbiot recently asserted that the reason why reactionary politicians are coming to the fore the world over, is because those whose interests they serve have developed an online campaigning system based on “sophisticated cheating and provocative lies”.

The well-known climate campaigner pointed to the success of the “killer clowns” – figures like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and our own Scott Morrison – being an example of leaders coming to office via the power of circulating “dark ads and conspiracy theories on social media”.

So, in effect, Monbiot reasons that the silent majority – Morrison’s “quiet Australians” – haven’t suddenly come to favour the interests of the 1 percent, but rather they’ve been conned into voting for their political representatives.

This was evidenced in 2018’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, which exposed a company that used an app to access the data of up to 87 million Facebook users. This then led to the users being targeted with messages designed to influence their votes in the 2016 Brexit referendum and US elections.

But, according to Monbiot, all is not lost, as just as the “oligarchs” have developed a formula to utilise lying on an “unprecedented scale”, there must also be a technique that works as an antidote. And as a start, he recommends that people become a lot more fake news savvy.

And the lies continue…

Although, the spreading of misinformation for political advantage is in no way confined to election times. Right now, as Australia burns, the government and supporting media has been spreading misinformation about the Greens being behind the bushfire crisis.

As the nation has been facing a series of fires with an intensity not seen before, certain Coalition members have been suggesting that the flames are due to the Greens having prevented hazard reduction burns, rather than their own climate change inaction.

But, as NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge told Sydney Criminal Lawyers on Wednesday, he’s been in parliament for almost a decade and he and his colleagues have never voted or advocated for limiting hazard burning.

“We’re seeing an adaptive misinformation campaign driven by the right of politics. They’re climate change denying politics is unravelling in front of their eyes,” Mr Shoebridge made clear. “And in a search for a scapegoat, they’ve latched onto this untruth.”

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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