Australia

What political parties can and can’t get away with during the election campaign

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Robocalling, texting, lying or bribing? Campaigning for the 2019 federal election is well underway so make sure you know what your rights are.

Earlier this year, federal election candidate Clive Palmer annoyed a bunch of Australians when his name suddenly popped up on their phone alongside unsolicited election promises.

Clive Palmer has come under fire for sending unsolicited text messages to people across Australia.
Clive Palmer came under fire for sending unsolicited text messages to people across Australia.
AAP/Twitter

The text messages prompted many to turn to social media, questioning how Mr Palmer was able to access their mobile phone number in the first place — and whether he had broken the law in doing so.

He hadn’t; because the messages were not offering goods or services for sale, they were not in breach of guidelines, but that doesn’t mean they were popular.

Mr Palmer later admitted that he received 3,000 complaints about the texts, though he claimed they were “mainly robocalls by the trade union movement”.

As the election campaign landscape changes before our eyes thanks to the internet, voters will be bombarded with promises and posturing on more platforms than ever before.

And as political candidates become more aware of what multicultural Australia cares about, the messaging will become more targeted, too.

But that doesn’t mean Australia’s democratic process is a free-for-all. Here’s what political parties can get away with and where you can draw the line.

Where can you expect to see (or hear) campaigning?

By now, everyone has likely noticed that the election campaigns are in full swing. Ads are popping up on TV, on billboards, in your letterbox, as a video game and, more so than ever, on social media.

Social media campaigning is likely to play a big role in the upcoming federal election.
Social media campaigning now plays a big role in elections.
Ad Library

Australian Electoral Commission spokesperson Evan Ekin-Smyth told SBS News that because the election is a “contest of ideas”, there are “no barriers to communicating electoral material”.

Currently, political parties are exempt from the Do Not Call Register and the Spam Act, which allows things like robocalls and, in the case of Mr Palmer, robotexts to happen.

The Spam Act of 2003 is responsible for regulating unsolicited electronic messages via phone and email, but only commercial messages are prohibited. Politicians are also exempt from privacy laws, allowing them to gather information on voters to better target their messages.

More than ever, however, the battle is being fought online — and not just in English.

As several seats in NSW and Victoria have large numbers of Chinese-Australian voters, politicians have been flocking to Chinese social media giant, WeChat.

Candidates from both sides of politics have taken to the platform — which boasts approximately 1 million active users in Australia each month — to post videos, messages and live Q&As in Chinese.

Like the rise of political advertising on mainstream social media, the move online poses challenges for those responsible for policing material.

“We've been working with them [social media companies] to understand their platforms as it comes to electoral communication and also find ways into social media organisations to escalate things that might be breaches of the Electoral Act and to understand their policies and procedures a little bit better as well,” Mr Ekin-Smith said.

“Our message to voters is to stop and consider what you're consuming and then we'll be distributing those messages translated into a number of different languages.”

Can candidates lie in their campaign material?

The short answer is yes.

According to Mr Ekin-Smyth, the AEC — which is the government body tasked with managing elections — electoral laws do not “regulate the truth” in election communication or advertising.

“The claims and counterclaims around policies or political material, it's certainly not the AEC’s role to be in there and validating one way or the other,” he said.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority, the peak body for regulating broadcast advertising, also makes clear they are not responsible for “determining whether an election or political advertisement is misleading or untrue”.

The Coalition came under fire this week when a picture of Bill Shorten seeming to hold an anti-Adani banner was plastered on a billboard in Rockhampton. The picture had undergone some sneaky cropping and didn’t show the full story, which was that Mr Shorten had grabbed the banner from a protestor interrupting his speech.

Bill Shorten
The false image was based on an anti-Adani protest during the Labor national conference in Adelaide last December.
AAP

In cases like this, you can usually rely on mainstream media to call out misleading material, but this becomes trickier when the campaigning moves into new spaces like WeChat.

Mr Ekin-Smyth said it’s up to the voter to stop and look for the source of the material.

“It's not a frivolous thing casting a vote. And obviously, you get informed by election communication along the way. So stop and carefully consider it and actually go into the polls well-informed,” he said.

Last year, changes were made to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to make it clearer what election advertising was paid for by who.

All political communications made for the “dominant purpose of influencing the way electors vote in a federal election” on behalf of a “candidate or political party” must declare who paid for or distributed that message.

But this doesn’t help when it comes to informal campaigning, that may happen within communities or deliberately false or misleading material.

Bill Shorten, Scott  Morrison
Prootesters dressed as Bill Shorten and Scott Morrison at a Sydney Adani protest in February.
AAP

During the second week of campaigning, a screenshot of a tweet seemingly authored by Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus and in support of an inheritance tax was circulated on Twitter - only problem was, it was fake.

While the photoshopped image was later deleted, former Liberal MP and Sky News presenter Gary Hardgrave had already shared it to his followers.

As of 2018, authorisation requirements do, however, apply to campaigning on social media.

When lying about the election actually is illegal

There is one exception to the rule that electoral laws don’t regulate truth in campaigning, and that is when it comes to misleading voters about the voting process itself.

“A good example of this is when somebody encourages somebody to vote on Sunday rather than Saturday saying that that was polling day deliberately to try and get them to miss out,” Mr Ekin-Smyth said.

He added that this type of misleading behaviour does not happen often, but pointed to false information influencing the way people number their forms — for example, telling someone that a number one next to candidate A and will count for candidate B — as something the AEC will be looking out for.

There are also strict rules around offering “inducements” to people so they vote a certain way.

According to the electoral law, a person cannot “ask for, receive or obtain, or give or confer, any property or benefit with the intention of influencing the vote or candidature of a person at a federal election.”

It is unclear where the line between standard election promises and bribery lies, but it appears that the law is mainly referring to giving someone an immediate material gain in order to solicit a vote.

Mr Ekin-Smyth also noted that there is potential for the reverse to be illegal, for example, someone telling a voter that if they vote for their party something bad will not happen, but that would have to be determined by the AEC after a complaint is made.

What’s allowed at the booths?

It’s election day and you’ve made it to your local polling station. The smell of sausage sizzle is wafting through the air and people in colourful shirts keep trying to shove slips of paper in your hands as they yell things at you.

Around all polling booths there is a six-metre exclusion zone that campaigners cannot cross — once you are within those six metres you are free from any influence on how to vote.

Posters explaining how to vote are seen outside a polling booth in Brisbane, Saturday, July 2, 2016. About 15 million Australians will cast their vote in today's federal election. (AAP Image/Dan Peled) NO ARCHIVING
Posters explaining how to vote outside a polling booth.
AAP Image/Dan Peled

But up until that magic line, the law states “a person must not hinder or interfere with the free exercise or performance by any other person”.

While it can be a confronting experience, you are well within your rights to ignore campaigners or politely decline their offers of “how-to-votes” — a piece of advertising material designed by a political party with the aim of encouraging you to vote a certain way

“It's completely up to you if you take a how-to-vote card, if you read and follow a how-to-vote card or not,” Mr Ekin-Smyth said

At the ballot box, Mr Ekin-Smyth reminds everyone that they are completely free to number the boxes in whatever order they please. It is also illegal for any friends or family that have come to the polls with you to try and influence your vote.

“We have a free vote. It's completely your decision. It's a secret ballot,” he said

“Your vote is absolutely your vote. You decide who you vote for so make sure you take the opportunity to visit one of our voting centres in the election period and make sure you think about it and cast your vote for whoever you want to vote for.”

Have you experienced any election campaigning that you think went too far or heard any questionable claims targeting vulnerable voters? Get in touch at maani.truu@sbs.com.au or @maanitruu on Twitter.

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