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Tuesday, 16 October 1984
Page: 1715

Senator MASON(10.37) —I support the amendments of my colleague Senator Macklin which would repair this thoroughly cynical, dishonest and tatty piece of legislation, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Bill 1984. Let us be quite clear about this legislation. To my mind it could not be better calculated to act against the interests of democracy and the Australian people. The more times they are told that and the louder it is said the better. It seems to me that in a reasonable and rational society it is sane and sensible that the law should provide that, when an election comes up, the advertising which is put in, as we know, to the tune of millions of dollars by the political parties, should inform the people reasonably of the truth.

Let us be in no doubt about this: The Bill we are now debating proposes exactly the contrary. It proposes to remove from the present legislation a provision which applies sanctions to and controls false and misleading advertising which is calculated to affect the result of an election. The coincidence of this legislation arising now at the beginning of a crucial election campaign must be obvious to the public of this country and even to honourable senators. We are being told that political parties will be sanctioned to deceive the public. When this Bill is passed, which, we understand is to be soon, political parties will be entitled to devise advertising which is designed, mischievously, deliberately , cynically and dishonestly, to mislead the people of this country in the way they cast their votes. There could not be a more serious or dangerous erosion of democracy than that.

Of course, Senator Macklin is perfectly right when he says that what came forward in the Joint Committee on Electoral Reform gave no substance to this proposal whatsoever. We are being told that, if a law is difficult to administer , one abandons it. What would happen if we went through the framework of legislation and said that because a law was difficult to police we had to throw it away? On that basis we could throw away the whole of the income tax law to start with. That is an absurd, ridiculous and thoroughly unwarranted imposition on the people of this country. At this stage, on behalf of the Australian Democrats, I implore honourable senators of the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia not to connive at this.

The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) is fond of saying that he is going to get through to the people of this country every day and every week from now until the election something or other about which he feels strongly. If this Bill passes we will do the same things and we will expect the media to support us and report us on a matter of such basic and vital importance. It would be an indictment of the National Party, the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party if they dared to pass this Bill in a completely cynical and dishonest sell-out of the principles of democracy. In other words, that will be another step downwards, another erosion of the powers that people ought reasonably to have.

The Democrats are in favour of political advertising. We would like nothing more in this country than to see in the newspapers and the media balanced and reasonable advertisements which lay out the policies of political parties and their intentions for the future so that the electors can read them and know before they vote that their content is true. Is it being unduly idealistic to expect that some day in a reasonable world that will happen? But it cannot happen if we pass this Bill because we will take away the one slender, and admittedly difficult to administer, sanction which might encourage that process.

Of course, Senator Macklin's amendments are the sane and rational solution because they remove the obligation from the media; in other words, they presumably accept an advertisement in good faith. There is no reason why they should be penalised for the dishonesty and cynicism of political parties. The Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) and, I think, others in the Committee stage have said that this is okay, that there are laws on defamation, slander and so on which will control the situation. That is absolute nonsense. We know perfectly well that lawyers in the political parties are quite capable of drafting advertisements which will not bring any indication of defamation. To begin with, it is impossible to defame a large number of people. For instance, one cannot defame a whole political party of some hundreds of people because the class of people is too large. Therefore, it will be perfectly legitimate, with no sanctions, for advertisements to come out during this election campaign at enormous expense and which will misinform the people of this country about political parties.

I wonder whether the political parties which are conniving in this have thought what the effect of it will be on the public. I do not believe that the people of this country are so stupid as to be taken in by this. It will become apparent to them that something rather strange and unpleasant has happened and that preposterous suggestions are being put forward in the media which cannot be justified. Of course, the net effect will be that the people of this country will understand that they should ignore that advertising completely. We will certainly be telling them that. I started doing so in the media last Friday by saying: 'Don't believe anything that you see in a political advertisement. You have no guarantee that it is true and you have every reason to believe that it is false'. Therefore, the effect of the huge spending on political advertising will be absolutely counterproductive because the public will then believe in the complete cynicism and dishonesty of the political parties and will take no notice of advertising; it will become a laughing stock and a joke. If the Government thinks that that is the sort of perverted and twisted world it wants, and if it thinks it is our responsibility to be here to create that type of perverted and twisted world, so be it. But I think it is about time that it looked again at its values and reasonably considered what might be the right and proper thing.

I think it can be said plainly and without any equivocation that, if this Bill is passed, it will be a dismal and terrible sellout of the people of this country, and I warn the Government that it will be perceived as such, and with good reason. If the Government is committed, for its own devious reasons, to this Bill-Senator Macklin has questioned its motives by asking why it wanted to to this at the beginning of an election campaign and why it could not have been left until after this election-plainly it begs the question that the Government wants, and is probably already devising, untrue and misleading advertising. Untrue and misleading things have already been said by the Prime Minister and others in the debate on taxation. The Prime Minister of this country made untrue accusations about Senator Jack Evans and me, and as a result we have taken out a writ of slander against him. I believe there is a case for slander or we would not have taken out such a writ. But where a larger group of people were concerned, that recourse would not be possible.

I question deeply the Labor Party's intentions. For that reason alone I suggest to the Liberal Party and the National Party-I give them the benefit of the doubt and say that I have no doubt that they are not planning that type of advertising -that if they pass this Bill they will be hoist on the same petard. They can be accused, and fairly, of conniving in a sort of 'liboral' way-to use a term coined by Dr Norman Sanders who will, after the election, be the Democrats senator for Tasmania-in other words, as a combination of the Labor, Liberal and National parties, to do something which is against the interests of the people. If the Liberal Party and the National Party want to be in that sort of deal, if they want to be in bed with the Labor Party on this matter, so be it. But I warn them that the people will not tolerate this.

I suggest that the issue itself is too important as a matter of principle. It is not just a small administrative tidy up as the Attorney-General has tried to pretend. This is a matter of great principle. The morality of it is very suspect . On that basis alone, the Bill deserves not to be supported. On the other hand, Senator Macklin's amendments repair the position. I think they make a neat, appropriate and tidy piece of surgery on the Bill which will create a good piece of legislation instead of a bad piece of legislation. On that basis, I strongly urge honourable senators to support the amendments.