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Tuesday, 16 October 1984
Page: 1716


Senator ROBERT RAY(10.46) — We have heard some fairly pious sermons today from the Australian Democrats on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Bill. Listening to them, one could believe that they are the only senators in this chamber with any integrity. I love the humility of the Australian Democrats when they come in here and lecture everyone else, put things in simplistic terms and put up straw men to knock over. I bet that Senator Mason has not gone back to the transcripts of the hearings of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform. Has he? Of course, he has not. He has not read the evidence. He has stood up here and spoken only to the generality; he has not looked at the evidence and he has not looked at the issues involved. It is quite obvious from his contribution today that he is trying to create political brownie points.

The Australian Democrats say that the legislation is being introduced simply so that the Government can go ahead with a program of misleading advertising before the next election. That is a disgraceful accusation. If the Australian Democrats knew anything about political history in this country they would know that our Party has been the victim of misleading and untrue advertising especially from the Democratic Labor Party and others. Therefore, when the Australian Democrats accuse us of deliberately bringing in legislation in order to be untruthful to the electorate I am forced not only to deny it but also to say that the Australian Democrats' integrity is in doubt because they make that accusation. As I said before, the fact is that history belies the possibility that the Australian Labor Party would do anything to encourage misleading, deceptive or untrue advertising. There are deeper problems than the simplicities that the Australian Democrats would have us believe.

One of the difficulties we face in drawing up any legislation, particularly when it is in reference to the Commonwealth Electoral Act, is determining what is opinion and what is fact. This is one of the basic philosophical questions that hundreds of philosophers in universities for hundreds of years have tried to tackle. On all advice we found that only untruths, not opinions, would be ruled out by this legislation. Trying to get definitions of fact and opinion- something that would not have occurred to Senator Mason-was almost impossible. It is very difficult to legislate for fairness, specially with a single line throw away in an electoral Act. If Senator Mason is so concerned with this issue and considers it a burning issue-it has been ever since Senator Jack Evans was a victim of it in 1980-where is his legislation? The Australian Democrats are good at running around the country saying that they have introduced legislation. We do not want one line legislation but detailed legislation that goes to the heart of the matter. Where is it? The legislation does not exist because the Australian Democrats have never bothered to consider it.

Senator Macklin made a great point. He said he had reviewed the evidence. However, he was as quiet as a lamb when Michael McHugh appeared before the Committee and ripped the existing legislation to pieces. What did Senator Macklin say? He said virtually nothing at all. Michael McHugh cleaned Senator Macklin right up and left him without an argument. Senator Macklin then had to go away and come up with some rather dreary arguments that he appended to the dissenting report of the Committee.

Why in fact would we be so anxious to move on the legislation just because an election is coming up? We considered this subject at the start of this year-when the reference was made. We have not considered it in the last couple of months. The Committee report was brought down in August, several months ago. Let us look at the basic reason for the legislation being here today. It is not that we are not concerned with fairness of advertising but that we are concerned with the possibility of the democratic process being totally overturned by the secondary considerations in the Act-the injunction route. We are concerned that virtually every advertisement can be put off the air or out of the newspapers by injunction. The last thing we want is an election campaign in which a minority group, desperate for publicity and unprincipled, uses the injunction route to get publicity. I wonder who in this chamber would use that particular tactic? No one else but the Democrats. It will be an absolute bonanza for the Democrats if they use it in the election campaign to get some publicity. They have no issues at all. They will just go around the countryside, like they always do, defining problems but giving no answers at all. They will use this as a method of getting cheap and tawdry publicity. A whole range of potential Shankeys would come out of the woodwork just to get some cheap publicity.

Senator Mason accuses the Liberal and Labor parties of conniving on this issue. That is absolutely false. It is known to be a falsehood at least by Senator Macklin. There was no conniving on this matter. Members of the Committee had no preconceived ideas when this reference was made to the Committee and to impugn our integrity as the Democrats have today is absolutely disgraceful. We looked at the matter on its merits. We heard evidence from the Media Council of Australia and from all the media groups. The one thing that became clear was that we cannot just leave it to the courts to define what is fair and what is truthful.


Senator Mason —But you do it all the time.


Senator ROBERT RAY —We do not do it on all occasions. I do not know why Senator Mason does not listen for once; he is just too busy chortling. In a limited election period we have six or seven weeks to campaign, and normally much less. Once the injunction is there we will never get to the substantive matters in an election campaign. A whole range of advertisements may be put out of the media on the basis of injunction but later restored after a proper hearing.

The problem of injunctions motivated the Electoral Reform Committee to recommend in the way it has. It was not that we do not believe there should be some fairness code, it is not that we believe there should not be truthful advertising; it is a matter of the method by which we can ensure it. I say again that we will not do it by way of a simple clause in the Commonwealth Electoral Act. We cannot legislate so simply for truthfulness in advertising, given all the definitional problems. Senators can come in here and accuse the major parties of being cynical and of conniving, and they can accuse my Party of planning untruthful election campaign advertisements. None of that is true; nevertheless, when a party is chasing only 10 per cent of the vote it is a good issue to get up on.

My final point is that if the Australian Democrats are so anxious about truthfulness, why restrict it to advertisements? This is one of the big problems . They are saying that we have to be truthful in advertisements. I agree with that; they must not be deceptive. But of course newspapers, in their main articles, or the Australian Democrats out on the campaign stump, can be as untruthful or as misleading and deceptive as they like and there is nothing to stop them. So in effect what they are saying relates to the truthfulness of advertisements but if they were consistent they would take an approach to rule out all untruthfulness in campaigning, not just in advertisements. Why do they not do that? I am very much looking forward to the legislation the Australian Democrats bring in that will define which advertisements are truthful and which are not. I suggest that Senator Mason read the material put before the Electoral Reform Committee and read about the depth of problems associated with defining what is truth and what is not; what is fact and what is opinion. Once he does that, and once he gets over his headache, I suggest that he will realise that this problem is a little more complex than the sort of simple-minded reactive response that we get from the Democrats. The Democrats say there is a problem and that one line in legislation will automatically solve it. That sort of simplistic approach demonstrates why they normally get 8 per cent to 10 per cent of the vote. They wrinkle their brows and define the problems, but they never provide solutions. That is why they are seen as the whiners of politics. Before they come into this chamber and accuse us of collusion with the conservatives, before they accuse us of embarking upon a program of untruthful advertising, why do they not bring in some evidence for a change?