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Tuesday, 16 October 1984
Page: 1724

Senator DURACK(11.34) —I have not spoken in the Committee debate on this matter and I should mention the Opposition's view again. I spoke on behalf of the Opposition in the second reading debate and I indicated that the Opposition supported the proposals in the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Bill to repeal the relevant sections of the Commonwealth Electoral Act which were inserted last year in regard to misleading and deceptive advertising. Senator Macklin's amendments to the Bill have now proposed a middle way, namely, to relieve the publisher, printer or distributor of such material from any liability but to retain liability on the part of the authors of the offending material.

The Opposition will not support Senator Macklin's amendments because we believe that this is not an appropriate way of controlling the type of advertising in an election campaign which is the subject of this legislation. Last year relevant sections were inserted in the new Act. The Joint Committee on Electoral Reform has had the opportunity of considering the matter in greater detail this year than last year. It recommended the repeal of those sections, albeit only introduced for the first time last year. It is a pity that it has proceeded in that way, namely, that the relevant sections which were inserted last year in the new legislation are now being repealed within 12 months or so. However, clearly the Joint Committee has had the benefit of a more detailed consideration of the problem this year as opposed to last year. Incidentally, it had a very big task last year and many other major matters were the subject of its recommendations. For a number of quite good reasons the Joint Committee has recommended that this provision should be repealed and should not be part of our electoral laws, that there should be a prohibition, in general terms, about misleading advertising in an election campaign and that there should be remedies of a legal kind to deal with it during an election campaign.

The Opposition accepts that view-I said this when I spoke in the second reading debate-broadly for the reason that this type of advertising is extremely difficult to deal with in a legal way. It is not the sort of advertising of a product which has certain clear statements of fact. As has been pointed out, electoral advertising is often of a very abstract kind, such as predictions of what might happen and so forth. It would be very difficult to assess whether such advertising actually can be held to be misleading, deceptive or indeed even true or untrue. We believe that the proper sanction against the use of this type of advertising, the best brake on that type of electioneering-we are certainly not condoning misleading and deceptive advertising in elections-is the informed public opinion which we fortunately enjoy in this country. The sanction is the judgment of the electors themselves in respect of that type of advertising. They are the best judges of these matters and they are the best judges of the parties and candidates who are contending for their support. If political parties or candidates engage in a totally extravagant type of advertising which is way beyond reasonable bounds of prediction as to what may happen if the other party is elected and so on, which we are quite familiar with, or indeed if they engage in blatant untruths about the other party or its candidates, the electorate, with the modern communications available to it, is quite able to make a judgment and the other parties are quite able to correct it.

We are in an age of instant communication. If there is an advertisement one day of an offensive kind, almost before that day is out, comments and objections will be made on radio and television. So one does not even have to wait until the next day to get a correction or a counter advertisement in the print media. If that is necessary, it can be achieved quite quickly. It seems to me that these days a debate can start up within a matter of minutes, if not hours, after such material is published. If it is of a very offensive character party leaders will be engaged in that debate almost instantly on radio and on television. As I said, means of communication are such that this sort of matter can be dealt with instantly and effectively by those who complain about it. In the end it is for the electors to judge which side is correct and the electors should judge the advertising. We think that these are the most effective sanctions and the most effective remedies against this type of election abuse, which cannot be satisfactorily dealt with in the way the present Act stands, by providing for more legal type remedies. For those reasons we support the proposal and will oppose the amendments moved by Senator Macklin.