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Tuesday, 16 October 1984
Page: 1723

Senator GARETH EVANS (Attorney-General)(11.28) —The matter of deceptive electoral advertising seems to have generated a degree of passion, at least as far as the Australian Democrats are concerned, some of it, it must be said, particularly that coming from the mouth of Senator Mason, utterly unfounded insofar as it involves imputations against the integrity of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform and I think was sufficiently answered in that respect by Senator Robert Ray, and some of it, on the other hand, a little more intelligently based, particularly in the form in which it came from Senator Macklin, and certainly raising matters on which it is possible for reasonable men and women to differ. I wish on this occasion only to repeat what I said in my second reading reply in this matter; that is, while I have some sympathy with the point that Sentor Macklin was making on this occasion, I accept on balance the majority decision of the Joint Select Committee, and of the Government in accordance with that decision, that any attempt at guaranteeing truth in political advertising is probably destined to legislative failure and is an attempt better left unmade.

I think the short answer to most of the kinds of problems that were raised by Senator Macklin when he asks for a rationale for the repeal of this provision is as follows: To the extent that electoral advertising is extreme, blatant and easily actionable under the original proposed legislation, it is not likely to have a very compelling effect on voters; it is likely to be regarded as self- serving puffery of a kind that ought not to really justify the full guns legislatively blazing of the kind here proposed. On the other hand the advertising in question of the more insidious variety which is likely for that reason perhaps to be more effective really does create very difficult problems of law enforcement than the very difficult problems associated with dealing with questions of prediction or of opinion to which Senator Robert Ray referred in his response.

I acknowledge, finally, the point that was made by Senator Macklin several times in his various contributions in this debate. The mere difficulty of legislating for something is not in itself to be regarded as a universal justification for not proceeding with such legislation. Were that to be so, there would be much that was desirable that would never reach the statute book, but it does become, I would suggest to him, a fairly compelling reason when one is dealing, as here, with a very sensitive issue of principle which raises squarely the proper extent of free speech, freedom to publish and the rights of individuals to participate robustly in political debate. It is because this whole question of deceptive advertising is one that is raised in that particular context that it is a more difficult exercise than most similar legislative exercises that confront us and it is a consideration that becomes, I think, relevant when one is trying to determine whether, at the margin, there really is a case for proceeding with legislation which is not likely to be effective in the areas where it would be of most utility. In a nutshell, that is the reason why the Committee and the Government has come down as it has. Many other particular points of detail could be raised, but I think they have been sufficiently dealt with in what has been by now a very protracted second reading and Committee stage debate on this matter.

I am not yet in a position to give Senator Harradine a specific answer to the particular question he raised about the way in which free time will be organised on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in the context of the referendum campaign. I am having that matter checked at the moment and will endeavour to provide information as soon as possible, hopefully in the course of this debate but otherwise by an answer delivered to him through appropriate channels later on. I commend the existing provisions of the legislation to the Committee and urge that it reject the Macklin amendments.