It is concerning, if not surprising, that the Australian Electoral Commission has already noted an increase in baseless claims peddled on social media ahead of next month’s federal election.
The posts, according to the commission, variously claim that Australians need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to cast their vote, that political parties themselves direct preferences, and that ballot papers marked using the provided pencils could be subsequently altered (instead, the posts urge, voters should bring their own indelible pens).
Voters deserve the truth from politicians. Credit:Rhett Wyman, Alex Ellinghausen
It goes without saying that none of these claims is correct. But, critically, they are banal enough to be believable, particularly for a credulous audience. Even the pencil claim is ingenious in its simplicity (the commission, for the record, states that pencils don’t run out and aren’t as prone to smudging as ballpoint pens, but you can mark your ballot in pen if you choose).
As we learned from the pandemic, there is an appetite for theories such as these, tapping as they do into an underlying mistrust of government and mainstream media and a contrarian desire among some Australians to believe they are in possession of special knowledge that sets them apart from the herd.
Yet while the Electoral Commission is right to flag its concerns with the social media platforms and do its best to police “fake news”, the public has a right to expect major political parties not to spread untruths. Citizens have become used to it, of course, underlining the mistrust and disillusionment with politics – “all politicians lie” is a common refrain, but it is not true, and corrodes the standards we should demand.
There will be differences of opinion, and one party will emphasise one piece of evidence over another, but debate should be in line with facts, not distortions.
The Age’s Josh Gordon tested recent Liberal claims that it was the party of lower interest rates, lower taxes, lower unemployment, tighter budgets and stronger economic growth. His findings: mostly not true. Interest rates were famously higher under Hawke and Keating, but the rest – not so much.
Gordon also tested Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s claim that he had kept his side of the bargain in attempting to set up a federal anti-corruption agency, emerging as a key election issue, and that Labor was to blame for blocking it. The truth? Morrison did indeed put forward a “detailed proposal” but beyond a draft exposure bill, the government never even introduced legislation to parliament.
Labor, meanwhile, has had little compunction in attempting to revive its successful if disingenuous “Mediscare” campaign from the 2016 election, which persuaded voters it was “saving” Medicare from a secret Coalition plan to privatise it, despite no evidence that was the case.
This week Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese seized on the announcement of Liberal senator Anne Ruston as Morrison’s pick for health minister, dragging out historical comments she had made about Medicare not being sustainable.
Yet the evidence that the Morrison government has plans to cut Medicare, or, indeed has done so in the past, is rubbery at best. “Medicare is guaranteed”, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said in March.
There is so much to debate at this election – what should be done about housing affordability, how to raise productivity and create jobs, climate change action and mitigation, aged care and mental health, restoring integrity in politics. We urge major parties to stick to the arguments based on facts, and leave misinformation to the fringe-dwellers. The riposte is always, “Yes, but negative campaigning works”. Perhaps it does, but criticism is not the same as falsehood, or at least it should not be.
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