News

As a leading polling company is revealed to be behind an activist website ostensibly linked to Medicare, bipartisan support emerges for rules on disclosure. By Karen Middleton.

The new untruth of political campaigns

Recently, an employee in the Department of Defence received a text message on what was a private, work-related mobile number. The message was political and seemingly anonymous, warning of an apparent threat to Medicare-funded doctor home visits.

It contained a link to a website, protecthomevisits.com.au, which had a logo in the same typeface and green-and-yellow colour scheme as the official Medicare logo. It said it was part of a campaign to stop government-funded home visits being scrapped.

“We’ll keep you updated about the campaign,” the site said. “For information, please see our privacy policy.”

But the site had no visible privacy policy and nothing on it to identify who was behind it, except another link that purported to take users to the website for an organisation called the National Association for Medical Deputising. The link went nowhere.

On Thursday morning the link was repaired to click through to the association’s site and a list of members – various after-hours medical services around Australia. The association’s spokesman did not return The Saturday Paper’s call.

A domain search by The Saturday Paper revealed that the protecthomevisits website had been registered by the public relations and research company Essential Media Communications.

As Essential’s website explains: “Our clients include high profile organisations such as the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, National Disability Services, the Luke Batty Foundation, Fight for the Reef, and GetUp!”

But to the Defence employee, none of that was obvious in the text message or on the original site. In fact, its logo appeared to make the site look as if it were connected to Medicare.

Essential Media associate director Tim O’Halloran drew a distinction between messages in an election campaign period and those outside it.

“This campaign is designed to support good public policy,” he told The Saturday Paper, “but does not currently intend to influence people’s voting intentions, noting that the issues dealt with in the protect home visits campaign are still the subject of a policy review.”

The home visits message represents political parties’ and organisations’ increasingly creative methods of targeting individual voters with political material both before and between elections, and the exploitation of loopholes in electoral law governing identification.

Labor’s election SMS

Another health-related text message mass-distributed in Queensland on the eve of the July federal election – and that appeared to recipients to come from Medicare but was generated by Queensland Labor – prompted strong protests, particularly from the federal Coalition.

The SMS reflected Labor’s dominant message in the final weeks of the election campaign: that the Coalition was planning to privatise Medicare. Opposition leader Bill Shorten had persisted with this line despite flat denials by everyone, from the prime minister down, in the Coalition.

Asked to investigate the SMS, the Australian Federal Police determined there was no scope for prosecution because while it was a criminal offence to impersonate a Commonwealth official it was not an offence to imitate a Commonwealth entity.

Parliament’s joint standing committee on electoral matters is part way through its examination of the 2016 federal election and has just published a government-ordered initial report on the authorisation of political messages.

Issued last week, it recommended legislative changes to close loopholes and give voters more information about who is targeting them and why.

The report was remarkable for the fact it was unanimous, with Coalition, Labor, Greens and independent members all agreeing change was required. The Liberal Democrats lodged a submission saying they preferred no requirement for authorisation at all.

The Queensland branch of the Labor Party neither made a submission nor gave evidence. Two days after the election, it issued a statement denying it had deliberately sought to mislead voters.

“The message was not intended to indicate that it was a message from Medicare, rather to identify the subject of the text,” the statement said.

But Labor sources familiar with mass-SMS distribution methods insist it is unlikely the message could be structured that way by accident.

The Labor members of the committee – including its deputy chairman, Victorian MP Andrew Giles, senators Carol Brown and Lisa Singh from Tasmania and senator Chris Ketter and MP Milton Dick from Queensland – have endorsed its condemnation in general terms of the practice of seeking to exploit the credibility of a Commonwealth agency. So, too, have the NSW Greens’ senator Lee Rhiannon and the Coalition members – committee chairwoman and West Australian Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, Queensland Liberal National MP Scott Buchholz, and Liberals Ben Morton from WA and Lucy Wicks from NSW.

“The committee considers that impersonating, or purporting to act on behalf of, a Commonwealth officer or an entity is unacceptable and that steps should be taken to ensure that neither occurs in future,” their report says.

It said the committee would make a formal recommendation next year. But it noted that this sort of impersonation was arguably more concerning than the distribution of anonymous material. The absence of identification on political material could make voters doubt its credibility.

“In the Medicare example however, the association with a Commonwealth entity arguably strengthened the authority and legitimacy of the message,” the committee’s report says.

Open Labor

New ALP national secretary Noah Carroll told the committee it was the content of the Medicare message that made the difference, not who sent it.

“The reality is: you run a pretty bad campaign at times, and you did so in 2016,” Carroll told Coalition members of the committee.

“That is the reality of it. I would put that the reason it was effective as a message, broadly, is that the message is truthful and people believe it. That is the most important thing and that is what political debate is about.”

Carroll said the ALP would have no issue putting its name to its messages in all modes of transmission if that was what the law required. He defended the distribution of fake Medicare cards bearing Labor’s campaign message.

Queensland Liberal National Party senator Ian Macdonald asked: “Do you think the use of that sort of card is appropriate in an election campaign in making a political message?”

Carroll replied: “It fully complies with any and all requirements under the Electoral Act so, by definition, yes.”

Macdonald: “You think that is appropriate?”

Carroll: “I do.”

But the Medicare campaign didn’t sit well with everyone in the Labor Party.

A Labor splinter group, Open Labor, has published criticisms of the so-called “Mediscare” campaign.

NSW Open Labor member Roger Tonkin argued in an election assessment published in August that the particular Medicare message drowned out Labor’s “100 positive policies” and inflicted reputational damage on the party itself.

“The ‘mediscare’ claim by Labor that the Coalition will privatise Medicare, without any proof to substantiate that claim, was a disgraceful example of overreach and distortion,” Tonkin wrote on Open Labor’s website. “To persist with that claim after Turnbull emphatically stated that the Coalition would not privatise Medicare, and without being able to provide any evidence to substantiate that claim, left Labor open to the accusation that it was lying.”

Overall, though, the party remains unrepentant, insisting the message resonated with voters because the Coalition had past form in attacking Medicare. A billboard carrying the message and Bill Shorten’s face stood outside Melbourne’s airport for months after the election.

The electoral matters committee’s report comes in the wake of the United States presidential election, which featured the emergence of fake news items on social media and the rise of what has been dubbed “post-truth politics” – framing political debate by appealing to emotion rather than factual policy detail.

Committee chairwoman Linda Reynolds told The Saturday Paper she feared the US developments had implications for future Australian elections.

“I’m very concerned,” she said. “The implications for our democracy are quite dire if there is no effective way of communicating in a representative government between people who want to be elected, or are elected, and the voters.

She said “mediscare” had done the same and the committee was looking for ways to ensure voters could rely on the veracity of material they received without curtailing the free flow of political communication.

“They might not like what we say but they must be able to trust it.”

Liberal Party federal director Tony Nutt told the committee the need for change was “urgent and compelling”.

The Australian Greens’ submission recognised “the importance of voters being aware of the source of party, candidate and third-party communications during election campaigns”.

Labor’s submission said: “There is an arguable case that the rules have not kept up with technological change and are unfit for the digital age.”

In its report, the committee recommended dedicating a separate section of the Commonwealth Electoral Act to authorisations. It recommended the rules be applied consistently beyond the political parties to “other participants” in election campaigns, including trade unions, business and other special-interest organisations, and advocacy groups such as GetUp!

It also recommended authorisation rules be made consistent for electoral material in all forms.

More regulation requires data storage

In evidence to the committee, Noah Carroll said the arrangements were as confusing for candidates as they were for voters. He explained that under section 328(1) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, an election advertisement printed as a flyer or pamphlet had to include the name and street address of both the authoriser and the printer. If the same ad was published in a newspaper, it also needed to have “Advertisement” printed across the top in at least 10-point type.

That requirement varied slightly if the ad covered two pages and further depending on whether the text was on separate pages or ran right across both.

The same advertisement uploaded to Facebook, however, needed no such authorisation – even if it were an otherwise identical PDF – provided it was only published and not broadcast, which then required authorisation under the internet rule in section 328A. If the text of the ad was distributed by SMS, it didn’t need to carry authorisation at all.

Carroll said a similarly complex set of rules applied to audiovisual advertising.

The telecommunications industry is concerned that as regulation increases, it will be asked to store text messages for longer. Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association chief executive Chris Althaus spelt out the size of that challenge.

“We are experiencing data traffic on our networks that doubles annually,” Althaus told the committee. “We are now sending in the order of 50 billion text messages in a year … Every month there are about 15 million unique Australian actions taken over Facebook, 14 million on YouTube et cetera – the enormity of the internet world in terms of transmission of messages is only going to make the complexity of what is being discussed here go to another dimension.”

Advertisements on other social media, such as Twitter, are not required to have authorisation. The committee thinks they should.

Acknowledging the difficulties in including an authorisation within a total 140-character limit, it heard evidence suggesting Twitter campaign messages could be legally required to contain an identifiable source as part of the originating handle or a link to the authorisation details.

Phone-bank telephone calls and prerecorded robocalls containing paid political messages also do not require authorisation under current law. Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, calls pose a particular regulatory challenge because they pass through several internet gateways, making them harder to trace.

A union-led robocall campaign was rolled out this week against changes to the aged pension taking effect on January 1. The campaign by the Australian Council of Trade Unions features a woman’s voice, describing how the changes will affect her father. It doesn’t include any authorisation.

The federal government has called it a “disgraceful” campaign to scare vulnerable Australians.

The parliamentary committee has heard evidence about the increasing engagement of third-party advocacy organisations and interest groups in election campaigns through paid advertising.

It will report again in early March on the influence of foreign donations on the election. Its final report will follow, canvassing the wider issues of political donations, expenditure and disclosure, fundraising links between third parties and registered political parties, and all other aspects of the 2016 federal election.

Following last week’s committee report, legislation appears likely next year to make it a criminal offence to impersonate a Commonwealth entity, although it’s not clear whether other restrictions will be placed on the use of government logos.

The federal government has threatened to sue a Sydney man, Mark Rogers, over his use of the Medicare logo on his website, savemedicare.org.au The opposition says that’s hypocritical, when Liberal MPs have used the logo in their own election advertising.

Essential Media’s Tim O’Halloran had no response to queries about the choice of font and colouring on the protecthomevisits website. But after The Saturday Paper’s inquiry, it added an identifying authorisation to it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 17, 2016 as "The new untruth of political campaigns". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.