AFP to protect politicians but who protects voters?

A new taskforce to protect politicians and candidates in the federal election campaign is being set up by the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

In a sad sign of the times, a dedicated coordination centre, with a specialised taskforce, will help to ensure the security of high-office holders and parliamentarians. The centre will coordinate hundreds of investigators, intelligence officers and protective security specialists, including close personal protection members.

Named Operation Wilmot, the taskforce will focus on investigations and receive all reports of electoral-related crime, such as security threats to parliamentarians and candidates. The operation is a first for the AFP.

Read: AFP mobilises against ‘specific threats’ to politicians

The AFP warns that while it supports political expression and freedom of speech, when it leads to disruption, harassment, intimidation, threatening behaviour and damage to property, it can become a criminal offence. Those who break the law will be charged, it says.

This is obviously good news for candidates, who deserve such protections as part of the democratic process.

One issue the AFP announcement does not address is protection of voters against false and misleading advertising. While most voters probably wouldn’t expect such matters to come under the remit of the AFP, they might have reasonably expected that this is something the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) could deal with as a matter of course.

They would be wrong.

Read: With the election upon us, can we actually trust the opinion polls?

The AEC is bound by the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and political advertising is not covered as part of the act. As a result, there is basically nothing it can do in response to complaints about claims made in political ads that are allegedly untrue.

One ad that has been seen displayed on trucks in Canberra and Melbourne recently declares: “CCP says vote Labor”. It implies Chinese influence over the ALP, complete with digitally altered images of Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the act of voting for Labor.

The veracity or otherwise of that claim is something the AEC is not charged to investigate.

AEC director of media and digital engagement Evan Ekin-Smyth says the commission’s authority does not encompass the role of ‘arbiter of truth’. “It is the voter’s role to stop and consider what they see, hear or read,” he said.

Read: Contrasting state lockdown coverage reveals much about politics

The AEC is similarly powerless to arbitrate claims made online. In December 2021, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party celebrated what it claimed was the party’s 90th anniversary. But one Twitter user with a strong knowledge of Australia’s political history challenged this claim.

The user contacted the AEC, whose response included an acknowledgement that “the current UAP, led by Craig Kelly, is not the same United Australia Party to which Robert Menzies belonged”.

But, the AEC’s response continued, “the Electoral Act does not regulate truth in electoral advertising”. So, it would appear that the current UAP can conflate its lineage with that of the original UAP – which provided Australia with prime ministers Joe Lyons and Bob Menzies – despite the fact that the original was dissolved in 1945, 14 years after its founding.

So, while politicians are rightly protected against threats of harassment and intimidation, voters could be forgiven for wondering why they are not protected from the misleading statements made by some of those same politicians.

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

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