In Australian election campaigns, exorbitant amounts of money are spent on advertising. Our political parties rely on wealthy donors, and our political leaders spend enormous amounts of time and energy raising money.
In the past decade, we have seen other groups with deep pockets, including mining companies, the tobacco industry, trade unions, lobby groups, activists and multimillionaires, buying ads and using them to try to influence the political agenda.
Analysis of spending by the major parties in July and August 2013 across television, print, magazine, radio, leaflets and billboard advertising, showed the Coalition spent $6.82 million, the ALP just over $4 million and the Palmer United Party $3 million during the election campaign.
Trade union advertising amounted to $2.3 million. The two biggest spending lobby groups were the Australian Salary Packaging Industry Association and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.
The power of television means the parties are willing to pay exorbitant amounts for precious seconds of airtime. This is especially true in Australia where broadcasters can – and do – charge high rates to political candidates. In other countries that allow paid political ads, such as the US and Germany, broadcasters must offer reduced rates to parties and candidates during elections.
In the UK, paid political advertising has never been allowed on television or radio. This law applies to both political parties and lobby groups, and was designed to avoid the risk that public debate would be distorted in the most powerful available media because those with the deepest pockets would have the loudest voices.
It is felt that, as most campaign groups couldn’t afford it, unregulated broadcasting of paid political advertisements would turn democratic influence into a commodity that would undermine broadcasting impartiality, pushing it in favour of the rich.
As reported in the Age:
“The ban has all-party support. Even the wealthiest parties and MPs have said consistently that they don’t want ”American-style ads”, they don’t want candidates being pushed into close relationships with donors and they don’t want those with higher financial resources hijacking the political agenda.
Instead, the British laws require broadcasters to give free airtime to any political party that can show significant levels of electoral support. These blocks of free airtime used to be up to 20 minutes long but are now usually a more watchable length of 2½ minutes.
This means that all the major parties, not just the richest ones, are given an opportunity to put their case. During the British 2010 election, blocks of airtime were given not just to Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats but also to 17 other parties.
Because free airtime is provided, and because Britain also has campaign spending limits that restrict how much parties and candidates can spend during elections, elections in the UK are cheaper than in many other countries.”
In a case last year, Animal Defenders International (ADI) tried to challenge a ban on an ad they had produced showing a child in a cage, as part of its campaign to protect great apes from exploitation (“my mate’s a primate”).
Interestingly, both sides based their case on article 10 of the human rights convention, the right to freedom of expression.
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
The argument came down to what restrictions are “necessary in a democratic society”. It would be interesting to hear Tim Wilson’s answer to that.
After pointing out that ADI could advertise by Youtube videos and articles on the internet, or could take part in current affairs programmes on radio and television to raise awareness, the court ruled against them, saying the law was too important to risk erosion by individual cases.
This sounds like a wonderful system, one that would save a lot of money and help protect us from an avalanche of misinformation from vested interests….. until you take into account the concentration of media ownership in Australia. With the vast majority of the mainstream media firmly camped in Coalition territory, a law like this would just open the way for free advertising for them and their lobby groups. Rupert doesn’t have to be paid to bash unions and demonise asylum seekers. Gina can rest easy that Andrew Bolt will put in a good word for the mining companies, that Alan Jones will disprove climate science, and that Ray Hadley will positively enjoy kicking the bludging welfare cheats.
Is it really too late for us? Is it like gun ownership in the US – too difficult a problem to tackle? Are we going to sit back and let the rich and powerful distort public opinion and dictate what is in our best interests? I know they have more money than us but, when it comes to voting, WE are the millionaires.
In the last election, a significant percentage of those eligible to vote did not have their vote counted. The informal vote was almost 6 per cent (739,872 voters), and 7.6 per cent of those eligible, a large number of them aged 18-24, did not enrol to vote. Of the approximately one million Australians living overseas, about ten per cent voted.
We need to engage these people, make them aware of the impact of current policies, encourage them to enrol, make sure they understand how to fill in their ballot papers, and impress on them the importance of their vote. It has been estimated that the difference between a Coalition victory and a Labor win was about 30,000 votes in key seats.
It is time for the people to stand up and speak out.