Over the past few years there has been a significant rise in the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation, particularly on social media and search platforms. The Oxford Internet Institute, Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have all undertaken studies quantifying the significant rise:
the Oxford Internet Institute Evidence highlighted that organised social media manipulation campaigns had taken place in 70 countries, up from 48 countries in 2018 and 28 countries in 2017;
Stanford University identified over 560 deceptive ‘news’ websites identified as sources of false stories receiving over 60 million monthly engagements on Facebook; and
MIT concluded that false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be shared on Twitter than true stories, and that they reach 1,500 people in a sixth of the time.
The Department of Home Affairs (Home Affairs), in its submission to the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, noted that ‘manipulation by foreign states of social media during Australia’s electoral processes is a realistic prospect for federal, state and territory elections.’
The former Director General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Mr Duncan Lewis, warned that foreign interference was ‘by far and away the most serious issue going forward’.
Electoral and political interference of elections such as the cyber-manipulation of elections, interference of social media bots, foreign interference in electoral events, and the spread of misinformation and disinformation also continued to be an issue of concern raised by a number of submitters.
During the course of the inquiry the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) considered whether it had any impact on the 2019 Federal election.
Electoral interference vs political influence
Electoral interference and political interference are two distinct concepts. Electoral/foreign interference involves interfering in the process or delivery of an election while political/foreign influence is focused on advancing specific issues.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), in its submission to the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, highlighted the difference between foreign interference and foreign influence stating:
The Australian Government has defined foreign interference as activities carried out by, or on behalf of, a foreign actor, which are coercive, covert, deceptive or corrupting, and are contrary to Australia’s sovereignty and national interests. Foreign interference is distinct from foreign influence, which is a normal aspect of open and transparent international relations and diplomacy.
The Attorney General’s Department (AGD) also provided an description on the distinction between foreign interference and foreign influence:
All governments, including in Australia, try to influence deliberations on issues of importance to them. These activities, when conducted in an open and transparent manner, are a normal aspect of international relations and diplomacy and can contribute positively to public debate. In contrast, foreign interference refers to activities that are covert, coercive, deceptive or corrupting, and are contrary to Australia’s sovereignty, values and national interests. Foreign interference is covered by offences in the Commonwealth Criminal Code and dealt with by ASIO and the AFP [Australian Federal Police], and is not the focus of the scheme.
The Department of Home Affairs concurred with the view of the AGD and DFAT about the difference between foreign interference and foreign influence:
Foreign Interference: Clandestine activities carried out by, or on behalf of, a foreign actor which seek to interfere in decision-making, political discourse or other societal norms. Foreign interference is coercive, covert, deceptive or corrupting and is contrary to Australia’s sovereignty, values and national interests.
Foreign Influence: Overt activities to advocate for particular outcomes or shape consideration of issues important to foreign actors. When conducted in an open and transparent manner, these activities can contribute positively to public debate.
Some submitters appeared to use the terms foreign interference and influence interchangeably, but were of the view that influence campaigns had been undertaken by state and domestic actors in the 2019 Federal election.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) highlighted news reports that foreign actors targeted Australians during the 2019 Federal election:
During the 2019 Australian federal election financially-motivated actors from Kosovo, Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia used nationalistic and Islamophobic content to target and manipulate Australian Facebook users. A combined audience of 130,000 Facebook users across four Facebook pages were steered off the platform towards content farms that generated advertising revenue from each page view. The Guardian uncovered a similar operation run from Israel that used similarly divisive Islamophobic content, again to steer Facebook audiences to revenue-generating content farms. These activities have the potential to skew Australia’s political discourse, influence voting behaviour and affect electoral outcomes.
ASPI stated that it was a national security problem where foreign actors operate over multiple platforms:
Foreign interference is a national security problem where every possible weak point in society, both online and offline, may be attacked to weaken society and liberal democracy. Although social media is an attractive and cost-effective means of achieving influence, foreign actors operate across the entire information environment and will conduct co-ordinated influence operations across many platforms simultaneously.
The News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra (NMRC) posited that foreign influence was a particular threat at the moment due to:
attackers being able to carry out foreign influence operations from outside the country and hide their origins and activity;
digital networks facilitating cost-effective access to communities, reducing the resources and time required to execute a sustained influence operation;
digital networks enable foreign influence operations to scale-up much quicker than in an analogue age of communication; and
the technological threshold for influence campaigns are quite low only needing a computer screen and an internet collection.
The NMRC highlighted that influence campaigns were much broader than just online communications:
Social media and other online communications are normally only one part of an influence campaign. Influence campaigns tend to be sustained, with an eye to impacting the course of a country’s politics beyond the next election cycle. Information operations supports other activities … which often include financing (which may be covert and illicit) and direct contacts with candidates and other party officials.
The NMRC put forward the view that domestic actors were a greater threat than foreign actors:
… domestic actors are often more adept at manipulating Australians than foreign governments as our marketing and campaign firms routinely study how communication campaigns can get different segments of the Australian population to act in a predetermined way or to adopt an attitude. Domestic actors have greater capacity to manipulate an Australian audience, all things equal, than a foreign entity.
The NMRC suggested it was ‘important that political parties, even at the local levels, receive training on how to handle approaches by persons acting on behalf of a foreign principal.’
Responsible Technology Australia believed that there was a very high likelihood that foreign interference was happening now and will continue to in the future adding that there was a lack of oversight on social media platforms:
The problem here is that you have platforms which provide access to the hearts and minds of Australians, with zero oversight in terms of what's being pushed, how it's being messaged, how accurate the information is and how harmful it is to the integrity of our elections and the integrity of our democracy. There's a complete lack of oversight, which means that, currently, while we are fairly certain that there is this kind of disinformation campaign happening—there has been some evidence—the problem is very likely much larger than we're what aware of.
DFAT noted the Government had established a pilot strategy to counter foreign interference, the Counter Foreign Interference (CFI) Diplomatic Strategy pilot program, by:
delivering clear messaging to ensure foreign actors understand what kinds of actions Australia finds unacceptable and that foreign interference is viewed as a core national security concern;
showing foreign interference actors that their actions can and will be revealed and will generate a meaningful response;
convincing foreign interference actors that their actions will have costs – and that these costs outweigh the benefits – including through international reputational damage and by underscoring both the strength of Australia’s systems and the sophistication of our detection and enforcement capabilities;
demonstrating that the opportunities for foreign interference are narrowing in Australia and the region, including by increasing regional awareness, reducing vulnerabilities, strengthening institutions; and
mobilising international collaboration to counter foreign interference and establish globally accepted norms of behaviour.
Misinformation and disinformation
As part of its submission to the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, the Department of Home Affairs also provided definitions for disinformation and misinformation:
Disinformation: False information designed to deliberately mislead and influence public opinion or obscure the truth for malicious or deceptive purposes. Disinformation can be intended for financial gain (such as clickbait stories), but have an incidental effect on public opinion or debate.
Misinformation: False information that is spread due to ignorance, by error or mistake with good intentions/without the intent to deceive.
An annual report on social media manipulation campaigns by the University of Oxford, the 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation report, found:
that prominent platforms for social media manipulation in Australia include Twitter, Facebook;
evidence of political parties or politicians running for office who have used the tools and techniques of computational propaganda during elections;
fake accounts used by cyber troops to spread computational propaganda in Australia were either bots or human-run accounts; and
cyber troops either spread pro-government or pro-party propaganda or use computational propaganda to attack political opposition.
Many individuals, groups and organisations that provided submissions and appeared at public hearings to this inquiry raised concerns about the prevalence of disinformation, misinformation and ‘fake news’ during the 2019 Federal election.
Ms Margaret Saita, who provided a submission in a private capacity, believed that ‘fake news’ was ‘one of the biggest threats to both global and domestic democracy and international relations’. She added that the social media platforms use of algorithms was particularly problematic:
The dividing nature of social media platforms due to their user-targeted algorithms is one that:
Makes it difficult (sometimes near impossible) for potential voters to receive online news from another political perspective; and
Creates an environment of political encapsulation for voters, facilitating communication with those of their opinion, nursing potential radicalisation and inciting intolerance.
Ms Lorraine Davies, private capacity, commented that misinformation about the policies of opposing candidates was spread and amplified by the mainstream media and social media platforms.
The Voter Choice Project (VCP) identified a few areas which they believed involved misinformation such as Vote of No Confidence campaigns, how votes are counted, how to complete a ballot paper, and preferences.
The VCP recommended that ‘legislation and guidelines around misinformation of voters’ be reviewed and revised ‘to prohibit deliberately providing any misinformation to voters.’
Marque Lawyers also identified a number of areas where they commented could have either been constituting targeted advocacy or misleading to electors including, ‘the ‘mediscare’ campaign, rent increase notices, fake eviction notices and … the corflutes in Chisholm and Kooyong.’
Marque Lawyers held the view that there were significant limitations in the current electoral laws ‘in stopping the spread of misinformation or misleading material during elections.’ They added:
Section 329 is the only provision of the Act which protects electors from being targeted with misinformation. Unfortunately, s 329’s predecessor was interpreted by the High Court in its narrowest sense. That interpretation remains today, and its practical effect has been to tie the hands of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) from taking action (whether threatened or injunctive) in relation to problematic conduct occurring during a campaign.
Marque Lawyers asserted that, due to the High Court’s interpretation, ‘the AEC has confined its remit to taking action to breaches of the authorisation requirement under part 12A of the Act.’ They added that this increased the likelihood of the AEC being ‘rendered powerless’ by an authorised, overt lie told during an election campaign.
Activities under the CFI Diplomatic Strategy pilot program also include strategies to strengthen awareness of disinformation and misinformation in Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific. In particular, DFAT delivered a workshop on Building Strategic Communications Capability to Counter Disinformation in Singapore which ‘raised awareness and built the capability of mid-level officials from the governments of ASEAN nations to better understand and counter hostile disinformation.’
Protecting electoral integrity in the face of declining trust in public institutions
Over the past decade there has been a significant decline in the public’s trust in public institutions. Numerous surveys across the globe have identified that support and confidence of our public institutions has been in decline as far back as the 1980s:
… the 1981 World Values Survey, 39 percent of European respondents expressed ‘a lot’ or ‘quite a lot’ of support and confidence for public institutions. By 1990 that had fallen to 25 percent. In 1981, 50 percent of Americans expressed high support for public institutions. This fell to 32 percent by 1990, and 21 percent by 1999. In 1981, 37 percent of Canadians expressed high support for public institutions, a figure which fell to 29 percent by 1990, and to 22 percent by 1998.
More recently, research undertaken by the Social Research Institute at Ipsos in 2018 on the relationship between trust in the political system and attitudes towards democracy in Australia found:
… compelling evidence of an increasing trust divide between government and citizens. This is reflected in the decline of democratic satisfaction and receding trust in politicians, political parties and other key institutions (especially media). We also found a lack of public confidence in the capacity of government to address public policy concerns.
The World Values Survey (WVS), an international research program conducted for over 37 years, noted that while Australians trusted some institutions and our election results; trust in political parties, the media, churches, unions, banks and big business was generally low.
RAND Australia, a non-profit global policy think tank, characterised the public declining trust in institutions as ‘Truth Decay’ which it defined as:
… a set of four interrelated trends: an increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and lowered trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.
Since 2018 the Government and the AEC have implemented a number of measures designed to protect Australia’s elections from foreign influence including:
setting up an Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce (EIAT) to provide the AEC with technical advice and expertise in relation to cyber interference with electoral processes;
implementing a Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme which requires individuals to register under the scheme where they are undertaking a registrable activity on behalf of a foreign principal for political or government influence purposes;
running the Stop and Consider social media campaign to raise public awareness of potential disinformation during the 2019 federal election; and
working closely with the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) to ensure the cybersecurity of Australia’s electoral systems including implementing the ASD’s ‘Essential 8’ strategies.
Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce
The EIAT was initially established for the Braddon, Fremantle, Longman, Mayo and Perth by-elections held on 28 July 2018. The EIAT, which included other key agencies across government, was established to ‘safeguard the five by-elections from cyber-attack or interference.’
Jointly led by the AEC and the Department of Finance, the EIAT is comprised of the following agencies:
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet;
Department of Communications and the Arts;
Department of Home Affairs;
Australian Federal Police; and
Australian Signals Directorate.
The 2019 Federal election was the ‘first full general election where a formalised [EIAT] was operational to address risks to the integrity of the electoral system.’
The AEC noted that the agencies:
… represented on the Taskforce provided guidance and expertise on a broad range of issues within the Australian electoral environment, including on electoral policy and matters of electoral integrity.
The AEC pointed out that the EIAT was not involved, or had any role, in:
the delivery of election activities, such as vote counting or scrutinising, and was not in a position to affect election results; or
determining whether or not political messages published or broadcast by political parties and candidates in relation to the federal election were true.
In its 2018-19 Annual Report, the AEC stated that ‘no serious cyber threats were identified’ during any of the by-elections. For the 2019 Federal election, the AEC stated:
The advice from the task force agencies is that they did not identify any foreign interference in the 2019 election, nor did the agencies identify other interference that compromised the delivery of the 2019 federal election and that would undermine the confidence of the Australian people in a result.
The EIAT also engaged with major online and social media organisations such as Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter and Facebook advised that they both engaged with the EIAT in the lead up to the 2019 Federal election. Facebook added that ‘agencies on the taskforce (and other government agencies) were able to escalate any concerns with us throughout the election campaign.’
Facebook elaborated that it had established a formalised and much closer relationship with the AEC:
An even closer working relationship was put in place with the AEC: we agreed in advance a protocol with the AEC that allowed a rapid escalation channel for any concerns throughout the campaign. We worked closely to quickly respond to all issues raised with us by Australian Government agencies.
In its submission the AEC stated that it had seen a ‘marked improvement in engagement undertaken with major online and social media organisations.’
In relation to the 2019 Federal election, the AEC advised that it engaged with Facebook, Twitter, Google and WeChat:
… in order to better understand their platforms, any relevant initiatives (e.g. political advertising transparency libraries), their policies and establish procedures to address electoral communications that breached electoral laws (e.g. was not properly authorised).
The AEC added that it had requested some social media companies remove content:
… there were only eleven items of social media communication that resulted in requests by the AEC to the relevant social media company to remove the illegal communication (all of our requests were promptly responded to). In the vast majority of cases content was either rectified to comply with the Electoral Act or removed by the responsible person or entity.
The AEC is also working with other electoral administration bodies in Australia to develop a protocol on interacting with social media companies, adding:
We haven't yet spoken to the social media companies about this, but we feel there needs to be more certainty about not only federal elections, but also state elections. What can we expect? What service standards should there be? When we are asking for information to be removed, how quickly should it be removed, and what sort of areas can we cooperate on? It is very early days but the Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand is very keen on this, to produce a standardised response.
At the date the report was tabled, the EIAT was no longer in operation. However, the AEC advised that members of the EIAT ‘continue to work together on electoral integrity matters as required’ and options to extend support to State/Territory electoral commissions were under discussion.
Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme
Commencing on 10 December 2018, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme’s (the Scheme) purpose is to ‘provide the public and government decision-makers with visibility of the nature, level and extent of foreign influence on Australia's government and political processes.’
Under the Scheme, persons ‘(whether individuals or entities) undertaking certain activities on behalf of foreign principals’ must register those activities.
… a registrable activity in Australia for the purpose of political or governmental influence on behalf of a foreign principal. A registrable activity can be:
General political lobbying;
Communications activity; or
The Scheme is concerned about ‘foreign influence rather than foreign interference.’ Foreign interference is covered by offences in the Commonwealth Criminal Code and dealt with by the security agencies such as ASIO.
The submission from the AGD to the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media provided an overview of the application of the Scheme to social media platforms:
Under the scheme, communications activities need to be registered if they are undertaken in Australia on behalf of a foreign principal for the purpose of political or governmental influence. This includes the production or publication of graphics, audio, video or written information posted to social media.
The AGD added that, similar to the authorisation requirements on political advertising required under the Electoral Act, communications activities ‘must also contain a disclosure as to the identity of, and relationship with, the foreign principal.’
The Scheme also imposes additional obligations during voting periods which ‘begin on the day that the writs are issued and end when the last polling stations close on voting day.’ These obligations include:
registered activities must be lodged with the department within seven rather than 14 days;
the AGD must publish those activities to the public register within 48 hours rather than four weeks.
During the 2019 Federal election, the AGD was ‘asked to consider whether any registrable activities were being undertaken, and whether the posts on social media needed to be registered and contain the appropriate disclosures.’ In those instances the AGD found that ‘the number of social media posts and different platforms used in the federal election to share information and opinions on candidates was significant and it was often not clear whether the posts were on behalf of a foreign actor.’
In circumstances where the AGD was able to identify material that may not have complied with the Foreign Influence Transparency Act 2018 or the Scheme, the AGD ‘engaged with their government counterparts and where appropriate, social media companies to work cooperatively to assess whether the obligations under scheme applied to the material.’
The Law Council of Australia raised concerns about the effectiveness of the Scheme, stating:
… the [Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018] only addresses foreign influence relating to certain activities undertaken in Australia on behalf of a foreign principal. The use of social media to publish misinformation directly targeting the Australian public without the use of an intermediary in Australia places significant limitations on the effectiveness of the FITS Act in responding to these threats.
Stop and Consider social media campaign
In the lead up to the 2019 Federal election, the AEC undertook a social media advertising campaign: Stop and consider. The campaign ran from 15 April to 18 May 2019 on social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and ‘encouraged voters to check the source of electoral communications to avoid being misled by disinformation.’
The advertisements on the social media platforms were:
… supported by online search advertising, dedicated content on the AEC website, proactive mainstream and ethnic media activities, and stakeholder engagement to promote information (fact sheets and media releases) available in 29 languages.
The AEC pointed out that the campaign resulted in:
the delivery of more than 56 million social media impressions and more than 100,000 clicks through to AEC website material;
more than 1,700 downloads of translated fact sheets.
The AEC undertook an evaluation survey and independent market research which found that:
one in nine respondents (11 %) indicated that they recognised the campaign;
two in five (40%) of those recognising the campaign claimed that they would take action on account of seeing it;
52% of respondents said they would take action to check facts relating to social media content.
As noted above, the AEC worked closely with the ASD and the ACSC in order to ensure the cybersecurity of Australia’s electoral systems including implementing the ASD’s ‘Essential 8’ strategies. The AEC advised that this heightened focus was a result of what had occurred internationally between 2016 and 2019 on this issue.
While acknowledging that ‘no single mitigation strategy is guaranteed to prevent cyber security incidents’, the ASD recommends that organisations implement the eight strategies:
Mitigation Strategies to Prevent Malware Delivery and Execution:
Application control to prevent execution of unapproved/malicious programs;
Configure Microsoft Office macro settings to block macros from the internet;
Configure web browsers to block Flash (ideally uninstall it), ads and Java on the internet;
Mitigation Strategies to Limit the Extent of Cyber Security Incidents;
Restrict administrative privileges;
Multi-factor authentication; and
Mitigation Strategies to Recover Data and System Availability;
Daily backups of important new/changed data, software and configuration settings.
The AEC has also ‘certified and accredited each of its key election systems in line with Information Security Manual (ISM) requirements.’
For the 2019 federal election, the AEC also ‘engaged specialist cyber security monitoring services, ensuring the AEC’s IT Security team would be able to respond effectively to potential cyber attacks against voting infrastructure and the general AEC network.’
The NMRC advocated for Australia’s political parties to receive regular training on counterintelligence and cyber threats at the national and state level.
As noted above, the EIAT advised that ‘no foreign interference, malicious cyber-activity or security matters were identified that undermined the integrity of the federal election.’
Based on the expert advice from members of the EIAT, the JSCEM has found that there was no foreign interference, malicious cyber-activity or security matters that affected the integrity of the 2019 Federal election.
The JSCEM also found limited evidence of social media manipulation within Australia, including minimal use of bots. However, given the significant rise in organised social media manipulation campaigns, we must remain vigilant.
As part of the inquiry into the 2016 Federal election the JSCEM made a number of recommendations focussed on addressing issues on disinformation; preventing and combating cyber manipulation; providing greater clarity to the legal framework surrounding social media services and their designation as ‘platform’ or ‘publisher’; and enhancing media literacy and education.
To date, the Government has yet to provide a response to those recommendations. The JSCEM urges the Government to respond to those recommendations as a matter of urgency.
The JSCEM acknowledges the excellent work undertaken by EIAT to ensure the integrity of Australia’s electoral system.
The JSCEM notes that the EIAT is no longer in operation but currently works together on electoral integrity matters as required. The JSCEM is of the view that EIAT should be engaged permanently and given appropriate resources to prevent and combat cyber manipulation and electoral/foreign interference in Australia’s democratic processes.
The Committee recommends that the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce be engaged permanently to prevent and combat cyber manipulation and electoral/foreign interference in Australia’s democratic process and to provide post-election findings regarding any pertinent incidents to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, including through in camera and open briefing.
Political campaigners play an ever increasing role in electoral discourse especially during election times. GetUp is one such campaigner that was engaged in the 2019 Federal election. The JSCEM raised concerns about a misleading submission made by GetUp to the JSCEM, which GetUp has declined two opportunities to correct.
Page three of Getup's submission to this Committee , states that:
We're fiercely independent and proud of it, but don't just take it from us - the AEC has investigated GetUp three times and every single time confirmed our independence and that we not (sic) associated with any political party.
The AEC ruled in GetUp's favour as recently as February this year, specifically finding: GetUp campaigns are 100% issues based: Whether we're demanding action on climate change, standing up for Medevac laws or protecting the ABC, we empower everyday people to participate in politics. GetUp plays an important role on election day: We provide people with multiple, meaningful options to vote on the issues they care about.
GetUp does not receive funding from political parties: GetUp has not, and never will receive funding from political parties. We've never given it either!
GetUp is nonpartisan. The fact that an organisation advocates an agenda on one side of the political spectrum does not mean it is operating for the benefit of any or all registered political parties on that side of the spectrum.
Notwithstanding the fact that these assertions about AEC findings are inherently implausible, they have been explicitly rejected by the AEC at Senate Estimates on two occasions.
Firstly at the Finance and Public Administration Estimates on 22 October 2019, the Electoral Commissioner, Tom Rogers and the AEC gave the following evidence, specifically repudiating these claims in GetUp's submission to JSCEM:
Senator ABETZ: Thank you. I add my personal congratulations. I sent them in a letter, but personally as well, congratulations on your reappointment. On 4 April 2019 on page 164 of the Hansard of these estimates, we had the following exchange:
Senator ABETZ: Therefore, it is in fact false for anybody to assert that the AEC has declared them independent, because you don't have the power to do it and you don't do it.
Mr Rogers : That's correct.
Senator ABETZ: Therefore, anybody that makes such an assertion must be making that assertion based on a falsehood.
Mr Rogers : If we're talking generically –
Senator ABETZ: Yes.
Mr Rogers : absolutely.
Senator ABETZ: You said some other bits and pieces, then you said: … because I have no power to do so it would certainly be a false piece of information. Do you stand by that evidence?
Mr Rogers: That's correct, Senator.
Senator ABETZ: Can I ask you then, whether at any stage you have ever ruled to say that GetUp! is independent?
Mr Rogers: I have not, and to the best of my knowledge, no-one in the AEC has done that; it's not a power we have to declare–
Senator A BETZ: Therefore you can't do it and you wouldn't do it.
Mr Rogers: We would not declare someone either not independent or independent, because it's not a power I have.
Senator ABETZ: So if it were to be said, 'The AEC has investigated GetUp! three times and every single time confirmed our independence,' that would not be correct, would it? You investigated them, yes, but the last bit about 'and every single time confirmed our independence', that is incorrect?
Mr Rogers: That is not language that the AEC would use.
Senator ABETZ: And therefore it is incorrect?
Mr Rogers: That's correct, Senator.
Senator ABETZ: Are you aware of the submission that GetUp has put to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters?
Mr Rogers: I'm aware they have put a submission in, but I haven't yet read it; I will do so eventually, but I haven't read it yet.
Senator ABETZ: If I could draw your attention to it because, in that submission to a parliamentary inquiry, they are falsely asserting and trying to put words into the AEC's mouth in relation to them allegedly being independent. Can I ask you: as an independent statutory authority, is it important for you to at all times have the public record absolutely clear as to what your determinations may or may not be, as to what your powers may be, and, as a result, have no ambiguity about your position?
Mr Rogers: That is correct, Senator, and I also try to be fairly precise in my language about that particular issue because it is always in the public domain.
Senator ABETZ: And so, to confirm: you have never confirmed GetUp's independence or, for that matter, any other organisation's independence because that's not your business?
Mr Rogers: No organisation either way: either independent or not independent.
Senator ABETZ: Have you found that GetUp's campaigns are 100 per cent issues based?
Mr Rogers: Look, that's a different question, Senator. If I reflect on what I think we said last time—and Mr Pirani might join me here—the language we use is that there was insufficient material and evidence to show that GetUp was an associated entity at the relevant time. That's the sum total of our language at that point. So we looked at a whole range of material that had been presented to us. I'm going to go back, I think, a bit to the definition that's contained in the Electoral Act and, as we've said to this committee and other committees previously, the threshold test that is there—Mr Pirani, you might—
Senator ABETZ: With respect, time is of the essence, I think, and that is not in play or an issue, but have you ever declared about any political party, or indeed any organisation, that their campaigns are 100 per cent issues based?
Mr Rogers: We have not declared that.
Senator ABETZ: Right, because they assert that:
The AEC ruled in GetUp's favour as recently as February this year, specifically finding:
GetUp campaigns are 100 per cent issues based.
Mr Rogers: That is not something we would have said in any way shape or form.
Senator ABETZ: So that is another falsehood because I would have thought an advertisement falsely making claims against the Treasurer would not be an issues based campaign. Also, the misadventure they undertook with the advertisement against Mr Abbott, the former member for Warringah, would hardly be seen as issues based, but thank you for clearing that up. Do you make any specific findings that an organisation is nonpartisan?
Mr Rogers: No, we do not.
Senator ABETZ: And then do you make any finding that any organisation plays an important role on election day?
Mr Rogers: No, we do not.
Senator ABETZ: So we now have GetUp's false claim about independence; GetUp's false claim that you have specifically found they're 100 per cent issues based; and the claim that GetUp is nonpartisan—all these claims are false, aren't they?
Mr Rogers: Again, I haven't read their submission but, based on what you've said this evening, Senator, they are not findings that we have found or language that we have used.
Senator ABETZ: See, because GetUp! says:
… specifically finding:—no ambiguity in that term—GetUp campaigns are 100 per cent issues based.
… … …
GetUp is nonpartisan.
You've confirmed their independence, or false assertions, by an organisation that has put a submission to the important Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. So, having drawn your attention to these matters, could I invite the Australian Electoral Commission to put in a submission to that committee dealing with these false assertions which, are not normal with respect to argy-bargy of politics of one party making a claim against the other. This is falsely asserting that an independent statutory authority has made 'specific findings' which you are saying here under oath is in fact false.
Mr Rogers: That is correct.
Senator ABETZ: Right. Thank you very much.
Mr Rogers: I'm just going to check with Mr Pirani that I haven't said anything there that's incorrect.
Senator ABETZ: You've checked with Mr Pirani?
Mr Rogers: I stand by—everything I've said is correct.
Senator ABETZ: So, for the record, you agree with the evidence of the commissioner.
Mr Pirani: That is correct.
Secondly, at the Finance and Public Administration Estimates on 22 October 2020, the Electoral Commissioner, Tom Rogers gave the following evidence:
Senator ABETZ: Thank you. If I recall correctly, I put four propositions to you at the last Senate estimates as to what GetUp were asserting the AEC had determined about them, such as that they were non-partisan, that they were of value to the electoral system et cetera, and you indicated very strongly at the time that they were things that the Australian Electoral Commission would not find, let alone say.
Mr Rogers: That's correct.
… … …
Senator ABETZ: But is it a gross misrepresentation—sorry, that's my language. It does not faithfully represent that which is the AEC has said about GetUp?
Mr Rogers: That's correct.
When Senator Abetz pursued this issue at some length at JSCEM's hearing on 14 September 2020, Mr Zaahir Edries, GetUp's Legal Counsel, defended the claims in GetUp's submission, arguing that they rendered the AEC's decision in a ‘digestible’ form. Notwithstanding his defence of the claims in GetUp's submission to JSCEM, Mr Edries said he would make contact with the AEC about this issue, to maintain a ‘good relationship with the AEC’.
When Senator Abetz again raised this issue with GetUp's National Director, Mr Paul Oosting, at JSCEM's hearing on 11 November 2020, Mr Oosting failed to correct the statements in GetUp's submission. Instead Mr Oosting repeatedly suggested that these erroneous claims were somehow justified because they were in response to claims Senator Abetz had made in Parliament about GetUp:
Senator ABETZ: But you would be aware of the Australian Electoral Commissioner's evidence to the Senate completely countering the false submission that you've made to this committee: The AEC ruled in GetUp's favour as recently as February this year, specifically finding: 'GetUp campaigns are 100% issues based- The Electoral Commission never found that, did it?
Mr Oosting: GetUp's reputation and our independence, the way that we engage in campaigns, has been misrepresented by yourself to the AEC. I did a quick google yesterday afternoon before appearing-
Senator ABETZ: Can you please answer the question? Sorry to interrupt. This is not about you making assertions. This is about you putting, in effect on oath, to this committee that the AEC specifically found: GetUp campaigns are 100% issues based ... GetUp plays an important role on election day GetUp is nonpartisan. All these matters have been specifically refuted by the Australian Electoral Commissioner, not once but twice. What have you done to correct the record to this committee, to your membership and to the public at large?
Mr Oosting: I think it is relevant actually, because on Hansard you have continued on a number of occasions that we're somehow-
Senator ABETZ: No, no, don't worry about my misrepresentations.
Mr Oosting: And—
Senator ABETZ: No, sorry. Sorry, Mr Oosting—
Mr Oosting: It's directly relevant to the question.
Senator ABETZ: You have to answer the question.
Mr Oosting: I'd love to.
Senator ABETZ: It is not about me.
Senator ABETZ: The question is about your misrepresentation of the Australian Electoral Commission, which is an independent statutory authority, and you seek to clothe your organisation with credibility, putting words into the Electoral Commission's mouth, which they specifically refuted not once but twice. What have you done to correct the public record?
Even though the AEC has twice refuted the claims in GetUp's submission to JSCEM, Mr Oosting placed great reliance on the letter GetUp wrote to the Electoral Commission in September, following Mr Edries' offer at JSCEM's hearing on 14 September:
Mr Oosting: Following a number of misrepresentations made by yourself, Senator Abetz, we have written to the AEC, Tom Rogers, in September 2020. I'm happy to read that in here.
Senator ABETZ: Or can you table that for the committee and present that to the committee?
Mr Oosting: Yes, I'll read it in now: 'GetUp representatives were questioned about GetUp's use of wording in a submission to the committee of Senator Abetz, including: "the AEC has investigated GetUp three times and every single time confirmed our independence" As mentioned in the email of 25 October 2019, GetUp agrees that this is technically not correct but rather the Electoral Commission was unable to find on most occasions that GetUp is an associated entity of those parties.' So, in our submission, we have sought to make sure that the public are aware that the statements that you've made in parliament claiming that GetUp is not independent or is somehow partisan and that we should be found to be an associated entity are untrue. The Electoral Commission looked into the matter of whether or not we're an associated entity, which—
… … …
Senator ABETZ: But where's the evidence for your statements? Where's the evidence?
Mr Oosting: [inaudible] and we're happy to table that with the committee following this hearing today. I've read in that letter. As I say, we said to them that we would endeavour to ensure that we were very clear with the definition of the 'associated entity' test. We are confident—100 per cent confident—in GetUp's independence. It has been found by the AEC that GetUp is not an associated entity or affiliated with any political party [inaudible] independence—
Senator ABETZ: How does that in any way, shape or form answer my questions as to your egregious misrepresentation of the Australian Electoral Commission, which it has specifically refuted not once but twice? Where is the evidence?
Mr Oosting: In terms of evidence, as I said, we're happy to provide our letter to the AEC—
Senator ABETZ: No, that's not evidence. Your letter cannot be evidence as to what you assert the AEC has said about you. It must be statements made by the AEC about you and on which you rely in this false document, I suggest. I want to know where you got that evidence from. I think it was out of thin air. It's been fabricated. It's been refuted by the Electoral Commission. That is why you ought to do the decent thing and correct the public record.
The JSCEM submits that GetUp has been given ample opportunity to amend its submission but has steadfastly refused to do so.
Instead GetUp has sought to justify falsehoods about supposed specific findings by the AEC on the spurious grounds that they respond to previous statements by Senator Abetz. This would be no justification for verballing the AEC, but in any event GetUp's submission made no reference to Senator Abetz.
As the above transcript shows, at JSCEM's hearing on 11 November 2020 Mr Oosting read into Hansard the letter GetUp sent to the AEC in September.
Referring to the claim in GetUp's submission that the AEC has investigated GetUp three times and every single time confirmed its independence, GetUp's letter to the AEC apparently says. ‘As mentioned in the email of 25 October 2019, GetUp agrees that this is technically not correct’.
GetUp has conceded to the AEC that one of the several claims in its submission to JSCEM is ‘technically not correct’, but Mr Oosting in evidence still sought to justify the false statements in GetUp's submission on the basis that past claims made elsewhere by Senator Abetz were untrue.
GetUp has not conceded to JSCEM that the claim in its submission about the AEC finding them to be independent is ‘technically not correct’, nor has GetUp corrected the other statements in its submission, falsely attributed to the AEC. Also, at JSCEM's 11 November 2020 hearing, Mr Oosting offered to table GetUp's letter to the AEC following that hearing but has so far failed to do so.
The JSCEM reiterates that the Electoral Commissioner has given evidence in relation to GetUp's claim that the AEC specifically found its campaigns are 100% issues based, that the AEC would not have said this ’in any way shape or form.’
The JSCEM believes that GetUp's submission to this inquiry is misleading, remains misleading and, that GetUp has failed to correct it, despite being provided ample opportunity.
Evidence to this JSCEM is on oath and GetUp's misrepresentation of the AEC a serious matter. However the JSCEM does not allege that GetUp's provision of false and misleading information substantially obstructed the JSCEM in the performance of its functions in relation to the inquiry.
Consequently the JSCEM finds that page three of GetUp's submission, dealing with purported specific findings made by the AEC, is misleading and note that, despite repeated opportunity and invitation, GetUp has failed to correct the record.
GetUp belatedly supplied a revised submission to the JSCEM which corrects the false statements attributed to the AEC in its initial submission. The JSCEM notes that this is in effect an admission by GetUp that its initial submission and the evidence of its officers at two Committee hearings was misleading. The JSCEM notes this is the second occasion that GetUp has misled it.
Political debate has always been robust and it is common for people from opposing sides to argue in public over the merits of policy. But the JSCEM heard evidence of candidates who had been followed through the day by opponents outside of public events and appearances, intruding during their travel, non-campaign work, or private life.
Evidence was received about how some political activists were trained by GetUp to engage in text book American ‘bird dogging’ and pursue opposing candidates to badger them repeatedly with questions in public forums.
One of their individual supporters conducted himself in a manner that objectively amounted to a concerted campaign of harassment.
When activists are encouraged to ‘hunt’ their opponents, some can break the lead and engage in aberrant behaviour. These aggressive practices have nothing to do with winning votes and everything to do with psychological warfare. In the worst instance, one politically active individual was stabbed by another with a corkscrew.
These ugly behaviours are unacceptable and should have no part in Australian political life.
The Electoral Act includes an offence for interference with political liberty (section 327) but it is narrowly constructed based on old-fashioned concepts about political mischief. The Act does not include appropriate remedies to ensure that perpetrators of thuggery are deterred, or held accountable when they cross the line of civility and decency.
The JSCEM has no objection to GetUp or any other organisation exercising their democratic rights but finds GetUp’s approach to the JSCEM to be tricky and misleading. For an organisation who campaigns on openness, honesty and accountability it is the JSCEM’s view that GetUp’s appearances before it are anything but open and honest.
The JSCEM also notes that for an organisation that campaigns on corporate and political accountability its own accountability is opaque and shadowy. This is disappointing.
The JSCEM is of the view that while GetUp claims to campaign for progressive issues it continually and consistently campaigns against centre right politicians.
The Committee recommends that new offence of ‘electoral violence’ be added to the Electoral Act to address behaviour arising in an election such as violence, obscene or discriminatory abuse, property damage, and stalking candidates or their supporters to intimidate them or make them feel unsafe.
The Committee recommends that the Electoral Act be amended so the test for affiliated organisations be broadened.
It should also be recognised that an increasing number of actors have been active in the electoral space in the lead up to and throughout election campaigns, often of a smaller and more targeted nature. This has resulted in the current thresholds for political campaigners no longer being suitable to achieve transparency in the involvement of third parties who seek to influence election outcomes.
The increasing volume of smaller actors developing electoral materials seeking to influence elections was evident in the 2019 election, where targeted groups were established for the purpose of campaigning against a number of sitting parliamentarians. These organisations, given their localised campaigns, currently do not meet the thresholds for disclosure as a political campaigner, yet are evidently established with the purpose of influencing an election outcome by circumventing the existing threshold requirements of political campaigners
The Committee recommends that the threshold for political campaigners be reduced to $100,000 or, circumstances where an entity’s expenditure on electoral matter exceeds one third of its annual income, whichever is lower.
Committee members received anecdotal evidence that voters are increasingly frustrated by the actions of third party groups handing out information at polling places. The congestion at the six metre mark is exacerbated when those handing out information include players who are not representing those running for election, for example interest groups and single-issue causes. Since real estate near the six metre mark is finite, priority must go to volunteers who are helping candidates who seek election.
In addition, feedback from volunteers for Parties and candidates also received by Committee members raised concerns about inconsistencies in determining the entrances to polling booths and consequently the application of what is known as the six metre rule.
The Committee recommends that persons who do not represent a candidate and hand out vote-influencing material or are attempting to influence voters in any other manner, whether individually or for a third party or group, are to be restricted to not being within 100 metres of a polling booth entrance; and
that persons handing out vote-influencing material or attempting to influence voters in any other manner for an endorsed candidate, whether running for a Party or as an independent are restricted to not being within 6m of a polling booth entrance; and
that the AEC encourage consistency in determination of polling booth entrances and application of the six metre rule.