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Where are the advertising standards for political campaigns?  

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Truth in advertising is mandated by law in Australia. It’s rarely enforced except under free-to-air TV industry self-regulation (through Free TV Australia, which is surprisingly assiduous in fact checking TV ads) and by the ACCC (where a complaint is usually required to instigate action).

But there’s one category of advertising that is not required to be truthful. Political advertising.

The rationale for this exemption, blithely accepted by media and a cynical electorate, is that political advertising needs to be able to promote concepts and policy ideas that are not yet fully formed.

The effect, however, is that all political parties are free to lie shamelessly about their track record and policies and those of their opponents, unfettered by the need for pesky facts. It has contributed greatly to the depletion of trust in our political institutions and the reduction of the quality of political discourse.

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Why this is not a matter for urgent media attention is lost on me. There are fact-checkers working overtime to help media discern fact from fiction, but the follow up verdicts are well after the fact – and well after political points have been scored. It’s a vicious spiral dive that feeds on itself, further training political contestants in the belief that truth is of zero consequence.

It shouldn’t be this way. If subjected to the same rules as every other advertiser, politicians would be required back their claims with evidence, while still being free to communicate policy ambitions and point to their aspirations for the future of the nation, clearly differentiating between what they purport to be facts and what are clearly labelled as opinion, hope, projection or policy.

By separating facts from beliefs and aspirations, voters would be empowered to make decisions based on a better understanding of what’s political hyperbole and what’s real. In this way, political advertising claims would be easier to believe – which, at the end of the day, is what really matters.

Fixing this would be as easy as removing the blanket exemption over truth in advertising for political parties, then enforcing compliance. It’s so simple. And yet there’s a mountain of self-interest that will conspire to prevent action. It’s not bloody good enough.

You can make a difference. Every complaint in writing to the ACCC, Free TV Australia and the Ad Standards Council is required to be responded to in writing. So – complain. Do it enough and in sufficient numbers and these bodies will begin to take notice. Then the mainstream media will. I’m complaining today.

Phil Huzzard, DPR&Co co-founder and agency principal 

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