Shadow Minister for Communications, Transcript – FIVEaa Mornings with Matthew Pantelis- Labor’s Misinformation Bill

Subject: Labor’s Misinformation Bill

E&OE…

Matthew Pantelis: Let’s talk about something that is currently before Federal Parliament right now. It’s misinformation laws, it’s how they are commonly called, this package of bills that the Federal Parliament is considering. It has people, including legal experts concerned about censorship. It will target for instance, social media posts, that somebody, a censor, the Australian Communications and Media Authority presumably, to come down on social media companies that allow misinformation, that somebody deems as misinformation anyway, to crack down on that, to potentially fine the social media companies and maybe even the person who’s put the comments up. Surprise, surprise, governments will be exempt in their comments from misinformation, some might call it spin. The Opposition is concerned about this federally, as well. The Shadow Communications Minister, David Coleman, on the line. Shadow Minister, good morning.

David Coleman: Good morning, Matthew.

Matthew Pantelis: So all right. What are the issues here?

David Coleman: Oh there are a lot of issues here, Matthew. This is a very bad Bill and it should be ripped up and put in the bin. Look, basically the problem is, it defines misinformation, in a very broad way and that would include a lot of statements made by ordinary Australians every day. So basically, if something’s unintentionally misleading, it’s very broad, and capable of causing serious harm, also very broad, then it can be misinformation. And then if the digital platforms don’t do enough in the eyes of Government officials to remove that ‘so called’ misinformation, they can get fines of potentially up to billions of dollars and certainly millions in many cases. So what they’ll do is they will go and self-censor a whole lot of content so that they don’t run the risk of getting those big fines and in the process, the legitimate views and expression of Australians will be removed. And in a country that is a great and proud democracy like ours, that is absolutely wrong and that’s why we oppose this Bill so strongly.

Matthew Pantelis: What if people are accidentally wrong, if they believe something is true and put it up? And you know, look at COVID for instance, there are a lot of different opinions on that and we know some were deliberately misleading. Others were people just expressing their concerns and fears and they formed a view rightly or wrongly, on whatever the issue was and believed it and posted it. Where would they stand?

David Coleman: Well, there’s no requirement in the Bill that the person is deliberately deceiving others through posting it online, so you can believe it 100%, it can be a view that you hold in good faith but if it’s deemed to be, as I said, unintentionally misleading, it can be deemed misinformation. And when you think about it, there are lots of things that people say every day, that one could argue are unintentionally misleading, but it’s such a subjective standard. And so, if you’re sitting at one of these digital platforms, and you’re thinking, gee, we don’t want to get this massive fine from the Government. The best way for them to avoid that fine is to just take down a whole bunch of material. That’s what they’ll do. And think about throughout history all the examples of people who said things, that under this definition would absolutely have been described as misinformation but turned out to be true. So it’s really worrying. And as you mentioned in your introduction, the Government itself is excluded. So any authorised content from the Government, the Albanese Government or others is fine. But if somebody criticises the Government, that can be misinformation. And, in a democracy that is just not on. So we think it’s quite remarkable that the Government has put this legislation out. And it’s really concerning.

Matthew Pantelis: Well the Government is saying that it’s still consulting, is that at least some hope. Would you hang out on that?

David Coleman: Well, look, I mean, there are submissions open, people can put in a submission on the Bill until the 20th of August. The Victorian Bar Association has already come out and slammed the Bill for what it describes as the chilling effect that it would likely have on democracy. And I expect the Government is going to get a very large number of submissions with some very negative comments. And this is such a bad Bill that I don’t think the Government can salvage it. But we’ll see what happens. They may try to resuscitate this Bill and in this version, I think clearly is dead in the water. And we’ll see where they go. But how on earth they thought it was a good idea to put this out in the first place is beyond me.

Matthew Pantelis: Can individuals be targeted by ACMA in the future if this gets up in terms of fines?

David Coleman: Yeah, so an individual can be required by ACMA to appear before it at a time and place of ACMA’s choosing to answer questions about misinformation or disinformation. If that individual doesn’t appear, ACMA can fine the person up to over $8,000 per day. So imagine a scenario where ACMA thinks someone’s been involved in misinformation. They want that person to answer their questions and if the person doesn’t appear, $8,000 per day. And again, in a democracy, those sorts of powers normally come with very serious safeguards. You can’t sort of, arbitrarily bring someone before you and fine them in that way, normally. But there are very limited safeguards in this Bill at all. And so the discretion that these Government officials will have is huge. And because the definitions in the Bill are so broad, it means that it’s really going to be up to officials at ACMA as to how this all gets implemented. And their capacity to issue these fines is so clear that I think it will have a very big impact on free speech in this country.

Matthew Pantelis: All that sounds like is we’re almost a step away from having a Minister for Propaganda.

David Coleman: It is an extraordinary Bill and I’d encourage any of your listeners, if they’re interested to actually have a look at it. And when you when you read it, it is quite disturbing and you wonder how the Government could have put it out. I’ll give you another example. Anything that an academic says cannot be misinformation, but if somebody disagrees with an academic, that can be misinformation, which is just quite extraordinary.

Matthew Pantelis: What’s the thinking there? That an academic is smarter than anyone else?

David Coleman: Well you would have to ask the Government but basically anything to do with an educational institution, that’s done by or for an educational institution is excluded, but not someone who is in dispute with an educational institution. Journalists are protected when they’re within, effectively their mainstream media platform but they’re not protected on a personal Facebook page or personal Twitter feed or anything like that. And even Members of Parliament and political candidates are affected by this. If a political candidate or an MP, particularly an Opposition MP, said something at a forum or on a podcast or something like that, that could absolutely be captured by this Bill. So it is quite remarkable that this has been put out in this form. And clearly the Government should chuck this in the bin and hopefully that’s what they do.

Matthew Pantelis: Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

David Coleman: Thanks Matthew.

Matthew Pantelis: David Coleman, Shadow Communications Minister on the Misinformation Bill, currently before Federal Parliament. Sounds concerning, doesn’t it? The Bar Association in Victoria, saying it as David Coleman said, ‘it’s chilling self-censorship’, that’s the quote from their submission. And also it goes on, ‘illiberal double standard’, is another quote, in that the Government is exempt, so they can say what they like, you and I can’t. That’s crazy.