"The tactics we saw in 2020 will prevent good candidates from standing. We all want free and fair elections but I know good candidates who will not run again because of the tactics used. If you can see the way candidates are treated on social media then would you want to expose yourself by standing for election?"
Robust public debate is an accepted part of all levels of politics. While candidates must accept a certain level of questions and criticism during their campaign, there have been reported instances where candidates have been harassed online, followed or received death threats.
During the election period, we spoke to a number of long-term councillors who were contesting their third or fourth term. These experienced councillors reported that the 2020 election period was the most vindictive and vitriolic election they had participated in. We also received similar feedback from a local council which had spent a significant period of time dealing with complaints by candidates. This is a concerning trend and one we will monitor.
"Unless there is a series of standards for candidates, good honest community-based candidates will not run."
The election period is short and it is not always possible for us to receive and deal with complaints as quickly as complainants would like
A lot of the complaints we received were driven by a misunderstanding of the definition of ‘misleading and deceptive behaviour’. During a political debate, candidates can speak freely but unethical behaviour is not necessarily illegal.
“Our former mayor was very threatening. They would publicly accuse residents of lying on Facebook if they had a different view, accuse them of breaking the law and threaten to have them fined. When you have someone of high status in the community talking to people like that, it scares people and is not good for democracy.”
If we receive an allegation from a candidate about false electoral material that does not fit the definition of ‘misleading and deceptive’ in the legislation, we encouraged candidates to redirect their focus away from corresponding with us about the allegation and to concentrate on putting the issues to voters and continuing their campaign.
Many complaints focused on allegations of a breach of Section 287 of the Local Government Act , Printing and publication of electoral material (see Appendix ) with the majority related to material published online. Because the wording in the Act does not specifically mention online or social media material, we joined the VEC in publishing information for candidates leading up to the election to advise them on the correct methods for authorising their campaign material on social media.
- Updating of the definition of ‘electoral material’ in section 3(1) to encompass social media and other forms of electronic communication.9
- Section 287 of the Act should be amended to incorporate social media and other forms of electronic communication.
9. Section 3(1) is listed in Appendix .
Case studies – Allegations of false or misleading material
A candidate for a metropolitan council published a post on social media which encouraged voters to backdate their postal votes. Voting closed at 6pm on 24 October 2020 but the VEC was receiving votes until 30 October provided their votes were dated 23 October or before.
On 25 October, they published a post that said:
Under Section 293 of the Local Government Act , it is an offence to falsify the date of the voter’s declaration on a ballot paper envelope. We investigated the candidate for allegedly aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring an offence against section 293 of the Act. We interviewed the candidate and found that they did not backdate their own vote and we could not find any evidence that any other person acted in accordance with the suggestion.
However, the candidate’s post could have caused a voter to falsify the date of their postal declaration, risking the integrity of the election.
We sent the candidate an outcome letter urging them to exercise greater care and diligence in relation to their future communications.
We received nine complaints about one candidate contesting an election in metropolitan Melbourne. Three complaints were about Facebook posts. The complaints alleged that the candidate used a fake Facebook profile with no friends except the candidate. The complaint alleged that the candidate claimed a grant was used fraudulently and pictures of council employees and an opposing candidate were used without permission. We found that the conduct was not misleading or deceptive within the narrow meaning of the Act, but the candidate had clearly made false allegations on Facebook.
We received three complaints about a candidate altering an image of an opposing candidate’s election material to accuse the candidate of supporting terrorists and being ‘Anti-Israel’. While we found the statements were unethical, they were not misleading or deceptive within the strict provisions in the Act.
Case study – Allegations of improper conduct
We received five complaints about a candidate in metropolitan Melbourne alleging they donated $400 to a local football club in exchange for children of the club letterboxing 1600 flyers. The arrangement was made public by the club and led to several community members contacting us to complain.
The candidate was accused of improperly seeking support from the club by making a donation and that it was unethical and immoral to use children for their political benefit.
We determined that the conduct did not amount to bribery or other offences under the Act as the donation was made in exchange for distributing flyers, not in exchange for votes.
Reviewed 08 July 2021