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.
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.
Many complaints focused on allegations of a breach of section 287 Printing and publication of electoral material 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 in the lead up to the election to advise candidates on the correct methods for authorising campaign material on social media.
Sexism, harassment, bullying and social media
Sexism, harassment and bullying were again featured in the 2020 local government election period. Although we are not the primary body that would receive serious or criminal complaints of this nature, we received 18 election complaints that mentioned harassment, threats or intimidation in 2020. A further 25 complaints mentioned defamation.
We observed examples of social media-based harassment and bullying by people posting anonymously or using fake accounts. Comments in a closed Facebook group set up to advance female representation in Victorian councils, ‘More women for local government’, indicated that women candidates bear the brunt of bad behaviour.