New election watchdog to expose fake news

An Australian-first electoral watchdog has been set up to clamp down on fake news and misleading campaign claims in the lead up to Queensland’s local government elections in March.

The Independent Council Election Observer (ICEO) will review complaints made by election candidates about any false or deceptive campaign material, including on social media sites.

Led by retired District Court and Planning and Environment Court Judge John Robertson, the ICEO will publish the findings of its fact-checking investigations online.

“Our aim is to promote truth, accuracy and a level playing field in the council elections, to give voters more confidence and certainty around the claims that are made,” Mr Robertson said.

Election candidates and Councils from across Queensland can submit requests for review via the ICEO website. The ICEO might also independently launch investigations into claims it deemed could be false or misleading.

“We are a small team so we can respond quickly to make sure that the truth is published promptly,” Mr Robertson said. “We want to discourage unethical behaviour, false promises and smear.”

Mr Robertson said the 2016 Queensland local government elections were remarkable for the number, nature and extent of attacks on individuals and councils, with social media providing multiple platforms for unfounded allegations to be aired and spread.

“Many of those claims went unchallenged and voters may have been misled about the candidates and policies,” he said.

The ICEO would work within the framework for existing agencies including the Electoral Commission, the Office of the Independent Assessor and the Crime and Corruption Commission.

“We won’t replace or duplicate these important bodies and we will refer cases to them if we believe the issue is properly within their power,” Mr Robertson said.

The ICEO has been funded by the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ). However, it will operate at arm’s length from the peak body via a service company owned by the senior partners of a Brisbane law firm.

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