Aust government flags Internet election campaign laws

The federal government plans to legislate after 1 July to extend the provisions of the Electoral Act to the Internet in an effort to clamp down on Web sites which decline to identify an individual who takes responsibility for election coverage.

The federal government plans to legislate after 1 July to extend the provisions of the Electoral Act to the Internet in an effort to clamp down on Web sites which decline to identify an individual who takes responsibility for election coverage.

In a wide-ranging e-mail interview with ZDNet Australia , the Special Minister of State, Eric Abetz, said "the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has adopted a policy of recommending to all political parties and the public who contemplate electoral advertising on the Internet that electoral matter conforms with the provisions of the Electoral Act.

"The vast majority of people campaigning during the 2004 federal election acceded to the AEC's request to apply the authorisation provisions of the Electoral Act to the Internet.

"There is some doubt as to the applicability of existing legislation and the government is therefore looking at removing any doubts".

Sources pointed to the notorious John Howard Lies Web site as one which did not identify by name and address an individual who took responsibility for comment on the site.

The issue erupted in July last year in the leadup to the October election when Abetz asked the AEC to investigate whether the site breached the authorisation provisions of the Act.

However, background material provided by the AEC notes that application of the relevant section of the Act to the electronic publication of electoral advertising on the Internet has not yet been considered by the courts.

The legislation is set to be introduced after 1 July, the date from which the coalition government gains control of the Senate. It is likely to encompass key issues such as the authorisation of election advertising, misleading and deceptive publications (in terms of how to cast a vote rather than truth in political advertising) and the publication of matter regarding candidates (meaning an organisation cannot claim that a candidate supports its' views without the authorisation of that candidate).

Abetz said that the government believed the electoral principles that apply to online media should reflect those that currently apply to traditional media "wherever possible".

He added that the AEC was monitoring the situation in the United States whereby campaign finance reform could see bloggers and news organisations risk punishment for "improperly linking" to a campaign's Web site. According to reports from the US, even the forwarding of a political candidates' press release to a mailing list could be punishable by fines.

However, Abetz said "it should be noted that regulation in the [US] is built around campaign financing and focuses on the amount of money being raised and spent during a campaign, while in Australia, funding and disclosure is only a small part of the legislative framework".

The future of AGIMO
The Minister, whose responsibilities encompass the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO), said there was no review or restructure planned for the office, which was incorporated post-election into the Department of Finance.

"When AGIMO was a separate agency, it had some corporate functions -- finance and human resources, for example," he said. "These have been absorbed into similar areas of Finance. Other areas of the business group are operating as normal".

Whole-of-government Web site on the way
Abetz said a whole-of-government Web site -- aimed at Australian government employees -- was presently being developed in increments, with the first release due in May this year.

"The first release of the [Connected Government] Web site will have limited functionality and be focussed on raising the profile of the whole-of-government agenda and expanding on the issues raised in the Management Advisory Committee report Connecting Government: Whole of Government Responses to Australia's Priority Challenges.

Apart from the Web site, Abetz said, "a number of other significant initiatives to reinvigorate the e-government agenda are currently being developed and will be made public over the next six months".

Open source and government procurement
Abetz also reaffirmed the government's open source procurement guide for agencies -- due to be released shortly -- would be based on existing procurement principles of fitness for purpose and value for money.

"Agencies must make an informed purchasing decision based on sound information and analysis after considering the range of options," he said. "The flexibility of the Australian government's procurement framework and policies support this".

The actual date of release of the guide is still being finalised. It has been developed, Abetz said, following "wide-ranging consultation with stakeholders in the open-source community, including vendors, developers and users in government and in the private sector".

Australian CIO appointment due soon
Abetz also confirmed that the position of Australian government chief information officer was likely to be advertised this quarter after an executive search firm had been recruited to help identify likely candidates. The CIO is to head up AGIMO.

Clarifying the CIO's role, Abetz said "the Australian government CIO is not the 'boss' of other Australian government CIOs,but rather provides leadership and coordination on issues that affect the whole of government.

"In this context, the Australian government CIO has been positioned to identify these whole of government issues and bring the experts to the table to deal with those issues.

"The key thrust of the Australian government CIO is not on the technology in its own right, but on how ICT can be used to support government processes and services".