Andrew Kilmartin in Buninyong. Picture Luka KauzlaricIt was a bad stumble by a political novice who, in his first interview as Liberal candidate for Buninyong, let slip the Coalition’s secret plan to frack for gas in Victoria.
“We will allow gas fracking, which is going to be good,” 31-year-old Andrew Kilmartin told a reporter from The Courier.
Gas fracking involves injecting water and chemicals into the earth to extract gas and is electoral poison in the regions, opposed by farming and environmental lobby groups alike.
So Labor pounced.
Kilmartin had “let the cat out of the bag,” the Andrews government said, “and confirmed that the Liberals will reverse Victoria’s ban on fracking the first chance they get.”
Labor MPs from Premier Daniel Andrews down promptly posted the video footage of Kilmartin’s policy fumble on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.
“Next time the Coalition claims to care about the health of our farmlands – don’t believe them. We banned fracking. They will reverse it,” Andrews posted on Facebook, where he has more than half a million followers.
Except that it isn’t true.
The Coalition voted with Labor in 2016 in favour of the fracking ban and this week said “the Liberal Nationals support the ban on fracking”.
Kilmartin, who was visibly nervous in the interview, corrected himself almost immediately and apologised. The Courier did not run with a story at the time because in the live facebook interview he corrected himself.
“Ah no fracking, sorry,” he said.
Labor snipped that part of the interview out, in an act Kilmartin labelled a “dirty trick”.
You can watch the full video here.
Social media, particularly Facebook, has emerged as a powerful tool for politicians, who can use it to project their message to voters without filtering it through journalists.
This week, the Andrews government bypassed print, TV and radio and used Andrews’ Facebook page to break the news of what might be the defining promise of November’s election: its pledge to build the 90-kilometre, $50 billion suburban rail loop.
“It’s a devastatingly effective way of communicating, because they are presenting the message they want to present, without having to go through the filtration of news processes they had to go through in the past,” said Zareh Ghazarian, a lecturer in politics and international relations at Monash University.
But social media’s unfiltered nature also makes it a means to spread misinformation.
Did you know, for example, that the Andrews government has “quietly been developing secret plans to reduce lanes on the Monash Freeway to build bike paths and urban forest”.
You might have read this if you follow the Facebook page of Liberal upper-house MP Gordon Rich-Phillips.
“This government is more concerned about pondering a ‘green utopia’ where you can no longer own your own car than it is about improving your commute to work, and helping you to get home quicker,” Rich-Phillips posted on August 17.
His source was a discussion paper on automated vehicles government agency Infrastructure Victoria put out in August.
Luke Donnellan, Victoria’s Roads Minister, said the claim was false.
“Are you joking?” he said. “What we are doing is putting 36 kilometres of new traffic lanes on the Monash, in addition to the 30 kilometres of new lanes we opened earlier this year.”
With just 1555 followers, Rich-Phillips’ audience is tiny compared with the Premier’s, whose rail loop announcement had reached 1½ million people byThursday.
But despite the extraordinary potential reach of social media, there are no laws governing Victorian politicians’ use of the medium.
A parliamentary inquiry into the impact of social media on Victorian elections found it would be impractical to even try to legislate against misuse.
“Victorian legislation will always struggle to keep pace with technology and how social media is used for political and electoral purposes,” the committee found in its 2014 report.
The Victorian Electoral Commission has no authority to regulate material that seeks to influence the political judgment of voters, online or otherwise.
In a statement, the commission said that the Electoral Act 2002 prohibited the production of electoral material that misleads or deceives in relation to casting a vote.
Dr Ghazarian said there were few examples of Victorian politicians using social media to spread outright lies, despite the absence of regulatory control.
“It’s a new battleground that the parties in have been using generally quite properly because we have struggled to find many clear examples of misinformation,” he said.
The University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre published a digital news report in June, which analysed examples of fake news in .
It argued that in the absence of regulation, the “wisdom of the crowd” might be the best corrective.
“At the collective level, the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, once decried as unreliable, could now be advanced as the means to vet information claims: the Wikipedia model could conceivably be applied in other domains, such as social media channels.”
Kilmartin said he keeps the full video on hand, having been confronted by several people over his assumed support for fracking.
“A number of times in the community I’ve had people approach me and have a go at me about fracking, and I’ve gone to the trouble of showing them the video,” he said.
“Then they become angry that Daniel Andrews has lied to them.”
A government spokesperson wasn’t backing down from the poston Friday, stating: “If given the chance the Liberals would absolutely lift the ban.”