13.09.2017

Federal minister proposes crackdown on impersonating agencies, satire exempt


The federal government wants to bring in stiff new criminal penalties for impersonating any Commonwealth entity, in addition to an existing prohibition on pretending to be a public official.

The proposed penalties would apply even if you make up a fictitious agency, although Australians who do this “solely for genuine satirical, academic or artistic purposes” will be exempt, as in the older legislation that outlawed tricking people into thinking you’re from the government. The bill also notes that it cannot override “any constitutional doctrine of implied freedom of political communication” in reference to Australia’s rather weak right to free speech.

Members of the government have been talking about the idea since last year, after they accused the opposition of sending campaign messages that looked like they came from Medicare. A short bill was finally introduced today by the Minister for Justice Michael Keenan.

The explanatory memorandum says the bill “strengthens public confidence in all communications emanating from Commonwealth bodies and will put the criminalisation of such conduct beyond doubt, ensuring that those who create false representations in this way are captured by the law. It will also provide aggrieved parties with an opportunity to prevent such conduct through a court issued injunction.”

“It is essential that the public can trust in the legitimacy and accuracy of statements made by Commonwealth bodies,” the government’s EM argues.

“The amendments are critical to ensure the public has confidence in the legitimacy of communications emanating from Commonwealth bodies, thereby safeguarding the proper functioning of Government.”

But when it comes to political activism — especially when it involves elements of art and satire — it could be harder to draw a line about what the genuine, sole purpose is.

Public servants would almost certainly have very different ideas to artists and academics about when an agency is being illegally impersonated, and when the conduct in question counts artistic or academic — especially if they find it a bit embarrassing or annoying.

Of course it will be up to the courts to judge each matter on its merits via the usual caveats based on what “a person would reasonably believe” but there is a tendency of at least some public servants to be a bit humourless in such matters.

One case in point is a rather dour letter sent to The Juice Media (no relation to our email newsletter), a small producer of political satire that built a solid audience with its Rap News and has since moved on to its newer Honest Government Advert series. The above image is from the opening of one of the latest videos.

The National Symbols Officer wrote to the company on September 8, pointing out that it had used “an Australian Government logo, which contains the Commonwealth Coat of Arms” and another similar-looking symbol, and saying the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet had received “complaints from the public” that this could lead someone to mistake the comedy website for a government agency.

Frankly, this is an absolutely unreasonable suggestion — the website’s comedic purpose could not be any more obvious — but the Symbols Officer goes on to threaten the producers with penalties under the Competition and Consumer Act, Trade Marks Act and the Criminal Code anyway, and asks them to stop using the logo to avoid their jokes being mistaken for actual public service announcements.

One would think the fact that the videos unashamedly attack and ridicule government policy should be enough to alert any reasonable person that they aren’t from the government. But the comedians don’t want any trouble, they’ve pledged to use an even more obvious riff on the actual logo.