Thursday, May 19, 2022

Election watchdog investigates use of ‘dead air’ delay in National Party robocall

A Nationals’ robocall attacking an independent challenger is being investigated by authorities, over a lengthy silence inserted between the ad and its authorization.

The improperly authorized message, targeted at voters in the Victorian seat of Nicholls, attacks independent candidate Rob Priestly.

“You’ve heard a lot about Rob Priestly, but have you heard where he stands on really important issues,” the advertisement begins.

“Issues like the defense of our nation, like our relationship with China and issues like border protection and whether he supports higher taxes?”

“And why won’t Rob Priestly say who he will support in the event of a hung parliament? What’s he got to hide?”

After the voice message concludes, the call contains 10 seconds of “dead air”, before finally running the authorization message which reveals the advertisement is from the National Party.

In a statement, Nationals Victorian state director Matthew Harris said: “These calls raise legitimate questions that the so-called independent has failed to answer during the campaign.

“People are voting on the future of our community and our country, and the voters of Nicholls deserve to know the consequences of their vote.”

Mr Harris alleged that volunteers for Mr Priestly were soliciting votes by handing out mandarins, jaffa cakes and other baked goods at pre-poll booths, in contravention of electoral law.

He said the matter had been brought to the attention of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

In relation to the robocall, the AEC told the ABC that the ad in that form contained an “invalid” authorization, and it was investigating.

,[The authorisation] should appear at the beginning not the end, and we note the pause in the recording,” the AEC said in a statement.

“We are looking at this matter and will be contacting the entity.”

Rob Priestly smiles while standing by one of his signs at an early voting centre.
Rob Priestly, a former Greater Shepparton deputy mayor, is contesting Nicholls as an independent.,Facebook: Rob Priestly for Nicholls,

On paper, Nicholls is a safe Nationals seat held on a 20 per cent margin, but current MP Damian Drum is retiring at this election.

The Nationals and Liberals are both running candidates in a crowded field of 11, and Rob Priestly is regarded as the strongest challenger to the parties.

Sam Birrell smiles for a photo on a street while holding a yellow shopping bag branded with his campaign.
The Nationals candidate for Nicholls, Sam Birrell is seeking to take over the seat from retiring MP Damian Drum.,Facebook: Sam Birrell for Nicholls,

Mr Priestly is a councillor with the Greater Shepparton City Council and has been deputy mayor.

He has the support of Suzanna Sheed, the MP for the overlapping state seat of Shepparton, and Cathy McGowan, who held the neighboring federal seat of Indi as an independent.

In a statement, Rob Priestly said several members of the community had contacted him about the call.

,[The Nationals’] Nicholls candidate, Sam Birrell, either needs to own or disown it,” Mr Priestly said.

Nationals nervous about the seat

This robocall is not the only indication the Nationals are nervous about Mr Priestly’s challenge.

The party has previously run a Facebook advertisement, using Mr Priestly’s orange branding, warning that “a vote for an independent is a vote for instability”.

The words "if you vote independent, what happens next?" are shown on an orange backdrop.
A scene from the National Party ad which has been targeted mostly to users in Victoria.,Facebook: National Party of Australia,

The advertisements were seen by more than 30,000 people and were targeted toward men and older voters, nearly exclusively in Victoria.

They linked to a National Party website called dontriskyour.vote, which was registered less than a fortnight ago, on April 30.

The National Party campaign has been contacted for comment.

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