Experts have denounced a “totally misleading” claim perpetuated by government MPs and the United Australia party that the World Health Organization will use a possible pandemic treaty to control Australia’s health system, including to arbitrarily impose lockdowns.
Political parties and candidates, as of Wednesday, are barred from running election ads on broadcast mediums but not on social media and in print, an inequity that experts have repeatedly urged government to fix.
The United Australia party ran full-page print ads on Thursday baselessly claiming the major parties were planning to transfer “all our health assets and hospitals to the Chinese-controlled WHO”. It continues a theme perpetuated by government senator Alex Antic, who posted on Facebook this week that the WHO was preparing a pandemic treaty which could allow it to impose “lockdowns and enforce treatments against the will of the Australian people”.
Fellow government senator Gerard Rennick shared a letter Antic penned to foreign affairs minister Marise Payne about the topic.
The claim that the WHO would seize total control of the health systems of individual nation-states has also been propagated by US senator Marco Rubio and comedian Russell Brand, among others.
The theory appears to stem from the WHO’s plans to discuss a possible pandemic treaty at its upcoming 75th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, from 22 May.
In a joint statement on the proposed agreement, a collection of world leaders said any treaty would hope to improve pandemic response coordination and preparedness, while fostering accountability and transparency from participating governments.
“This includes greatly enhancing international co-operation to improve, for example, alert systems, data-sharing, research and local, regional and global production and distribution of medical and public health counter-measures such as vaccines, medicines, diagnostics and personal protective equipment,” the statement said.
Neither China nor Australia signed the joint statement in support of the proposal.
Stephen Duckett, a former health department secretary and expert with the University of Melbourne, told the Guardian the recent claims about the treaty completely misunderstood its purpose.
“It’s totally misleading, of course,” he said. “There are already treaty arrangements of this kind covering tobacco and it leaves total autonomy with each country … it’s typically framework arrangements and to try and bring consensus and so on.
“It would obviously only apply to Australia to the extent that Australia wants it to.”
Antic declined to respond to criticisms about his post, instead, he attacked the Guardian, claiming it was politically biased.
A ban on broadcast election advertising came into force late on Wednesday, preventing election ads from airing on television and radio until the close of polls on Saturday.
The blackout does not apply to social media or newspapers and experts have repeatedly warned the government that the rules are out of date and must be reformed.
After the 2019 election, the University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre told the joint standing committee on electoral matters that extending the blackout to social media could “mitigate the influence on voting of some of the risk of online ‘scare campaigns’ and unverified news in the final hours of the campaign”.
The committee found the rules were “no longer fit for purpose” and recommended, as it did in 2013, that the government reform its blackout rules. No changes were made during the last term of government.
Dr Andrew Hughes, a marketing expert with the Australian National University, said the broadcast blackout no longer made sense, and only amplified messaging via social media, where misinformation was rife.
“It is 2022. The blackout is silly, to be honest with you – in the current form that is,” he said. “I’d say, at the same time, it opens the door up for misinformation campaigns to be run.”
Hughes said the blackout rules need reform. He said the blackout could be extended to prevent any advertising from parties and candidates, regardless of the medium.
“You won’t stop all the content, you’ll just slow it down. And then it’s on the individuals and because it’s not paid or promoted [on social media], it’ll take away the effectiveness a lot.”
Antic’s post was not an ad, so would not be captured by any extension of the blackout.