University of Tasmania repeatedly breached electoral law with promotional video

UTAS ad featured Liberal candidate in front of Parliament House
Published
 July 14, 2020
Published:  July 14, 2020
The UTAS video featured Simon Behrakis in front of Parliament House. Image: University of Tasmania

Internal documents and other records show the University of Tasmania repeatedly breached electoral laws by publishing an unauthorised promotional video featuring a Liberal candidate as he contested three elections.

In 2018, Simon Behrakis was a Liberal candidate in the electorate of Denison at the state election and the upper house seat of Hobart before being elected to Hobart City Council later that year. He was filmed for a 30-second video promoting UTAS to potential students shortly after being preselected to run in Denison in late October 2017.

The video featured Behrakis walking towards the front door of Parliament House and looking inside as he said in a voiceover: “Hi, I’m Simon Behrakis and I studied Economics and Finance with UTAS.”

A later scene featured the then-candidate on the lawns of Parliament House with the sandstone façade in the background.

In May 2018, the Tasmanian Electoral Commission (TEC) found the publication of the video on the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics Facebook page during the Legislative Council campaign for the seat of Hobart was an “inadvertent error”.

However, the unauthorised video remained on both the school’s website and the UTAS YouTube channel without authorisation throughout the subsequent October 2018 Hobart City Council election campaign. The video had first been published ahead of Behrakis’s March 2018 state election campaign.

No complaint was made to the electoral commission in either the state election or the Hobart City Council election.

The UTAS website included an image of  the then-candidate standing in front of Parliament House with a tagline that said “Simon Behrakis Liberal Candidate for Denison (Bachelor of Economics and Finance).”

The origin of the idea to film Behrakis in front of Parliament House is unclear.

Dave Flower from the video production company Hype TV declined to comment. The then marketing manager for the UTAS business school, Katherine Halliday, referred queries to UTAS and Behrakis did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Jason Purdie, the director of strategic communications and media relations in the Office of the Vice Chancellor said that the fact Behrakis "was a pre-selected candidate is itself not an issue to the School or University.”

Salamanca Fresh Retail donated $15,000 to the Tasmanian Liberal Party in early February 2018. Behrakis did not respond to a question on whether this funding was earmarked for his state election campaign.

While Behrakis’s Liberal party role was inferred in the video, the business school’s website was more explicit.

It included an image of  the then-candidate standing in front of Parliament House with a tagline that said “Simon Behrakis Liberal Candidate for Denison (Bachelor of Economics and Finance).”

UTAS sweats on Tasmanian Electoral Commission investigation

Tasmania’s Electoral Act 2004 requires all electoral material published on the internet between the issuing of the writs and the closure of the polls to include the name and address of the person who authorised the publication. The UTAS video failed to meet this requirement.

Another section of the act requires a person not to publish material that “contains the name, photograph or a likeness of a candidate or intending candidate at that election without the written consent of the candidate”.

Behrakis did not respond to requests from Tasmanian Inquirer for clarification on whether he gave permission for the use of his name.

The Electoral Act specifies the penalty for publishing unauthorised material on the internet is a fine of up to $15,900 and/or up to three months jail. The penalty for the publication of an image of a candidate without their authorisation is a fine of up to $47,700 and/or 12 months in jail.

UTAS internal documents suggest there was some awareness that there could be a problem with the explicit identification of Behrakis as a Liberal candidate during an election campaign.

Less than four hours before the TEC issued writs for the state election on February 5, Halliday requested that the words “Liberal Candidate for Denison” be removed from the caption of the Behrakis video on the website. By February 7 the words had been deleted.

Despite the continuing legal risk, a week later Halliday organised for the Behrakis video, along with others commissioned as part of a collection, to be uploaded to the UTAS YouTube channel.

Even without the words stating Behrakis was a Liberal candidate, the video was in breach of the Electoral Act. But as no one complained to the TEC about the lack of authorisation the video remained on the UTAS website and YouTube channel.

Having fallen short of winning a seat at the state election, Behrakis was back as the Liberal Party’s candidate for the Legislative Council seat of Hobart.

UTAS posted the Behrakis video to the business school’s Facebook page more than three weeks after the TEC issued writs for that election in early April.

It caught the eye of social media followers. “Questionable judgment (or deliberate partisanship) for the University to produce and publish this profile in the midst of an election campaign,” wrote bioethicist Pat McConville in a comment on the college’s Facebook post.

Several Twitter users raised concerns about the legality of the Facebook post and tagged the TEC in the conversation.

The Tweets also caught the attention of a UTAS Social Media officer, who emailed colleagues drawing attention to the issue.

Soon after Purdie recommended the ad be pulled and advice sought from the legal office. In an email released after a right-to-information request, Purdie opined that “if we are in breach [of the Electoral Act] it won’t be a big deal, but would be polite to flag with the commission.”

Shortly afterwards, Professor Martin Grimmer, the business school’s executive dean, sought to reassure UTAS staff. In an email, he said the Behrakis video was just one “that we are routinely cycling through on our website and social media, and to note as well that it’s appearance now is purely co-incidental. As Jason says, worth checking under the Act but not a big deal”.

Ultimately, UTAS had little to worry about. Two weeks after polling day for the Hobart Legislative Council seat, the TEC ruled posting of the video on the Facebook page was an “inadvertent error, which was not intended to breach the Electoral Act 2004”.

Following the decision, Purdie was upbeat. “Sanity prevails. And a very personal reflection that the things some people were sweating on a week or two ago don’t seem that important anymore.”

Behrakis failed to win a seat in the Legislative Council election, running third.

While Grimmer had acknowledged the video had also been posted on the UTAS website, no action was taken to remove it despite the TEC’s finding. It remained there during Behrakis’s successful campaign for a seat on Hobart City Council.

Purdie told Tasmanian Inquirer that the video remaining on the School website “appears to have been a regrettable oversight at that time”.

It was removed from the college’s website in late 2019 after Tasmanian Inquirer filed a right-to-information request, but at the time of publication it remains on UTAS's YouTube channel.

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The documents Tasmanian Inquirer obtained under the Right to Information Act can be viewed here.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based author, researcher, editor and freelance journalist. He is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments for the US-based non-profit group Global Energy Monitor. His freelance journalism has been published in a wide range of news outlets from the British Medical Journal to the US-based PR Watch.

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