CheckMate is a weekly newsletter from RMIT FactLab which recaps the latest in the world of fact checking and misinformation, drawing on the work of FactLab and its sister organisation, RMIT ABC Fact Check.
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CheckMate July 8, 2022
This week, CheckMate tackles claims that the former Coalition government suppressed enrolments of Indigenous voters in the Northern Territory before the federal election.
We also reveal the real reason Dutch farmers are blockading food centres, and debunk a claim by Naomi Wolf that COVID-19 vaccines increase the risk of stillbirth.
Did the Coalition suppress Indigenous voters?
Labor’s victory in the recent federal election hasn’t stopped it from scrutinising the process and results, accusing the Coalition of engaging in voter suppression.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the former government had worked to “restrict people voting in the Territory” by reducing “the numbers of people who were working for the Australian Electoral Commission to get people on the roll”.
On June 21, Special Minister of State Don Farrell similarly claimed that the AEC’s Northern Territory staff had been cut, which he said had “a direct impact on the level of enrolment in Indigenous communities”.
So what are the facts?
Certainly, the government’s funding decisions led to local staff cuts.
In 2017, the Coalition announced it would achieve “efficiencies” of $8.4 million over four years by “reducing the AEC’s physical presence [in the Territory] and delivering some electoral services from Queensland”.
That saw the number of permanent staff working in the NT fall over the next two years, from 12 to just one.
Importantly, though, that number has since grown to 10 staff, an AEC spokesman confirmed to CheckMate.
The reversal came after the Coalition announced in December 2020 that it was expanding the AEC’s presence, pledging an extra $5.7 million over four years “to enhance electoral enrolment and participation in the NT, in particular by Indigenous Australians”.
In October 2021, it pledged a further $9.4 million to boost enrolments in Indigenous communities nationally.
Less clear is whether the earlier staff cuts had a “direct impact” on enrolments.
Data published by the AEC reveals that voter enrolment rates among First Nations people in the Territory actually increased between 2017 and 2021 — from 67.1 to 69.6 per cent (2.5 percentage points).
In an email to CheckMate, Senator Farrell noted that this rise was smaller than in most other states, including Western Australia (6.9 percentage points), South Australia (7.1) and Queensland (8.1).
However, such comparisons are muddied by demographic differences. For example, more than half (56 per cent) of the Territory’s Indigenous population lives in very remote areas, compared to Western Australia’s 25 per cent.
Moreover, it is impossible to say whether the rate of growth has slowed since the NT staff cuts, as the data only begins in 2017.
Lisa Hill, a professor of politics at the University of Adelaide, told CheckMate the data was further complicated by language and cultural factors — such as lack of trust in government, absences due to “sorry business” and the timing of events in remote communities — which made it difficult to draw conclusions.
On top of all that, Morgan Harrington, an ethnographer and social researcher at the ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, highlighted the significant influence of policies beyond government control that particularly affect remote communities.
He pointed to the AEC’s Federal Direct Enrolment and Update (FDEU) program, which automatically enrols people to vote using data from other government agencies.
Dr Harrington said that despite this service having boosted enrolment rates nationally, the AEC had chosen not to extend it to mail exclusion zones (where mail is delivered to a single community address).
“This means people living in most remote communities are not automatically added to the electoral roll,” he explained, telling CheckMate that this was the “main policy decision” affecting enrolments in remote NT communities.
Greta at Glastonbury sparks misleading images
After climate activist Greta Thunberg made a surprise appearance at this year’s Glastonbury Festival in the UK, an image purporting to show the mess left behind by festival goers has been widely shared on social media.
“Glastonbury festival after Greta asked them to save the Planet,” read the caption on one Facebook post, with a photo of the festival’s main stage foregrounded by a sea of rubbish.
However, various versions of the post have been debunked by fact checkers with Associated Press, Reuters and AFP.
They found that while the photo did indeed show the aftermath of Glastonbury, it was taken seven years ago, after the 2015 festival.
That’s not to say this year’s was a mess-free affair, with the BBC estimating that the 200,000-plus attendees produced an estimated 2,000 tonnes of rubbish in 2022.
However, it’s worth noting the festival has taken steps to reduce waste since the 2015 photo was taken, such as banning the sale of single-use plastic bottles.
No, Dutch tractor blockade is not about climate targets
In dramatic scenes reminiscent of this year’s “freedom convoys”, farmers in the Netherlands have blocked access to roads and food distribution centres — burning hay bales and spreading manure outside buildings — to protest a government plan that could see livestock numbers significantly reduced.
Social media users quickly framed the news as a struggle against extreme climate change policies, with one tweet claiming that “the Dutch government want[s] new climate goals which will shut down farms”.
One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts, meanwhile, labelled the plan “the end path of climate change activism”, which would eventually see everything stopped in the name of curbing emissions, “even our food supply”.
However, legal experts told CheckMate the protests were “not about climate change” but about compliance with biodiversity laws.
In 2019, the Dutch courts found the nation was in breach of longstanding EU law by failing to curtail the production of excess nitrogen, which can harm plants and wildlife.
A major source of this is ammonia gas from agriculture, including livestock and fertilisers. Its nitrogen is absorbed by plants through water and soil, or directly from the air.
Crucially, nitrogen levels have built up in so-called Natura 2000 areas — a Europe-wide network of protected sites that are home to rare and threatened wildlife species. Of the Netherlands’ more than 160 sites, two-thirds exceed critical nitrogen limits.
“The problems are particularly bad in those areas of the country that have a high concentration of intensive livestock farms,” explained Jonathan Verschuuren, a professor of European environmental law at Tilburg University.
This, he told CheckMate, was a decades-old problem that “soft policies” had failed to solve.
Recent efforts had included halting construction projects and even cutting the maximum traffic speed limit. Now, the government has announced plans to reduce nitrogen pollution in some areas by 70 per cent by 2030 — sparking the protests.
Professor Verschuuren said the government was proposing to work with farmers to reduce nitrogen levels at each specific site, which could include changing farming practices, selling farms to the government or relocating them away from protected areas.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the 30-year-old EU biodiversity laws have nothing to do with the World Economic Forum, despite a number of websites linking the protests to baseless claims that the organisation is orchestrating global food shortages.
CoronaCheck: Naomi Wolf falsely claims vaccines caused a baby ‘die-off’
US author Naomi Wolf has used a podcast appearance with former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon to allege a steep rise in miscarriages and stillbirths among mothers who had received a COVID-19 jab.
“I am now incredibly sad to announce there’s a kind of die-off of babies happening, of vaccinated mothers,” she said.
Babies were dying “disproportionately” in Canada and Scotland, and also in Israel, Wolf said, where one hospital had reported a 34 per cent higher risk of “abortions, miscarriages and stillbirths” among vaccinated mothers.
However, fact checkers have labelled these claims as false.
As AFP explained, Wolf’s claim about Canada referred to “86 stillbirths” recorded in the city of Waterloo in 2021 — a figure contradicted by local hospital officials who confirmed that year’s number was fewer than 20.
And while data out of Scotland showed a rise in the rate of newborn deaths in 2021, that study’s lead author suggested COVID-19 was the more likely culprit.
Indeed, a separate Scottish study showed that the “perinatal mortality rate for women who gave birth within 28 days of a COVID-19 diagnosis was significantly higher compared to the background rate observed during the pandemic,” Health Feedback reported.
As for Israel, a 2022 study found no evidence that receiving Pfizer’s vaccine during pregnancy led to any negative outcomes among Israeli infants.
Importantly, the fact checkers wrote, the hospital report cited by Wolf relied on figures that included elective abortions. Authored by non-medical experts, it even cited as evidence a large-scale study that contradicted its own conclusions about the dangers of vaccination.
In Australia, the government advises pregnant women that receiving the jab “does not increase the chances of pregnancy complications such as premature delivery, stillbirth, small-for-gestational-age infants and birth defects”.
Wolf’s statements echo similar claims about vaccines and pregnancy debunked by fact checkers with USA Today, Reuters and FullFact.
Barnaby Joyce says Labor just recorded its worst primary vote since 1910. Is that correct?
Following the Coalition’s election loss, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce sought to play down Labor’s win, describing the party’s primary vote as “incredibly low”.
“It wasn’t a Ruddslide, it wasn’t Gough Whitlam, it wasn’t Bob Hawke,” he told the Seven Network’s Sunrise program.
“For the Labor Party, they got the lowest primary vote, I think, since 1910.”
As RMIT ABC Fact Check found this week, that claim is in the ballpark.
Certainly, Labor’s primary vote of 32.6 per cent was low by historical standards, and worse than any recorded by the prime ministers mentioned.
However, the comparison with 1910 is complicated by a split in the Labor Party during the 1930s which resulted in the entire NSW branch being expelled.
The splinter group, led by two-time NSW premier Jack Lang, ran candidates against the federal party and, in NSW, received a much higher primary vote as well as more seats.
Experts contacted by Fact Check expressed differing views on whether the vote of Lang-aligned parties should be included in Labor’s primary vote.
Including them, Labor’s primary vote in 2022 was its lowest since 1903 (31 per cent).
Excluding them, it was the party’s worst result since 1934 (26.8 per cent), when its primary vote was depressed by the presence of Lang candidates.
Edited by David Campbell, with thanks to Sonam Thomas
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