The Australian Electoral Commission has launched legal action against Liberal MP Andrew Laming for allegedly failing to disclose his political links on a Facebook page which appeared to be operating under the guise of a grassroots community group.
The federal court proceedings come after Guardian Australia revealed in April that the Queensland MP was operating 35 Facebook groups – with at least one for each suburb in his electorate.
The AEC is launching action based on just one of the 35 sites, which was called “Redland Hospital: Let’s fight for fair funding,” set up by Laming ahead of the last federal election to campaign against Labor.
It is the first time the AEC’s authorisation requirements for social media will be tested in court after disclosure laws were updated following the 2016 election to explicitly include social media posts.
According to the AEC website, the penalty for a breach by an individual can be a fine of up to $26,640.
In a statement, the AEC said it had instituted federal court proceedings against Laming “alleging he failed to authorise Facebook posts leading up to the 2019 Federal Election”.
“The AEC alleges that Dr Laming published unauthorised electoral matter in the form of a Facebook page, ‘Redland Hospital: Lets fight for fair funding’ and that this contravened the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 requirement that material promoting one candidate or political party over another comply with the authorisation requirements of the Act.”
“The AEC will not be making any further comment as this matter is now before the Court.”
According to the Australian Electoral Commission, political authorisation is required for “information that is a matter communicated, or intended to be communicated, for the dominant purpose of influencing the way electors vote in a federal election”.
“This includes, but is not limited to, a communication that expressly promotes or opposes a candidate, political party, member or senator.”
Laming, who holds the bayside seat of Bowman, will not contest the next election after a series of controversies earlier in the year led to him losing preselection in April.
In October, Laming withdrew his apology to two Brisbane women over online comments that he previously acknowledged caused “significant distress” saying he did not believe the women were genuinely upset.
He was ordered by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, into empathy training in March before returning from personal leave, blaming a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder for his behaviour.
Despite some MPs within the Coalition wanting stronger action taken against Laming for the complaints made about his behaviour and the Facebook pages, Morrison has defended the outgoing MP.
In May, Morrison said that Laming had “formed a view since [March] that the issues that were the subject of complaints made against him have now altered and there have been new facts that have come forward”.
Morrison highlighted the “many good things” Laming had done as a member of the government, saying he “[expects] him to keep working hard for his electorate all the way to the next election”.
Laming said in a statement: “I respect the AEC decision and I will assist them to resolve the matter by conciliation.”
Laming claimed that he was being investigated for five posts which “amount to just 2% of the page posts, with an average reach of six people.”
“The entire page is less than 1% of the reach of my AEC-authorised pages,” he said.
The statement said he “had consistently acknowledged he has multiple community Facebook pages in order to better tailor information relevant to those communities”.
“These community pages were in full operation when requirements were tightened for social media authorisation. My office was confident at the time that we were complying by avoiding federal electoral matter.
“Where there was perceived doubt at the time, individual posts on this page were correctly authorised. I do not dispute the AEC view that the page did in-effect promote me and was critical of another political party, and for those reasons, page authorisation should have occurred and for that I apologise.”