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CheckMate is a weekly newsletter from RMIT FactLab recapping the latest in the world of fact checking and misinformation. It draws on the work of researchers and journalists at FactLab, including its CrossCheck unit, and of its sister organisation, RMIT ABC Fact Check.
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This week, we tackle Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney's assertion that the proposed Voice to Parliament would not offer advice about Australia Day.
We also debunk misleading claims that the prime minister said he would legislate the advisory body even if the referendum fails, and that a business idea — modelled on The Voice singing competition — is evidence the proposal would go ahead regardless.
Plus, we round up some of the more sketchy images you may have seen circulating as the Titan submarine tragedy unfolded.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney has claimed the Voice would not suggest changing the date of Australia Day, following a series of opposition questions in parliament last week that aimed to draw the government on the scope of the proposed Voice.
"The Voice will make recommendations that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but the Voice will not run programs, it will not deliver funding and it will not have the power of veto," she said.
Rather, she asserted, it would advise on "specific matters to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, matters relevant to the Australian community".
"I can tell you what the Voice will not be giving advice on," she continued. "It won't be giving advice on parking tickets. It won't be giving advice on changing Australia Day. It will not be giving advice on all of the ridiculous things that that side has come up with."
The Institute of Public Affairs has suggested New Zealand's Waitangi Tribunal is a 'Māori Voice to Parliament' with veto power. Here's what the experts said.
But while the Voice would have no legal power to move or abolish Australia Day, it is not possible to say whether it might offer advice to do so.
Constitutional law experts told RMIT FactLab's CrossCheck unit that the Voice would likely be able to advise the federal government on the topic — though whether it would actually choose to is another matter.
Anne Twomey, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney, said the advisory body would be able to make "representations to the parliament and the executive government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples".
"Matters … could conceivably include the psychological impact of the annual celebration of the day on which British settlement formally took place in Port Jackson in 1788," she said.
Cheryl Saunders, a laureate professor emeritus at the University of Melbourne, said similarly it was "plausible to claim that holding Australia Day on 26 January is a matter relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples".
However, she added, it was unclear whether the Voice would choose to make representations on the topic.
In part, that's down to political choice, according to the experts. But it's also because it is not the Commonwealth but the states and territories which set the date of the national holiday.
Although the date has been coordinated nationally thanks to the longstanding collaboration of leaders, said Professor Saunders, "there is a question in these circumstances about whether there is any point making representations to the Commonwealth government or parliament".
"At best, it might be said that the PM might take such a representation to national cabinet for consideration, if he chose to do so."
Notably, Ms Burney stopped short of repeating her claim when pressed on it the next day, asserting the "primacy" of the parliament and insisting the Voice would focus on addressing "the practical differences" between First Nations and other Australians.
At the 2022 election, Labor promised to hold a referendum to constitutionally enshrine a Voice to Parliament in its first term. Here's how the promise is tracking.
Importantly, and as CrossCheck has previously explained, the Voice, if established, would have neither the power to veto legislation nor to make binding demands on the government.
It's a detail that has been lost on many of the social media users who have seized upon statements made by Yes campaigners about the January 26 holiday as evidence the Voice would see Australia Day "abolished".
One prominent Twitter user incorrectly claimed that, were the Voice to recommend ditching the celebration, it would "be up to the courts to determine the issue".
As Professor Twomey has previously written in The Conversation, the role of the High Court is not to challenge the decisions of the government but to rule on their validity and procedural fairness.
"Due to the separation of powers, the courts cannot instruct parliament to give effect to representations by the Voice," she wrote.
CrossCheck contacted Ms Burney's office for comment but had not received a response by the time of publication.
Frenzied speculation and an international maritime search both ended late last week when the US Coast Guard confirmed the missing Titan submersible vessel had likely imploded in the ocean depths near the wreck of the Titanic.
For some social media users, the tragedy that claimed five lives offered a fresh opportunity to spread misinformation, including images that were either used misleadingly or simply fabricated.
Fact checkers with the US-based Associated Press debunked several photos purporting to show the aftermath of the disaster and which appeared on social media before any images had been released by the underwater search team.
In fact, some of these showed remnants from the wreck of the Titanic, with the photos of shoes and an old coat lying in mud on the ocean floor taken in 2004.
Meanwhile, AP and Reuters both found that a grainy photo depicting a submerged video game controller that "survived" the catastrophe had been doctored.
While the Titan sub really was piloted using what appeared to be an off-the-shelf game controller, the original image — showing the results of underwater dredging on the sea bed — was taken in 2015 near Peru, with no controller to be seen.
And, as Reuters also reported, several images supposedly showing the "debris field" of the Titan, published on social media while the search was still underway, had been generated using artificial intelligence.
At the time, other social media users were happy to mislead by sharing photos, taken before the fateful dive, to falsely claim that the crew were found alive after 55 hours.
A misleading claim that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese would "simply legislate the Voice anyway" should the upcoming referendum fail has spread online following his failure to answer questions on the subject earlier this year.
Despite a headline published by the Age in January declaring "Albanese keeps door open to legislating Voice if the referendum fails", the prime minister has never said either way whether he would consider such a move, RMIT FactLab has found.
Indeed, as the Age report pointed out, Mr Albanese steered clear of offering a definitive answer during two interviews given at the time to Sky News and 2GB.
Asked by Sky News host Chris Kenny whether he would legislate the Voice should a No vote prove victorious, Mr Albanese said he was not "leading with a position that assumes a loss of a referendum".
Importantly, and as Mr Albanese noted during the interview, a referendum must be held in order for the Voice to be constitutionally enshrined.
"If Australians say no, then there will be no constitutional change," he said.
Some posts featuring the claim also referred to baseless allegations of vote rigging by Dominion Voting Systems — a company that provides the US and other countries with electronic voting systems and has been a major focus of misinformation peddlers since the 2020 presidential election.
However, as FactLab pointed out, Dominion machines are not used in Australia.
The proposed Voice to Parliament is not a registered company, despite claims made on social media that two businesses registered under similar names were proof the advisory body had "been in the pipeline for years" and would be formed even "if we all say no".
Rather, one of the businesses relates to a digital platform being developed for Indigenous Australians, while the other belongs to an entrepreneurial audio engineer hoping to cash in on the popularity of the phrase "Voice to Parliament" and its similarity to the name of the TV singing competition The Voice.
FactLab recently spoke to the owners of both companies, who confirmed they had no connection with the First Nations' Voice or the referendum.
The first company, Indigenous Voice Pty Ltd, has been registered with the Australian Business Register (ABR) and the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) since June 2019, trading under the business name Mob Voice.
Troy Kelly, a representative for Mob Voice, told FactLab the company was a digital platform for Indigenous Australians and still in the process of community consultation.
It was formed "independently and without connection to early work by other groups forming a Voice to Parliament", Mr Kelly said.
The second company, called The Indigenous Voice to Parliament, was registered on the ABR and with ASIC in February this year.
The company's sole proprietor, audio engineer Americo Simoes, told FactLab he was working on a music project with Aboriginal musicians but that it was "nothing political in nature" and unrelated to the proposed Voice.
Mr Simoes said that while he did not believe the referendum would succeed, he wanted to capitalise on the phrase by modelling his company name on The Voice singing contest.
"In the same way The Voice is a TV show, the Indigenous Voice would be a great name for a record label," he said. "It's a popular phrase … It hasn't been trademarked … so I am, well, first in, best dressed."
Edited by Ellen McCutchan and David Campbell, with thanks to Sonam Thomas
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