Senate debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020


Social Media: Standards

5:32 pm

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In recent months, we've spoken a lot about being in this together. The coronavirus pandemic has tested us as a nation like never before, perhaps not since World War II. Australians have welcomed the national cabinet and the new spirit of bipartisanship and co-operation across the political divide as we work together, with the Australian people, to save lives and livelihoods. Thats what Australians rightly want and expect.

I am all for a contest of ideas, a robust debate about policy and which party has more to offer, underpinned by the rule of law and the Western liberal democratic values of our great nation. But this crisis has reinforced to me that the politics of hate and personal vilification have no place in Australian society.

Over four federal elections campaigns contesting and then defending the seat of Corangamite—one of the country's most marginal seats—I experienced first-hand a marked deterioration in political standards. While I will address these issues in more detail at another time, I stand here today as a proud Senator for Victoria to call out the actions of my political opponents behind two vile anonymous Twitter accounts. The handles are: @ShendersonMPNOT, established in June 2016 with the name SarahendersonSenatorNoWay formerly called SarahendersonMPNoWay; and    @Geelong_Elite, established in May 2019 with the name Geelong Aristocrats UNCENSORED.

The owners of these Geelong based accounts have published, anonymously, hundreds of degrading, vile and defamatory comments about me, which included labelling me a criminal facing jail. For instance, on 22 May 2019, after I lost my seat of Corangamite, Geelong_Elite posted: 'Sychophant @SHendersonMP OUT OF OFFICE and now INTO JAIL #embezzlement #voterintimidation #humanrights #auspol. The people of Corangamite are celebrating tonight.' This post included a photo of my face superimposed over what appears to be a doctored mugshot photo of another woman, also called Sarah Henderson, from Texas, who had been arrested and charged with shooting dead her two children. This photo is also the profile photo for the account. How utterly abhorrent.

In the case of @ShendersonMPNot, I am deeply concerned to report that there may be a connection with the current Labor member for Corangamite. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, as the Member for Corangamite I participated in a debate organised by Geelong Business Network, on 22 June, with the then Labor candidate, Libby Coker. During the debate, a denigrating post was published on this account stating that I looked like a 1960's air hostess. Someone in the room had created that post. To her absolute credit, a female community leader attending the event told me she had seen the post and was appalled and said to Ms Coker: 'If this has anything to do with you, it needs to stop.' The post was removed within minutes. This was either an extraordinary coincidence or, at that time at least, Ms Coker had some direct or indirect connection with this Twitter account. She needs to provide a full, honest explanation.

Twitter management has refused to provide any information as to the identity of the account's owners and my attempts to have the @ShendersonMPNOT account removed through Twitter's complaints process failed. While Twitter will provide identifying information as a result of a police complaint or legal action, social media platforms need to take greater responsibility for what they publish. Social media behaviour is a serious community issue that has led to tragic outcomes. It's one our government takes very seriously. Under the Criminal Code, it is an offence to use a carriage service to 'menace, harass or cause offence'.

I tried for a long time to ignore this, thinking that this was the best approach, but not any more. Our political system is better than this. I will now be referring this matter to police to investigate.