The Liberal Party has won a ruling from the Australian Electoral Commission to force the increasingly popular minor party, the Liberal Democrats, to change its party name despite being registered more than 20 years ago.
Could this go down as the most foolish strategic move in the history of political marketing?
The minor centre-right and right-wing parties now take a 16 per cent slice of the vote in Newspolls, while the Greens still hold 10 per cent. One of the biggest behind-the-scenes fights ahead of the 2022 federal election will be between the large established parties and their smaller rivals, as the majors seek to maintain their fraying grip over the Australian political landscape.
The target of the Liberal Party’s trivial act of desperation is clearly the emergence of a new political force, The Liberal Democrats. It is a party which, in recent months, has seen a surge in support as classical liberals and conservatives frustrated with a party of Menzies they no longer recognise abandon ship for the new hope.
Full disclosure: this author is one of them. I will be contesting the seat of Ryan in Brisbane’s west against an incumbent Liberal MP at the next election.
Apparently so ‘afraid’ are the majors of upcoming rivals, they have joined forces to take Orwellian-style control of our political language. Generic political terms such as ‘liberal’ and ‘labour’ are now effectively owned by the major parties – similar to the way a commercial entity has trademark over its brand.
Four days prior to the AEC’s decision against the Liberal Democrats, the Australian Labor Party had a similar complaint upheld against the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), which has been in existence since 1957.
If you want to be popular and weaken your enemy, you do not want to be cast as a bullying Goliath in a ‘David and Goliath’ narrative. The Liberal Party strategists didn’t just audition for the part, they leapt feverishly onto the casting couch.
From a marketing perspective, the relatively unknown Liberal Democrats will benefit from increased brand awareness (even if they have to change their name) and the brand positioning benefit of being seen as a bullied underdog.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Party signals that it is willing to change the rules of the game 20 years after the fact – something mainstream Australians will no doubt see as un-sportsman-like behaviour. It is also demonstrating that it is genuinely afraid of the growth of the Liberal Democrats seen in recent months following the public defection of a significant number of party members.
‘The Liberal Party has lost its soul,’ says former Queensland LNP Premier Campbell Newman, now the lead Queensland Senate candidate for the Liberal Democrats. ‘They’re worried because so many of their rank-and-file see that they have betrayed the values of Menzies, shifting from both conservative and classical-liberal core values toward big government, high debt and spending, and more authoritarian control.’
But Newman, a son of two former federal Liberal Party ministers born with Menzian blue-blood surging through every cell, doesn’t believe the battle over party names will resonate with voters.
‘It’s just the kind of Canberra-bubble nonsense that the Australian public are so sick and tired of. They will simply see the Liberals as wasting time they should be spending on governing the nation,’ he said.
‘We have national debt heading for frightening levels, state governments playing politics with people’s freedom and livelihoods in an unprecedented attack on civil liberties, and serious geo-political tensions with a major trading partner. So, what’s Morrison and his team focused on? Who gets to call themselves liberal. It’s absurd.’ Newman laments.
Another former NSW senior Liberal Party strategist, John Ruddick, is also contesting the Senate for the LibDems, having also given up on attempts to reform his former party from the inside.
‘One would expect this kind of university-grade nonsense from the ALP, but not the Liberal Party. The party has demonstrated itself less worthy of the use of the word liberal in recent years, and this has inevitably led to the rise of an alternative,’ Ruddick notes. ‘I think the Australian public can see what’s behind the labels. It’s a little ironic, really. We may have a case against them for misleading advertising,’ he jests.
The Labor Party backed the Liberal-National coalition’s new Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021 as it moved through both houses of parliament in August achieving assent on September 2. Then, last week, the major parties joined forces once again to pass another piece of ‘rules of the game’ legislation called the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021 which significantly impacts politically active charities. Labor will be disadvantaged most by this new law (speaking of ‘own goals’), but they backed their friends across the aisle in return for the coalition’s agreement to drop its push for national voter ID laws.
Major parties 2: Democracy 0.
This second piece of legislation aims to force charities that ‘participate in Australian democracy’ by spending more than $250,000 on elections, to declare their donors and register as a ‘significant third party’. And it’s retrospective. Past activities will need to be disclosed.
The alliance Hands off Our Charities told The Guardian it was an attack from the Morrison government on the charity sector and the ‘capacity of community voices to engage in important political debates during election periods’.
Independent Senator for South Australia, Rex Patrick, tweeted angrily that Labor had, ‘sold out the charities sector by agreeing to vote for the Political Campaigners Bill in exchange for [the Coalition] dropping the Voter ID Bill – when the Govt didn’t have the numbers to pass the Voter ID Bill anyway. Dumb and harmful!’
#BREAKING: @AustralianLabor just sold out the charities sector by agreeing to vote for the Political Campaigners Bill in exchange for @LiberalAus dropping the Voter ID Bill – when the Govt didn’t have the numbers to pass the Voter ID Bill anyway. Dumb and harmful! #auspol
— Rex Patrick (@Senator_Patrick) December 1, 2021
Meanwhile, the Liberal Party has also lodged an objection with the AEC to the registration of a newer, more left-leaning party – The New Liberals – under rules in place before the laws were passed. A decision on this is imminent and the AEC has said that, if it fails, they expect the Liberal Party to lodge a further objection under the new rules.
‘The legislation is a wholesale attack on the democratic process designed to eliminate small and emerging parties. It’s also an attempt to do what three federal court judges in Woollard’s Case said should never be done, and that is to parcel up a word of general political application like ‘liberal’ and exercise property rights over it,’ said The New Liberals leader, Victor Kline.
Critics of the Party Registration Integrity Act say the legislation itself was poorly constructed and is full of loopholes and ambiguities. To that end, the Liberal Democrats have taken action against the government in the High Court in a case due to begin on February 15, 2022.
The Liberal Democrats’ case charges that the new laws violate the principle of ‘freedom of political communication’ – something the High Court has previously ruled is implied by the Australian Constitution.
‘We are now busy applying to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) to prevent the AEC forcing us to change our name before December 22, while we await our day in court,’ explained Liberal Democrats National President John Humphreys.
Bureaucrats 10: Australian public 0.
It’s easy to understand Campbell Newman’s frustration with the whole fiasco. Even the Socialists are up in arms!
‘On the phony pretext of avoiding unproven voter confusion over party names, the Labor Party joined the Liberal-National Coalition in rushing the electoral bills through parliament in late August. These laws actually aim to keep voters in the dark about the political identities and programs of election candidates, especially those who present any kind of alternative to the parliamentary establishment. Under the banner of democracy, Labor and the Coalition are tearing up basic democratic rights,’ laments the Socialist Equality Party, in an on-line editorial.
Dare I say: hear hear, comrades!
Given that both the AAT and the AEC have made numerous past rulings in favour of permitting the use of generic political words such as ‘liberal’ and ‘socialist’ in party names, and have rejected the Liberal Party’s ‘voter confusion’ defence, all eyes – left and right – will be on the High Court come February.
Damian Coory is a communications expert and former Managing Director at Edelman PR. He is a former senior journalist for Network Ten, the ABC and 3AW, hosts The Other Side Australia podcast and is the Liberal Democrats 2022 candidate for the Brisbane seat of Ryan. @OtherSideAus
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