What’s in a Party Name?

UPDATE 2 February – The name change has been approved by by the WA Electoral Commission.

For a party that argues “Australian democracy is broken”, that claims to be “Australia’s most transparent political party”, the Flux Party of Western Australia has taken a breathtakingly cynical step ahead of next March’s Western Australian election.

As shown below, the party has proposed to change its name and hopes to appear on ballot papers in March as “Liberals for Climate”.

I can’t see this as anything else but an attempt to mislead voters into confusing Liberals for Climate with the Liberal Party. It is an attempt to boost the party’s Legislative Council vote and manipulate the group voting ticket system still used in Western Australia.

The question is, will there be enough objection to this cynical name change, and strong enough legal argument against it, to prevent “Liberals for Climate” appearing on next year’s ballot papers?

Who are Flux?

Flux are an on-line political party whose main policy is that it decides party policy by on-line votes, and determines how its elected members vote in parliament by on-line voting and trading using the party’s phone ap.

In the past the party has attracted negligible support. It polled 0.44% in the Legislative Council election at the 2017 WA election. It polled 0.36% for the NSW Legislative Council in 2019, and at last year’s Federal election polled 0.08% for the Senate in NSW, 0.06% in Victoria and 0.15% in Western Australia.

But it did poll 1.02% of the vote in Mining and Pastoral Region at the 2017 WA election. In one of the cross-regional preference deals brokered by well known preference whisperer Glenn Druery, every other minor party in Mining and Pastoral Region directed preferences to Flux, and the party leap-frogged its way to 5.1% before finally being excluded at the point where only four parties remained in the count.

Flux named its candidates for the state election in March this year. Now it proposing to change its name.

Here’s a press release on the party’s website, and here is a link to a video explaining the reason for the party having a new name. Both are remarkably honest in explaining the “ends justify the means” strategy being used here.

We’ve Seen this Before

The registration of political parties was introduced for Federal elections in 1984, and variants of party registration now exist in all states and territories. The various acts operate independently, with federal parties only registered for Federal elections, and state parties registered for state elections. There is no overarching concept of federally structured parties registered for both elections.

There have been disputes in the past over registered parties. Members of the NSW based Democratic Socialist Party registered the party name “The Greens” in the early 1980s, delaying attempts to create a national Green party from state branches with different political histories. Inter-state tensions stemming from the party’s history still exist today.

liberals for Forests

At the 2001 Western Australian election, the future of the state’s south-west forests was a significant issue, and a party called Liberals for Forests formed, though the party was not registered and the party name did not appear on ballot papers. One of the party’s candidates, Janet Woollard, defeated Court government minister Doug Shave to win Alfred Cove.

Liberals (or liberals) for Forests did register federally in May 2001. It took an Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) hearing to allow the party to be registered, the Tribunal ruling that the Liberal Party and Liberals for Forests were not so similar that voters would be confused. The ruling argued terms like “liberal”, labour”, “christian” and “democrat” could not be reserved by one party to the exclusion of all other.

Some joked it was just as well the Trade Practices Act did not apply to party names. Was the Liberal Party a ‘liberal’ party? Was the Labor Party a “labour” party. And it doesn’t take much research to discover that the National Party is definitely not a “national” party.

By the 2004 election, “liberals for Forests” was organised and run by the aforementioned Glenn Druery, and preferences of the party played an important role in several contests. On how-to-vote material, liberals for Forests adopted the same font and background blue colouring as the Liberal Party. Liberal for Forests preferences played a part in the Coalition losing both Parramatta and and Richmond, the Labor members elected for both seats still in Parliament today. Liberals for Forests, or more precisely Glenn Druery, was also involved in the complex Senate deals that delivered the final NSW Senate seat to Labor’s Michael Forshaw over the Green’s John Kaye.

Incensed at this, the Howard government changed the Electoral Act after the 2004 election to institute a tougher test on party names. All non-parliamentary parties were required to re-register under the new rules, and Liberals for Forests disappeared.

But the Electoral Act changes did not survive another trip to the AAT. The registration of the Australian Fishing and Lifestyle Party was objected to by the Fishing Party. The AAT ruled the two names were not so similar that confusion would be produced. The legal view is the ruling opened the door for words like liberal to again be used by other parties.

Liberal Democrats

To avoid any delay in registration head of the 2007 election, the Liberal Democratic Party initially registered as the Liberty and Democracy Party. It reverted to its original name ahead of the 2010 election, with the ballot paper abbreviation Liberal Democrats (LDP). The Liberal Party did challenge the LDP’s registration after the 2013 election, but withdrew before full hearings began.

The name change paid off handsomely for the Liberal Democrats at the 2013 Senate election. The party drew column A, the left most column on that year’s giant NSW Senate ballot paper. There were 44 groups on the ballot paper with the Liberals and Nationals drawing column Y in the middle of the ballot paper. With so many groups on the ballot paper, each column was narrowed in width, so the words “Liberal” and “Democrats” appeared on separate lines at the top of the column. A quick scan of the ballot paper made it even more likely a voter would only see “Liberal” at the top of Column A.

Many Liberal voters were clearly confused. The Liberal Democrats came from nowhere to poll 9.3% statewide. The party’s vote was significantly lower in seats with a lower house National Party candidate, another sign of the LDP’s vote being caused by confusion. At an election where the Coalition’s lower house vote was the highest since 1975, its Senate vote was the lowest since 1943. Clearly there was advantage to be gained for minor parties in cashing in on the brand name of larger parties.

The dispute over party names led in part to the Turnbull government’s introduction of party logos for ballot papers in 2016.

Since then, state upper house elections in Victoria and Western Australia have confirmed that the Liberal Democrats poll more strongly when they appear in a ballot paper column to the left of the Liberal Party. A similar phenomena has occurred with the Democratic Labour Party, or Labour DLP as it now appears on ballot papers, who usually poll more strongly when listed on ballot papers to the left of the Australian Labor Party. This was seen most recently at the ACT election.

The election of Liberal Democrat Aaron Stonehouse for South Metropolitan Region at the 2017 Western Australian election was down almost entirely to ballot position, giving him enough extra votes to stay ahead of other minor parties in the game of preference harvesting. The Liberal Democrats appeared to the left of the Liberal Party in South Metropolitan and polled 3.9%, four times its vote in other regions where it appeared to the right of the Liberal Party. In total 57% of the party’s state vote was recorded in South Metropolitan.

The abolition of group voting tickets has almost ended the usefulness of mimicking major party names. In the former group voting ticket system, the extra votes from a clever party name was enough to stay ahead of other minor parties in the game of preference harvesting. Without group voting tickets, fewer parties are contesting elections, and on smaller ballot papers, parties find it hard to confuse enough voters to gain significant advantage from ballot position.

On-Line Direct Democracy

Having at various times been known as On-line Direct Democracy and Senator On-Line, this party shares the voter participation philosophy of Flux. They also adopted a change of name to attract votes at the 2019 federal election, though not by imitating a major party.

Rather the party changed its name from “On-line Direct Democracy (Empowering the People)” to “Climate Action! Immigration Action! Accountable Politicians!”, arguing these were some of the key issues voters were interested in.

The Party reverted to its former name after the election.

Sustainable Australia

This party has been around for several election cycles. It started out as the “Stable Population Party”, became “#Sustainable Australia” and then “Sustainable Australia”. Recently it has been altering its registered name to variations of the “SUSTAINABLE AUSTRALIA – STOP OVERDEVELOPMENT. STOP CORRUPTION” name it used for the recent Groom by-election.

So What are Flux Up To?

All Flux are doing is adopting a name that might create confusion with the Liberal Party. It is all part of the preference harvesting game engaged in by minor parties at elections, such as the WA Legislative Council, where group voting tickets are used to determine preferences.

For those who have forgotten group voting tickets since their abolition for the Senate in 2016, group voting tickets give voters two options to complete preferences. You can vote for one party by marking a box ‘above-the-line’ and your preferences will be determined by that party. Or you have to supply a preference for each candidate by numbering every square below the line.

The asymmetry of effort in the two methods of voting herds voters towards the quicker above the line option. And that opens the election to trades and deals on preferences, who gets elected then determined by back room deals rather than by preference completed by voters. Such deals were ended for the Senate by the 2016 reforms, putting control over inter-party preferences entirely in the hands of voters.

Group voting tickets allow preferences harvesting, where parties with little hope of election based on their own level of support, agree to pool their vote by preferences. The point is to bury ideology for strategy, to put every minor and micro-party in the alliance ahead of every outside party. If together the parties get enough votes to elect a member, then the tight swap of preferences allowed by group voting tickets will see one of them elected. One of the minor parties is elected through the lottery of exclusion order.

There is also active encouragement of parties to contest every state or region, to increase the number of groups and candidates, increase the size of the ballot paper, and make it harder for voters to find the names of the parties they do know ahead of the flood of micro-parties. The more parties and candidates on the ballot paper, the more voters are herded towards the above the line voting option.

If you are one of the small parties entering a preference harvesting deal, it is in your interest to have a slightly higher first preference to stay ahead on the lottery of preference exclusion. Some do it by having a small but identifiable support base, such as various Christian parties. Others have adopted a name that by its very nature attracts votes, such as the Australian Sex Party. If you start the count with a slightly higher vote than other micro parties in the alliance, and you stand a better chance of gaining their preferences.

If you don’t have much of a vote base, or a name that many voters will know, another option is to make voters think you are or have something to do with another party. That was the path to election success for the Liberal Democrats, and no doubt the method that Flux hopes to imitate by changing its name to Liberals for Climate. You only need a small number of voters to confuse your party name with other better known parties to lift your party’s head above the rising quota line.

In my opinion it is an entirely cynical exercise designed to confuse voters into voting for a party that does not have the policy agenda that the voter assumes from the party name.

But given how the laws are written, and how Courts have interpreted them, there may be nothing in law that prevents Flux from contesting March’s election as Liberals for Climate.

Update: Flux were also involved in some ballot paper stacking in 2017 with 26 candidates associated with Flux being nominated for the upper house as Independents.