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Will fewer political brands matter?

By Andrew Murray - posted Wednesday, 14 February 2007

In September 2005 the federal parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) published its report into the 2004 federal election.

Chapter four of that report covered the registration of political parties. In particular, Recommendation 20 recommended the de-registration and re-registration of political parties. The idea was to get a full review of current registrations going, and by deregistering parties that had never had a federal representative, force them to be reassessed against new stricter naming and membership rules.

Having had a “federal representative” was intended not only to keep political parties presently in the federal parliament free of the compliance cost of being deregistered and having to re-register, but allowed the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) to remain registered, despite their last federal representative being in the 1970s. This was useful from the Coalition perspective. For decades the DLP have preferenced the Coalition parties favourably, and their vote, although small, has been consistent and useful, in particular, in Victoria.


Undoubtedly, R20’s main target was liberals for forests, whose name is very unlikely to be re-registered under the tougher new party registration rules passed in 2004. Those rules make “passing off” or having similar names much harder for political parties seeking to be newly registered. It can now be successfully argued that there will be confusion between the Liberal Party’s long established name and that of liberals for forests. Chapter 5 of that report recounts the reasons liberals for forests were in some disfavour.

The side effect of R20 that interests me for the purpose of this article is the effect on the main brands of reducing the number of political brands in competition.

This change may not have much overall effect in the 150 House of Representatives seats, although parties like the Christian Democratic Party, liberals for forests, and the Progressive Labour Party may not still be around in 2007 to confuse voters into thinking they are somehow connected with the Democrats, Labor or the Liberals.

Chapter 9 of the JSCEM Report has an interesting section on preference harvesting:

The Group Voting Ticket system is susceptible to manipulation via a practice known as preference harvesting. Broadly speaking, this is a form of strategic behaviour where parties manoeuvre to keep preferences away from other parties, often the major parties, through arrangements with minor or micro parties. These deals often take place between parties ... in order to “harvest” their preferences as they are eliminated in the count.

Such preference harvesting as does go on presently in lower house seats may be a little less effective than it was. However, preference harvesting in lower house seats has sometimes been contrived by the major political parties using “dummy” independents, and that is unlikely to change.


Where the effect of reducing the number of political brands may be greatest is in the Senate. The fewer the brand names on the ballot paper above the line, the lower the opportunity for preference harvesting. Preference harvesting by very small parties in the past has allowed liberals for forests and Family First to lift a tiny primary vote through preferences, in the case of the former to nearly win a New South Wales Senate seat, and in the case of the latter, to win a Victorian Senate seat.

In addition, the fewer the brand names above the line, the lower the opportunity for informal voting in the Senate, although that beneficial effect will be most marked in below the line voting.

An interesting question will be where the votes of the deregistered parties will go, or more precisely, to which of the main political brands. In New South Wales these votes made up 7.5 per cent of the Senate vote; in Victoria 4.6 per cent; Queensland 9.3 per cent (4.4 per cent being Pauline Hanson, again threatening to run as an independent Senate candidate in 2007); Western Australia 3.9 per cent; South Australia 2.9 per cent; and Tasmania 3.8 per cent.

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About the Author

Senator Andrew Murray is Taxation and Workplace Relations Spokesperson for the Australian Democrats and a Senator for Western Australia.

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