• John McDonnell

Authoritarians in parliament try to suppress democracy

Updated: Aug 17


Last week the major parties in the Australian parliament attempted to pervert democratic politics in Australia, in order to ensure their grip on power.


At the moment the Liberal and Labor parties each attract about 30 per cent of the votes of Australian electors. The balance of votes flows to minor parties some of whom are now at risk of being disenfranchised.


On Friday, the Morrison government introduced a Party Registration Integrity Bill to the Commonwealth parliament. The bill would let established parties veto the use of words like “Liberal”, “Labor” or “Democrats” in the names of newer, rival parties. It will also make it harder to register - or keep registered - parties, by tripling the number of members required to 1,500, unless the party has a sitting member of parliament.


It is obvious that this is aimed at the Liberal Democrats.


As Paul Kelly pointed out in ‘The Australian’ last weekend, the Liberal party is being attacked from the left and the right. Independents on the left are siphoning votes away from the Liberals over issues such as climate change, and now the Liberal Democrats are threatening them over their handling of the pandemic.


Notwithstanding this, the proposed legislation is a threat to Australians right to choose who represents them. Not only this, but the bill is a very poorly drafted piece of legislation.


Graeme Orr, professor of electoral law, at the University of Queensland, commented in ‘The Conversation’ on Monday on the drafting of the legislation.

“People may differ about the bill’s justification. But one thing is clear to a lawyer: as drafted, the bill is cooked. It overreaches and is not well...
“To take an obvious example, the bill will let the Liberal Party control the word “Liberal”, if “contained” in the name of any other registered party. That includes the Liberal Democratic Party of ex-senator David Leyonhjelm and potential-senator Campbell Newman fame.
“The Liberal Party is also upset by the emergence of the New Liberals. But “Liberals” is not the same as “Liberal”. Indeed, it’s a noun, not an adjective. So perhaps the bill won’t cure that upset.

Mere “function words”, like “the” or “of” don’t count. Nor is any “collective noun for people” protected. Think “party” or “Australians”. Linguists will be left to argue whether collective nouns like “Liberals” or “Greens” are off-limits. Can “Indigenous be bagsed? Your guess is as good as mine”, Dr Orr commented.


As Professor Orr points out, the idea that any party should be able to assume squatters’ rights over ordinary words, is troublesome. Worse than that it creates a new form of intellectual property right and vests it in a group of people who were not involved in the creation of the party in the first place.


Professor Orr points out that this is a threat to democracy. He comments:

“Worryingly, it gives leverage to established parties. They could ask a newer party for its support (with legislation or electorally) in return for permission to use the overlapping word in their name.”


It is unclear how much support the bill has within the parliamentary ranks. It is to be hoped that at least some of them have the gumption to reject the legislation.