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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.

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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.

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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.

Are these voters automatically “micro” or “minor” party voters? Are they “protest” voters who wouldn’t vote for Labor or the Liberals in a fit? Are they voters who only make up their minds when they see the ballot paper?

In June 2006, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2006 passed the Senate on the Coalition numbers, duly making R20 law. (That bill covered a number of hotly contested topics. Someone in the government must have had a good sense of irony - electoral integrity was not what the Coalition really had in mind.)

Keeping the numbers down that contest elections can be achieved in a myriad of ways. That bill had another change that may act to reduce the number of political contestants.

One of the barriers to entry any party or candidate faces in contesting elections is the nomination fee. The purpose of a nomination deposit is primarily to deter frivolous candidates. There was no evidence that the nomination deposits then current were too low. There was no evidence either that existing nomination deposits were so high as to deter serious candidates.

Notwithstanding, the Electoral Integrity bill raised the candidate nomination fee for the House of Representatives from $350 to $500, and the Senate candidate nomination fee from $700 to $1,000.

For minor political parties seeking to contest elections nationally, the cumulative cost of nomination fees represents a high barrier to participation. If a political party stands 150 Lower House candidates that will now cost them $75,000 in nomination deposits. If they stand three candidates for every Senate ticket in eight territories and states, that will now cost them $24,000. Adding those two together, if a party completely covered the national election, it would cost $99,000. This is refunded if a party achieves 4 per cent, but there is no way every minor party and every group of independents will get 4 per cent in every electorate they stand in.

Interestingly, Family First apparently did not see the danger. In a Senate division called on that vote, the Liberal, National, Labor and Family First parties voted for these higher nomination deposits and the Australian Democrats and Australian Greens voted against.

On the December 22, 2006, the Australian Electoral Commission announced its decision on registered political parties. Nineteen political parties were deregistered, but effectively this was 16 because a number of registered names were divisional repeats.

These were: Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group); Citizens Electoral Council of Australia; Citizens Electoral Council of Australia (NSW Division); Help End Marijuana Prohibition; Hope Party - ethics equality ecology; liberals for forests; New Country Party; No Goods and Services Tax Party; Non-Custodial Parents Party; One Nation Queensland Division; One Nation Western Australia; People Power; Progressive Labour Party; Queensland Greens; Republican Party of Australia; Socialist Alliance; The Australian Shooters Party; The Fishing Party; and The Great Australians.

Any political party that is deregistered may re-apply for registration, and must comply with the current requirements in the Electoral Act, including the naming provisions.

My expectation is that most of these parties will not re-register, and of those that do and are successful, they are not going to contest elections across every state or territory. Of course new parties may still be formed and successfully registered, even just as preference harvesting mechanisms.

In theory 35 political parties were left registered, but in practice (because of separate registrations of state and territory divisions of the same federal party), there are only nine separate federal political parties left at present. These are: Australian Greens; Australian Democrats; Australian Labor Party (and Country Labor Party); Democratic Labor Party; Family First; Nuclear Disarmament Party of Australia; Liberal Party; National Party (and Northern Territory Country Liberal Party); Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (NSW Division).

Of these nine, the Nuclear Disarmament Party is not expected to contest the election, leaving eight main political brands in the race.

Table: Registered Political Parties

Political parties have many of the same characteristics as branded goods - high name recognition and high exposure increase the chance of purchase. Of course, reputation matters, so a continuous stream of deliberately negative coverage can reduce the purchase intention. As does reduced or no media coverage at all.

What are the chances of electoral success for these main political brands in 2007?

Based on past elections, it seems unlikely that anyone other than the Liberals, Labor, the Nationals and a few Independents can win House of Representative seats, although there is always an outside chance of a minor party upset. (The Democrats came close in Mayo in 1998, and the Greens won Cunningham in a by-election in 2002).

The Senate is a different matter. The Senate will be of much greater election interest than in the 2004 federal election because of widespread negative views generated by Coalition control of the Senate that resulted from that 2004 election.

There will be considerable voter interest in whether the Coalition Senate numbers can be reduced below half, and which of the minor parties will then hold the balance of power when the Liberal/National Coalition and the Labor Senators are in disagreement on an issue.

The Liberals and Labor are certain to win a swag of Senate seats and the Nationals and the Greens seem likely to win some seats, but the Democrats and Family First are considered outside chances, based on current senate polling.

The chances of election success are materially affected by popular support, incumbency, money, media coverage and polling booth coverage. For political parties sufficient media coverage is vital, and any deliberately negative coverage is damaging.

The table below shows that on all counts the Democrats will likely find the going tougher than the others. Yet the recent Senate polls in November 2006 have the Democrats at 5.5 per cent (Newspoll), and 5.4 per cent (Morgan). If Senator Fielding of Family First could get elected with just 1.9 per cent of the primary vote in Victoria in 2004, the Democrats can not be considered out of the race. (In the same Newspoll and Morgan Senate polls the Greens were 12.8 per cent and 10.5 per cent; and Family First was 2.5 per cent and 2.2 per cent.)

Table: Which Parties have a fighting chance?

One intriguing question remains of where the parties and voters are in positioning terms. Brand managers will not only talk in terms of demographics but in terms of psychographics. Brand positioning covers both, and the critical matter is how buyers (voters) see themselves in relation to the brand.

Despite its obvious limitations, the “left-right” description still has very wide currency. In politics many people will describe themselves in policy terms as in the “centre” or “centre-left” or “centre-right” but will actually vote for a party that is none of those.

Positioning is a subjective matter. Below is my matrix for the main Australian political brands. Decide for yourself where you think the main political brands lie, and where you think your politics rests.

Table: Parties National Positioning

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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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