Conspiracy theorists have always been with us. It's just that, due to the 24-hour news cycle, they appear more prominent than ever.
Last week's Q&A demonstrates the point. The official transcript contains a heading titled “Fairfax Electoral Fraud”. There is no question mark in the title and the word “alleged” is not used.
The claim was made by a guest on the program, Clive Palmer, who contested Fairfax for the Palmer United Party (PUP). He asserted that the Australian Electoral Commission is “rorting the system” and went on to allege, without evidence, that “all” AEC “divisional returning officers are ex-military officers in the Australian armed forces”.
Asked by presenter Tony Jones what was the problem with this, Palmer replied: “The military … shouldn't be involved in democracy; we have seen what has happened in Egypt, for example”.
It's the familiar tactic of the conspiracy theorist. Palmer started off with an unproven allegation about the number of former Defence Force personnel who are AEC divisional officers. Then he made an illogical jump by comparing Australia with Egypt.
ABC news and current affairs just loves mavericks, especially those on the right-of-centre of Australian politics. On the September 9 edition of Q&A, Jones asked former Liberal Party operative Michael Kroger what Palmer, if elected, “will do with parliamentary privilege”. Kroger reminded Jones that he had “launched” Palmer's career. ''That's a bit harsh,” Jones responded.
Not really. It is doubtful if the founder of a new political party has ever received media access of the kind the ABC extended to Palmer.
On Anzac Day this year, Jones interviewed Palmer on Lateline about his plans to establish a United Australia Party (UAP). When a UAP fell through, Palmer was interviewed by Jones again on Lateline on June 20. This time he announced the formation of the Palmer United Party. Palmer also appeared on Q&A on May 13.
Palmer was interviewed yet again, by Emma Alberici on Lateline , on August 27. There were many other soft ABC interviews.
It seems likely that Palmer will win Fairfax and that the PUP will gain at least one Senate seat. This is a reasonable result for a new party, but it nowhere matches the hype of the PUP leader who declared before the election that he would be prime minister by now.
Palmer has no valid complaint against the AEC. The organisation is part of the Commonwealth government bureaucracy and it works in public service ways. The vote-counting process in the House of Representatives and the Senate seems unnecessarily slow but there is no reason to challenge the AEC's honesty, or its commitment to democracy.
If anyone has a legitimate complaint against the AEC it is Liberal Party national director Brian Loughnane. In the past, when new parties have broken away from older parties they come up with a distinctive name. The Democratic Labor Party (DLP) was formed out of the Labor split in the 1950s: its name was distinct from that of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) or Labor.
When former Liberal Party member Don Chipp formed a new party in the late 1970s it was called the Australian Democrats or Democrats. There was no confusion with existing parties. The same can be said with the creation of the Greens, some of whose members once belonged to the ALP.
In 2010, an organisation titled the Liberty and Democracy Party was given permission by the AEC to change its registered name to Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and to use the abbreviation Liberal Democrats. Not surprisingly, this decision was contested both by the Liberal Party and the Australian Democrats, since the AEC had allowed a new party to emerge using a combination of the names “Liberal” and “Democrats”. The objections were overruled.
It so happened that the complicated 2013 Senate paper in NSW had the Liberal Democrats at the top left of the ballot paper, with the Liberals plus Nationals (i.e. the Coalition) about the middle. Until recently, almost no one had heard of the Liberal Democrats but its Senate team, led by David Leyonhjelm, won more than 9 per cent of the primary vote. As Loughnane writes in the current issue of The Spectator Australia, before the election he had “never seen the LDP register a heartbeat of community support”.
Clearly a large number of voters confused the “Liberal Democrats” ticket with the “Liberal plus Nationals” ticket.
Established political parties should have a right to preserve their identity. In 2013, the Liberal Party appears to have suffered due to the AEC's decision to register the Liberal Democrats.
However, next time around the Labor Party may suffer a similar fate with the establishment of a similarly named left-of-centre party. This is an issue that goes to the AEC's wisdom and competence, not to its honesty.