The Liberal Party has been caught engaging in dirty tricks in the federal election campaign. Ironically, writes David Donovan, they complained about similar practices by the Labor Party in the South Australian state election.
THE LIBERALS this week decided to remove the advertisement that saw a link to the Liberal Party website come up at the top of Google searches for Independent and minor party candidates.
The Liberal Party had bought the names of opposing candidates as keywords in Google searches. Google accepts paid advertisements, which it says "can appear above and to the right of organic search results".
IT expert Jeff McQueen said that online search advertising is relatively cheap and easy to do.
"For the kinds of keywords you are talking about you are talking about a few cents per click," he said.
"You only pay for the traffic when somebody clicks on the link - that's the way Google advertising works. So the Liberal Party probably isn't spending very much money at all."
The Liberal's link led to a bland generic Liberal Party website. The aim of the advertising was likely to have been to give voters the snap impression that non-Liberal candidates were aligned with, or endorsed by, the Liberal Party. This impression may have been seen as very important in a close election where preference flows could determine the results in a host of marginal seats.
The Liberals pulled the advertising yesterday because of suggestions that this advertising had breached electoral laws, which may have led to the results in tight marginal seats being challenged after the election. Section 329 of the Electoral Act prohibits publishing information "likely to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote".
University of Queensland electoral law expert Graeme Orr said that there were likely grounds under s.329, which may have caused the Liberals to remove the ads.
"It's not like the bogus how-to-vote card at the door of the polls, but if they were giving the impression to the average punter that these candidates are linked to the Liberal Party then you've got an argument under 329," said Mr Orr.
One of the candidates affected by this advertising, South Australian Independent Senate candidate Mark Aldridge, has been a long-time electoral law campaigner and said he had seen many of these sorts of practices in the past.
Earlier this year, in fact, he launched an action in the South Australian court of disputed returns partially as a result of activities by the Labor Party in several marginal seats in the March 20 South Australian election that, in themselves, may have cost the Liberals the election.
In that election, the Liberal Party and independents complained loudly about Labor volunteers at polling booths in "Family First" t-shirts handing out fake Family First how-to-vote cards; letterboxing campaigns smearing opposing candidates; and of Labor registering the name of the South Australian opposition leader reply paid with Australia Post.
The SA opposition leader was Isobel Redmond, and she called it the “dodgiest” election she had ever seen. But despite this the Liberals did not challenge the result in court, nor did they support Aldridge's action in any way.
Mr Aldridge called the Liberals a "disgrace", especially after condemning Labor in the South Australian election.
"The Liberals jumped up and down when the South Australian Labor party registered their leaders name as a reply paid address to dupe voters, but rather than stand up for what is right, they have done nothing but condone dodgy practices," he said.
"Even if I had the funds to take similar steps, my conscience wouldn't let me stoop that low."
Independent senate candidate for Queensland, law lecturer John Pyke, also criticized the Liberals for their tactics.
Mr Pyke, who is running on a 'Limit the Pokies' ticket, said he had short message for the Liberals.
"If you are confident you deserve to be elected on your merits, why do you keep falling back on dirty tricks?" he said.
"Have you no faith that you can win a majority of the votes in the majority of the seats on your merits?"
Neither party seems likely to be able to take up this challenge, since the result of the election sits on a knife edge and is likely to come down to pitch battles in grassroots campaigns in a few marginal seats in Queensland and New South Wales.
As palms become sweatier, it seems doubtful that this will be the last dubious tactic executed by the major parties in this election.