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The problem with party political logos

12 May 2016 No Comment

The introduction of party logos on Senate ballot papers at the forthcoming election could throw up some very unexpected results. It also represents one of the largest shifts in electoral philosophy that we’ve seen in a long time in that we have introduced “brands” as opposed to “party names” onto our ballot papers. In the same way that many public institutions and conventions are being corporatised, now our voting system is suffering the same fate as we inexorably move toward US-style electioneering.

The Coalition, the Greens and Nick Xenophon joined forces to rush the new electoral laws through the parliament. They all wanted an early election and the chance to get rid of irritating minor parties in the Senate. The introduction of logos to above the line voting was part of that legislation. The rationale for doing this, we were told, was to further differentiate minor parties from major parties who might have some similarity in their names and to create clarity where confusion might have reigned.

Logos are corporate inventions. The definition of a logo is a “symbol” that identifies a company or a brand. Logos are identities that shape and deliver marketing messages for a specific audience and are often developed by advertising agencies using focus groups, extensive research and lots of money. Large corporations frequently pay millions of dollars to achieve an effective logo.

In creating Australia’s newest electoral laws, the federal government appears to have borrowed some sections of the UK Electoral Commission’s rules , specifically their “Names, descriptions and emblems”.

These are laws that allow the use of heraldic devices and emblems on British ballot papers and are consistent and well researched. However, it would appear that the federal government, Xenophon and the Greens have cherry-picked the UK’s regime in order to ram this through before the federal election. Hence large parts of the more intelligent UK laws have been left out. The Brits treat political logos much more like corporate logos and expressly prohibit the use of ticks and crosses and other glib expressions of populist sentiment to represent a party.

The “savings provisions” in the new legislation tend to give greater importance to the logos than to the party names that will appear on the ballot paper. These provisions, again supported by the Turnbull government, the Greens and Nick Xenophon, allow a vote to be counted and allowed as formal even if someone simply puts a number (or a Xenophon “cross”) in one box above the line. Although the advice on the ballot paper will say something like “Mark six boxes above the line” it will not say, “You have to mark six boxes above the line. But for this election one will do”. This is because many people would take the easy way out and just mark one box above the line. The use of a logo to represent a party encourages this by narrowing the focus of that vote to that of a competitive brand name.

The intellectual property that organisations invest in logos could be severely weakened by the new electoral laws. This is because the government has directed the Australian Electoral Commission to accept any logo that is put forward by a party, as long as it is not offensive and it doesn’t look like the logo of one already lodged by another party.

There is no reference to trademarked logos as they apply in the commercial world and from whence they originated. The first party to lodge a particular logo is likely to be the one that gets it.

So if the ALP had lodged a triangle like the Greens’ logo with the letters “ALP” inside it before the Greens had lodged theirs, Labor would probably have been allowed to use it. The Greens could have objected but they probably would have lost the objection simply because Labor was first in with the triangle , notwithstanding the fact that in the real world the Greens have used this logo for 20 years or more.

More importantly, the AEC appears to define a logo for the purposes of the ballot paper as simply a JPEG file submitted by a party. So if the XYZ party had submitted a logo with say, a dollar symbol as their logo, it would probably have been accepted. Ditto the McDonald’s arches. Whether McDonald’s could have sued that party in the civil courts for a breach of their trademark is a moot point.

Is a logo on a ballot paper protected speech? Who knows? This exact scenario has been played out in a heated dispute between the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) party and the Drug Law Reform Party (DLRP). The DLRP were quick off the mark and submitted a logo that had an image of a marijuana leaf with the word “Free” underneath it. The clear intention of the party’s founder, Gregg Chipp, was to create an impression of “Free Marijuana” like the populist term “Free Beer”. However, HEMP had been using the same marijuana leaf symbol with their four-letter name “HEMP” underneath it for 30 years. Accordingly they objected to the AEC that the DLRP had plagiarised their logo for electoral gain. HEMP’s secretary, Andrew Kavasilas, called it a “smart-arsed move” and firmly rejected Chipp’s overtures to form a coalition. Chipp then alleged that HEMP was simply ‘a bunch of hippies trying to encourage people to use cannabis.’ Well yes. But the point is they had been doing it with a logo for 30 years that was now part of another party’s identity, in a way that would not have been tolerated in the commercial world of trademarks.

The Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm was elected at the last Senate election because many people thought he was from the Liberal Party. So one would have thought that the Liberal Party would have changed their logo somewhat to reflect the word “Liberal” in it. But it appears not. Following the overwhelming confusion among Liberal voters, it might have expected the AEC to have directed the LDP to give equal weighting to the words Liberal and Democrat. But again, no. The LDP logo is much more “Liberal” than it is “Democrat”.

Nick Xenophon has clearly taken the advice of his advertising agency that the “X” logo on the ballot paper will convey a different meaning from that which it has in common usage , and not to represent porn, false statements and explosives, for example.

The Australian Antipaedophile Party appears to have submitted a circle with a slash through it as their logo, which at first glance appears to encourage people not to vote for them, while the Online Direct Democracy Party has gone with the Xenophon theory that symbols are the go and have registered an exclamation mark.

In contrast, the Australian Sex Party has simply adopted a clear and unambiguous logo by using the words of the party name and nothing else.

It seems that the election of parties and candidates to parliament is becoming more like choosing a brand name, a product or a service. Does this represent a dumbing down of the electoral process and a shift to a more American presidential style of electioneering? Only time will tell.

Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books, including the co-authored political/sexual satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure.’ Professor Fitzgerald is the Australian Sex Party’s lead Senate candidate in NSW.

The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald & The Age, May 12, 2016

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