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Dirty tricks on the campaign trail

Beware the fake how-to-vote cards on election day - they’re just one of many tricks parties may use to gain an advantage at the polls. AAP/Dean Lewins

In the final countdown to polling day, Australian political history suggests that political parties will start to fight dirty in critical seats, using just-legal tricks in an attempt to get the winning edge.

Under our fairly flexible electoral laws there’s not much that can be done to stop parties using sneaky tactics. But to help you avoid getting taken in, here’s a handful of the more common dirty tricks which have been trotted out in past campaigns.

Give my number two to who?

Running the gauntlet of party volunteers brandishing how-to-vote cards is something most Australian voters dread. However, it also creates a unique opportunity for parties and candidates to be a little flexible with the truth.

Handing out fake how-to-vote cards which encourage supporters of minor parties or independents to give their second preferences to one of the major parties is a popular trick. It is one which has surfaced in just about every state and federal election in recent years.

During the 2010 federal election, volunteers in green t-shirts bearing the slogan “Green Army” handed out how-to-vote cards featuring pictures of Greens leader Bob Brown at polling stations in the battleground seat of Bennelong. The cards encouraged Green voters to give Liberal candidate John Alexander their second preference votes, despite the Greens having actually negotiated a deal to give Labor their preferences.

No-one was any the wiser until the real Greens volunteers on the booth noticed that the cards had been authorised by the NSW Liberals’ state director, Mark Neeham, and exposed the “Green Army” as Liberal volunteers.

Similarly, at the 2010 South Australian state election, the ALP sent volunteers to polling stations in four key marginal seats wearing blue t-shirts that read “Put your family first” and handed out how-to-vote cards directing Family First supporters to preference Labor second, in contradiction of the party’s actual deal to preference the Liberals.

The incident caused a fair bit of controversy and resulted in new legislation banning the use of fake how-to-vote cards for South Australian state elections. Unfortunately, that legislation does not apply to federal campaigns.

The practice isn’t limited to duping minor party supporters either. In a particularly brazen example from the 2011 NSW election, the state’s electoral commission intervened after an ALP branch was found to have produced a stack of how-to-vote cards which called on Liberal voters to preference Labor MP Noreen Hay in the seat of Wollongong. It’s unclear whether any of the cards were ever handed out, but they were obviously intended to mislead Liberal voters and send a few extra votes to Labor.

To avoid being sucked in by similar tactics on polling day, the best thing to do is to decide your own order of preferences. If you do want to follow a particular party’s [advice](](, make sure you look carefully at the how-to-vote cards you’re given.

All campaign materials must be authorised by a registered officer of the party which produced them, so take the time to find out who the different party secretaries are in your state by visiting the AEC’s official register of political parties. And above all, apply some commonsense: left-of-centre parties like the Greens rarely preference the Liberals, and right-of-centre parties like Family First don’t usually have much time for Labor.

A true independent?

Another tactic which the major parties have been accused of is identifying and financing independent candidates to stand in key seats. These fake independents are run for the sole purpose of splitting the vote which might otherwise have flown to the candidate from an opposing party.

These independent candidates direct their second preferences to the party which sponsored them, and when they are eliminated from the count, those preferences then flow to the major party to boost their overall vote share.

While it has rarely been proven beyond doubt that either of the major parties have supported fake independents, Mark Latham has alleged that the “hard left” of the NSW ALP “specialised in running fake independent candidates who siphoned off preferences to Labor” in the past.

Part of the scandal surrounding the ex-NSW state independent MP Richard Torbay also relates to allegations that NSW Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid funded some of his past campaigns. It was also alleged that Torbay helped Obeid approach independent candidates to run in other seats.

In interviews with party campaigners for my thesis research, I’ve heard numerous allegations of fakery levelled against independent candidates in all Australian states, although it is almost impossible to tell whether there is truth to these claims or not. Suffice to say, it is not outside the realm of possibility that your friendly local independent is actually a party plant, so do a bit of research before you cast a vote for them.

A familiar (and confusing) sight for anyone heading to the polls this Saturday. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Genuine independent candidates are usually more than happy to talk with potential voters about the issues affecting their electorate and the things which drove them to run for office, so give them a call or stop them for a chat in the street.

Real independents often leave it up to voters to decide their own preference flows too, so if your local candidate is particularly vocal in advocating a number two vote for one of the major parties, alarm bells should possibly start ringing.

Dear neighbour…

Perhaps the most timeless dirty trick of all is the use of “dear neighbour” letters which purport to be from a concerned local resident but are actually produced and dropped into letterboxes by political parties. These letters are usually handwritten and then photocopied — to maximise the homespun feel — and contain scurrilous accusations of illegality, impropriety or immorality against a local candidate (the practice is more popularly known among campaigners as “shit sheeting”).

In a number of recent state campaigns, the major parties also produced these “dear neighbour” letters in support of their own candidates, distributing glowing character references which were designed to look like unprompted outpourings of support from local people.

These letters are often dropped into letterboxes in the final days or even hours of an election campaign in the hope that their contents will influence wavering and undecided voters.

If the format and content alone isn’t enough to give them away as party propaganda, look out for tiny or transparent print in the margins or on the reverse of the page — such letters fall within the definition of campaign materials, so unless they want to risk a hefty fine, parties still have to include an authorising statement on them somewhere.

In an ideal world, political parties wouldn’t resort to sly tactics like these to win votes. But since we don’t live in such a world, it’s important for voters to be informed and aware of the tricks they might encounter during the countdown to polling day — so spread the word!

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