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Liberal Democrats seek to challenge new laws on Australian political party names in high court

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The Liberal Democrats are seeking to launch a high court challenge against new laws which could force the party to change its name less than 12 months out from the next federal election.

Lawyers for the libertarian party have filed a case against the commonwealth in the high court over changes to Australia’s electoral laws which would force parties to seek permission to use any words in their name that are already used by existing parties.

Part of a suite of changes introduced in a party registration integrity bill – including a requirement for all parties to have at least 1,500 members – the Liberal Democrats see the rules as a direct attack by the Liberal party.

Related: Labor to back electoral reforms that could deregister dozens of minor parties

Passed in August with the support of Labor, the new laws bypass the Australian Electoral Commission and instead require the Liberal Democrats – and any other party using a word already taken by a political rival – to seek the other party’s permission.

“Basically they could receive a cease and desist notice from the Liberal party at any moment, as could any party in that position,” Malcolm Stewart, the managing director of Sydney legal firm Speed and Stracey told Guardian Australia.

Filings seen by Guardian Australia say the case – if it were heard by the court – would be fought on the grounds of freedom of political communication, as well as, Stewart said, “to what extent it is appropriate for the Liberal or Labor parties to have a monopoly on those words”.

“If that were to occur we would be the only country in the world as far as I am aware to do that,” he said.

The Liberal Democrats are seeking to eat into the Liberal party’s right-wing base by staunchly opposing Covid lockdown measures.

The party has increasingly sought to win over voters disaffected by the measures – but has also increasingly tied itself to the controversial anti-lockdown protest movement.

In July John Ruddick, a former prominent member of the Liberal party in NSW who has since joined the Liberal Democrats attended an anti-lockdown rally in Sydney and tweeted that he was fined $1,000 as a result.

It has also won the support of a number of disaffected Liberal party members. Earlier this year the former Queensland premier Campbell Newman announced he would be the party’s lead Queensland Senate candidate.

In a statement Newman called the electoral law “entirely political in nature”, saying the party hoped the high court would “review the constitutionality of this law”.

“We’d prefer to fight the election on the issues that matter to the public – not play childish political games when the nation is in the midst of a pandemic,” he said.

Related: Tim Costello lauds ruling allowing charities to lobby for political change

The laws were part of a suite of changes introduced by the assistant minister for electoral matters, Ben Morton, and designed to crack down on multiple voting and violence at polls, and raise the bar for party registration.

The naming provisions in the bill were opposed by a number of minor parties and crossbenchers, but were waived through by the Labor opposition when the bill was introduced.

The Liberal party has previously attempted to force both the Liberal Democrats and another new party, the New Liberals, to change their names citing voter confusion.

In April the party warned of “widespread voter confusion” that would probably distort election results if the New Liberals was allowed to register and run candidates with that name.

It cited the Liberal Democrats’ previous success in Senate elections, including the 2013 election which saw David Leyonhjelm record a 7.19% swing towards him and polled 9.3% as a result of being 20 positions to the left of the Liberals on ballot papers.

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