The Liberal Party dodged a bullet just before Christmas when the Federal Court rejected a bid to overturn the elections in the seats of Kooyong and Chisholm, but the case has raised several questions. Three judges sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns were hearing a complaint about Chinese-language signs at polling booths telling people it was “correct” to vote for the Liberals. They found that the signs were designed to give the deceptive appearance that they were official Australian Electoral Commission signs.
To the relief of the Coalition, the court let the election results stand, in part because there were not enough Chinese speakers in the seats to change the final result. It also cleared the winning candidates – Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and newly-minted MP Gladys Liu – from any role in creating the signs, or any knowledge of what the signs conveyed. While the court’s findings do not change the election results, it is deeply concerning that the judges found that the signs were “intended to look like an AEC sign when placed adjacent to it”.
Victorian Liberal Party director Simon Frost, who authorised an earlier translation of the signs and is now a senior adviser to Mr Frydenberg, has been given until February to make a submission on why the Federal Court should not inform the High Court of its finding that he breached the federal election laws on misleading and deceptive publications, which the High Court is then obligated to report to the Finance Minister.
His submission should be made public, as Mr Frost held a senior office and was entrusted by the party’s candidates with upholding the standards of the campaign. Until then it is hard to pass judgment. The court found that Mr Frost did not have knowledge of the final translation of the signs. The court did not have to examine whether his conduct satisfies the “fault element”, so he might not be liable for the breach. But the Liberal Party should make clear that it will no longer countenance the use of election material that could be mistaken for official AEC material.