18 May 2022

Free speech concerns over political sign 'ban' in Goulburn Mulwaree

| Claire Fenwicke
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Campaign group Vote Angus Out in front of the Big Merino

Campaign group Vote Angus Out has accused the Goulburn Mulwaree Council of effectively banning residents from displaying its signs. Photo: Vote Angus Out Now Facebook.

Goulburn Mulwaree Council has been accused of selectively banning political signs in the lead up to this Saturday’s federal election.

Vote Angus Out co-founder Alex Murphy said the council cited legislation in the State Environment Planning Policy 2008 – specifically, section 2.107 – to justify its decision to order the campaign to take down its signs.

But he felt the law had been misinterpreted.

“I am incredibly frustrated and disappointed that council appears to have either given insufficient consideration to all relevant law on this matter or bent to pressure from the local federal member [Angus Taylor] on this issue,” Mr Murphy said.

“It has become worryingly clear that council has not given consideration to the impact that this has on residents’ implied right of political communication, nor has consideration been afforded to the High Court of Australia’s determination that parties and candidates should not hold a privileged position over third-party campaigners.

“It is abundantly clear that council’s position would be unlikely to stand up to further scrutiny in court.”

READ ALSO ‘Cowardly and senseless’ signs under investigation by AEC

Mr Murphy called on council to “immediately rescind” its decision to “ban its residents” from erecting Vote Angus Out signs in their yards. He has pointed out that signs from other protest and campaign groups have been left throughout the campaign.

“Could council please explain why there are visible third-party campaigners’ signs clearly visible only a couple of hundred metres from council chambers and outside a polling centre?” Mr Murphy asked in a letter to the council.

“Why is council’s ruling on third-party campaigners not being applied equally?”

Third party signage at a Goulburn polling centre

An example of third party signage (centre, NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association) at a Goulburn polling centre. Photo: Supplied, Vote Angus Out.

Goulburn Mulwaree Council said about 350 signs had been “impounded” since the beginning of the election campaign, with no penalties issued for unauthorised signage thus far.

“The simple answer is that council has not ‘banned’ the display of these signs, but are simply enforcing a development standard that requires a sign to have development consent if it is not being displayed by a candidate or a party of a candidate,” council said in a statement.

SEPP 2008 2.107 (c) on development standards stated posters containing electoral matter must “be displayed by or on behalf of a candidate at an election referred to in clause 2.106 or the party (if any) of any such candidate”.

READ ALSO Has the Eden-Monaro bellwether seat lost its ear tags this election?

Clause 2.106 defined ‘electoral matter’ broadly, including any matter capable of affecting the result of an election or influencing an elector in relation to casting their vote at an election.

Council said it contacted the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) regarding the Vote Angus Out signs following complaints.

“AEC confirmed as they [Vote Angus Out] are not fielding a candidate in the election that this signage must be removed,” a council spokesperson said.

“Council has received dozens of complaints regarding excessive electoral signage since the beginning of the Federal Election campaign and believe that, in certain instances, this can be distracting for road users.”

Vote Angus Out signage

An example of Vote Angus Out signage. Photo: Vote Angus Out Now Facebook.

However, the AEC said there were no restrictions in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 on who can communicate in an election, and therefore, the AEC “would not provide such advice”.

“We don’t comment on the implementation of other laws, laws we do not administer. This is a council decision that has been made, not an AEC one,” an AEC spokesperson said.

“There is signage from a range of third parties (entities not fielding candidates) being used across the country in this election. There has also been signage from such entities used across the country in previous elections.

“If contacted on whether or not a group was registered or running candidates, we would simply provide that information and nothing further.”

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A spokesperson for Mr Taylor alleged the Vote Angus Out group had erected unlawful signage material and accused members of conducting “illegal sign activity” throughout the Hume electorate.

“The Vote Angus Out group has urged vandalism or damage of Mr Taylor’s lawful signs. Witnesses throughout Hume have seen and reported defacing of Mr Taylor’s signs. This has been reported to police,” the spokesperson said.

“The Vote Angus Out group is closely linked to the independent campaign in Hume. The independent candidate should condemn the illegal actions of her supporters and assure the community that this vandalism will stop.

“Their attempts to silence alternative views and voices have no place in our community.”

Angus Taylor signage

Mr Taylor’s office accused the Vote Angus Out group of vandalising signs. Photo: Supplied.

Mr Taylor’s office provided a copy of an email from Ms Ackery’s campaign manager Matt Murfitt, who’s also a co-founder of Vote Angus Out. Given the link between the two, Mr Taylor’s spokesperson called the group’s concerns a “whinge” which were “highly hypocritical”.

When asked about this, Mr Murfitt said “it’s never been a secret” the two groups have links.

Region Media has contacted Ms Ackery for comment.

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