The community movement trying to unseat Hume MP Angus Taylor has been ordered to remove election signage by local government in a move legal experts say goes against the rights of third-party campaigners.
Goulburn Mulwaree Council instructed the Vote Angus Out group to remove their signage after the office of the Liberal incumbent made a complaint.
A council spokesperson told Guardian Australia they were enforcing the requirements of the State Environmental Planning Policy.
The policy provides standards that election signage has to meet in order to be displayed without needing development consent, including that signs are “displayed by or on behalf of a candidate at an election”.
The council consulted the Australian Electoral Commission whose advice was that Vote Angus Out is registered as a “third party”, not having a candidate or being formally affiliated with a candidate in the federal seat of Hume.
Alex Murphy, the co-founder of Vote Angus Out, told Guardian Australia he disagrees with the council’s interpretation of the state planning laws and believes the requirement to remove the signs is in breach of Australians’ implied freedom of political communication.
“You’re telling people you’re not allowed to put a sign that expresses their political beliefs on their own private property, their own front lawn,” Murphy said.
Professor Anne Twomey, the director of the Constitutional Reform Unit at the University of Sydney, dicho Australia’s highest court has previously accepted that third-party campaigners are entitled to participate in political discourse in relation to elections.
“While limits can be placed on their involvement (for example a cap on the electoral expenditure of third-party campaigners and a requirement that they identify who is responsible for their advertising), laws must still allow third-party campaigners to run a reasonable campaign and get their message across.”
Twomey said the court had rejected the proposition that parties and candidates hold a constitutionally privileged position over third-party campaigners in electoral campaigns.
“Accordingly, if a state planning law only allows the display of posters containing electoral matter if they are displayed by or on behalf of a candidate or party in the election, and prohibits the display of posters by third-party campaigners, this would appear to be illegitimately privileging political parties and candidates in their political communication," ella dijo.
Professor Dan Meagher, the chair in constitutional law at Deakin Law School, highlighted the recent decision by the Victorian supreme court regarding independent Zoe Daniel’s signage, which indicated that state planning laws in Victoria most likely burdened the implied freedom of political communication.
Of the case in Hume he said: “The law clearly limits political communication because it prevents someone from making a political statement”.
According to Twomey and Meagher, the council decision could still be valid if a court decided there was a legitimate purpose for the relevant law drawing the distinction between candidates and third-party campaigners, and the law was proportionate to achieving that purpose.
The council spokesperson said that they had in past elections taken a “relaxed approach” towards signage but the community outcry over the saturation of the area with election signage this year meant council was “forced into this position”.
The spokesperson said a leading factor in the decision was the “stream of constant complaints from all candidates, their parties and volunteers in relation to their opposition’s signage”.
A spokesperson for Taylor said, “There has been a lot of illegal sign activity in the Hume electorate from those campaigning against Mr Taylor and his re-election as the member for Hume.”
According to Murphy, Taylor’s office previously had 200 signs impounded by Goulburn council, which he believes is “a whole other level of hypocrisy” considering Taylor’s office got Vote Angus Out signage banned.
Murphy said he was further frustrated by the complaint from Taylor’s office given the minister’s first speech to parliament in which he said he would “always” defend free speech as the foundation of democracy.
When he was elected in 2013, Taylor told the house “in our times, the world over, the foundation of democracy – free speech – and the foundation of capitalism – property rights – are being chipped away by shrill elitist voices who insist that they know what is best for people who are not remotely like them”.
“I can tell you, I will always defend property rights and free speech.”
The spokesperson for Taylor said: “Unauthorised and unlawful signs connected to and supporting the campaign of an independent candidate have been going up since January. The Vote Angus Out group has urged vandalism or damage of Mr Taylor’s lawful signs.”
Guardian Australia understands Taylor’s office had specific concerns with a Facebook post by Vote Angus Out, promoting stickers being posted on election signs.
“I don’t condone vandalism of anyone’s signs,” Murphy said. “That post was poorly worded, which is why it was edited and the insinuation removed.”
“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,” the spokesperson for Taylor said.
“Their attempts to silence alternative views and voices have no place in our community.”
Penny Ackery, the independent candidate for Hume, said that she had no knowledge of any push by Vote Angus Out or any other group to deface signs.
She said she wouldn’t condone vandalism of property and would call for everyone to have a respectful discussion of who the candidates are.
“If Angus’s campaign wants to imply that my supporters are somehow involved, it shows that Angus is getting worried,” Ackery said.