The Nationals are counterfeiting the online identities of their political foes in a critical by-election in NSW by registering other peoples’ domain names, once again employing “bad faith” tactics that a regulator criticised them for using in 2019. Callum Foote reports.
The Upper Hunter byelection was called after Nationals MP Michael Johnsen resigned following revelations that he sent a woman a string of lewd text messages and an obscene video while Parliament was sitting. The woman has alleged he raped her in 2019. Johnsen denies the allegation.
The Nationals have held the seat for 90 years. Johnsen won the seat in the 2015 state election, surviving a 15.6% first preference vote swing against the Nationals. In the 2019 state election, Johnsen recorded another 4.88% swing against him.
Now a tightly contested seat, on a margin of 2.6%, and with the threat of minority government looming, it appears the Nationals have resorted to bad-faith political tactics.
The Nationals have registered website domain names in the names of a number of their key political opponents in the Upper Hunter by-election. Jeff Drayton is Labor’s candidate; Sue Gilroy is the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers’ candidate.
The Nationals have registered the domain names http://jeffdrayton.com.au/, http://jeffdrayton.com/, http://www.suegilroy.com/ and http://www.suegilroy.com.au/ ahead of the by-election. The websites are authorised by Joe Lundy, the NSW state director of the NSW Nationals.
The home page of the Sue Gilroy website the Nationals created uses classic political scare tactics. It states: “Vote Shooter Risk Labor” and includes a quote from the Shooters Party leader Robert Borsak: “We’re in discussions about preferencing Labor.”
Sue Gilroy says that the use of these types of tactics are a common theme with the Nationals.
“It shows a sign of things to come. They will spend the campaign talking more about us than themselves. Perhaps, because they have nothing left to say. If they think they are fooling anyone with this sort of campaigning – it shows they think Upper Hunter is full mugs.”
The website created for Labor’s Jeff Drayton states: “Vote Labor Get Greens”.
The Nationals also registered the website domain name of Independent Mildura MP Ali Cupper (www.alicupper.com). In tiny 8.5pt font at the top of the home page is the following sentence: “This website is not affiliated in any way with Ali Cupper MP.”
The home page is headlined: “Who really is Ali Cupper?”
Same modus operandi
It seems extraordinary that the Nationals are indulging in this behaviour again given they were criticised by the regulator for using similar tactics in 2019 against Shooters Farmers and Fishers Party MPs Helen Dalton and Roy Butler. These domain names were registered by Aaron Stitz for the federal National Party of Australia.
Dalton and Butler were elected to the NSW lower house in 2019. Dalton says she only discovered the Nationals had registered a website in her name after her election.
“They stopped me from owning the obvious website name that I could use to inform my constituents of what was happening in Murray… It took weeks of fighting to get my own name back.”
The regulator .au Domain Administration (auDa) forced the Nationals to relinquish control over the two websites. It found that the domains controlled by the Nationals were in breach of the Domain Name Eligibility and Allocation Policy Rules in that they were registered in bad faith.
The regulator describes “bad faith” as registering:
“a domain name in order to prevent the owner of a name, trademark or service mark from reflecting that name or mark in a corresponding domain name; or… registering the domain name primarily for the purpose of disrupting the business or activities of another person”.
Domain squatting is often used in politics to silence opponents by limiting their ability to connect with their constituents via social media using the most obvious names. Sometimes it is also used to smear the opposition.
The Nationals still control www.alicupper.com. Because the regulator only has authority over .au domain names and not .com domains, Cupper has no recourse against the Nationals domain squatting. As a result, any .com domain names the Nationals have registered will remain in their hands for as long as they want to persist with the tactic.
Dalton described the Nationals’ tactics as disgraceful.
“When Michael Johnsen resigned in disgrace following the rape allegations, they said they’d turned a new leaf, but it appears nothing has changed.”
Michael West Media put a number of questions to federal Nationals leader Michael McCormack, NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro and NSW state director Joe Lundy but they have all refused to provide a response.
The Nationals hold the seat of Upper Hunter by the thinnest of margins. In the 2019 election, Lee Watts was the first Shooters candidate to ever run for the seat. She secured 22.5% of the first preference votes despite entering the race late. The Nationals experienced a 5% swing against them.
Throughout NSW, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party has caused significant electoral pain to the NSW Coalition government.
In the last election, the Coalition suffered a 4.05% swing against it in the Lower House, with the Shooters picking up a 3.46 per cent state-wide swing, in the process winning two traditionally safe Nationals seats: Barwon, which the Nationals had held for 70 years, and Murray, which the Nationals had held for 40 years. In both seats, the Shooters experienced a swing to them of more than 30%.
It appears the Coalition is trying shore up support in regional seats against the rising popularity of the Shooters part. Michael West Media revealed the pork barrelling of the $177 million first round of the bushfire recovery grants, with NSW State Labor picking up just 1% of the money handed out. The economically devastated safe Labor electorate of Blue Mountains did not receive a cent, while the neighbouring Liberal electorate of Hawkesbury, which suffered half the economic pain, picked up $4 million in grants.
Furthermore, just under $37 million, or 20% of the total available funding round, was awarded to one electorate – the seat of Clarence held by the Nationals. At the 2019 state election, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party’s Steve Cansdell recorded a huge +16.8% swing while the Nationals Chris Gulaptis suffered a -3.9% swing against him.