Chinese signs in Australian election

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As most people are aware, Australia had its general election last week.  Chinese politicians and signs promoting them were very much in evidence.  Here's an example of one that caused a lot of controversy:

The Chinese sign says:

zhèngquè de tóupiào fāngshì 正確的投票方式
correct voting method

zài lǜsè de xuǎnpiào shàng 在綠色的選票上
on the green ballot

Zìyóu dǎng | Liberal 自由黨 | Liberal
Liberal Party | Liberal

hòuxuǎn rén pángbiān tiánxiě 1 候選人旁邊填寫1
next to the candidate fill in 1

bìng zài qítā fānggé nèi cóng xiǎo 並在其他方格內從小
and in the other squares, from smaller

dào dà yīcì tiánxiě shùzì 到大依次填寫數字
to larger fill in the numbers in order

Before proceeding further, I wish to declare that I do not follow Australian politics closely, so I don't know which party has the bad guys and which party has the good guys.  I merely wish to describe what I see on the sign and give my impression of whether deception was involved, which is what some of my Australian colleagues who do not read Chinese (or don't read it well) asked me about.  What they were curious about is the extent to which a Mandarin-speaking Australian would regard that sign as some form of "official" instruction.

Australian correspondents who are literate in Chinese state that the language of the sign indicates that there is only one correct way to vote, e.g., "The heading should have been along the lines of 'How to cast a correct ballot for the Liberal Party' rather than the equivalent of 'How to cast a correct ballot'."


"It was very wrong of the Liberal Party to engage in this basically fraudulent act."


"The sign is certainly not AEC-sponsored but created to appear to be. Clearly intended to deceive."


"If this had been a how to vote card handed out by Liberal Party supporters, it would not have raised any eyebrows.  The problem is the adoption of AEC colours and style to make it look like an official instruction.  However, the electoral act has allowed this poster simply because it does say in miniscule print (which I cannot see myself) the it was authorized by a Liberal Party spokesman.  One could conclude that the AEC needs revising to take into account the latest lot of 'rorts" of our system, including this one.

"I also note that the offending Chinese sign appears to be placed over a blue poster.  Liberal Party signage is blue.  There appears to be another blue poster next to it, which I assume is a genuine 'vote Liberal' type of poster.

"Would Chinese voters be fooled by this one and blindly follow this instruction to put the Liberal Party first?  Not necessarily.  The other candidate was also a Chinese-Australian.  I think overwhelmingly they would understand they do indeed have a choice of which Chinese-Australian to vote for in this electorate (called Chisholm in middle-class Melbourne.

"The Labor Party (the main opposition party) is now taking this to the High Court.  They may not win, but one can hope that the terms of the AEC are revised to take this and other fraudulent acts into account.  However, I will not hold my breath."


"The colors of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) are always purple and white."  See here.

Newspaper articles covering the controversy:

"'Massive rort': Liberals accused of misleading Chinese voters by imitating AEC signage", by Michael Koziol, The Sydney Morning Herald

Labor has lodged a complaint with the Australian Electoral Commission over Liberal signage targeting Chinese voters that appears to imitate official AEC communications.

The signage appeared in the key marginal seat of Chisholm – previously held by Julia Banks – which has a high Chinese population.


"Labor lodges complaint over Liberal Chinese-language signs they say 'deceived voters'", Lisa Cox, The Guardian (5/18/19)

Labor describes posters using Australian Electoral Commission colours as a ‘massive rort’


"Australian Electoral Commission finds 87 cases of election ads breaching law", Christopher Knaus and Paul Karp, The Guardian (5/21/19)

AEC received almost 500 complaints about election advertising, including protests over online campaigns, during 2019 federal election

…Prof Graeme Orr, a political law expert at the University of Queensland, said election campaigns now risked being “awash with material that is not authorised or misleads electors in how to cast vote”.

Orr believes it is critical that action be taken on the Chisholm case, where a third party imitated AEC signage to convince voters to vote Liberal.

“The AEC must protect its own integrity against material, like that in Chisholm, that imitates its style and colours,” he said. “The AEC and rival parties could have sought court injunctions to restrain any unlawful material: the AEC retains power to investigate further and refer any breaches to police.”

Twitter background on the person who organized the complaints against the Liberal Party signs.

A couple of Australian expressions I encountered in the newspaper articles and in correspondence with colleagues on the subject of this post:

1. a "massive rort"

2. "the government was narrowly returned, after trailing in the polls for several years"

After asking around, I found that:

#1 means "a scam; a cheating action; a large-scale con-job; some form of chicanery; a huge fraud, terrible dishonesty; a fraudulent act, often involving misuse of public resources"

#2 "returned" means "returned by the electorate", i.e., "won the election" and "the government" refers to the government in power, i.e., the Liberal coalition government, although I'm still not confident that I fully understand how this works.

"The government only just retained its hold on power through the election."

"The Liberal National Party Coalition (the conservatives) federal government that has been mismanaging Australia’s political affairs for the past decade, which had widely been expected to be thrown out of office at this election, first seemed to just get back in to power, but now turns out to have a 10 seat majority in the House of Representatives (our 'Congress')."

What chutzpah the Liberal Party had to place that pseudo-official sign right next to the AEC's own sign!

[Thanks to Jim Breen, Geoff Wade, Geremie Barmé, David Holm, Anne McLaren, and Catherine Churchman]


  1. B.Ma said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 2:40 am

    For some context, in Australian elections you number the candidates in order of preference. Basically, candidates with fewest votes are eliminated in turn, and votes for them are then transferred to each voter's next preferred candidate. Some people may not know how to rank everyone and just want to vote for one party. So each party issues instructions with their preferred ranking, the idea being that even if they are not elected, they can influence the result if their voters follow the instructions. (This usually doesn't have much effect in single-member divisions unless the top two candidates are very close.) Obviously there's no obligation to follow the instructions.

    I don't follow Australian politics closely either, and am no longer registered to vote there. I would say the Australian Liberals can be compared to US Republicans. Despite their name they are the main "conservative" party, although some people say even US Democrats are more to the right than the Libs, just as they say the US Dems are more to the right than the UK Tories.

    Regarding "good guys" and "bad guys", for me the good guy would be whichever candidate is less supportive of the PRC. I don't know the stance of the two candidates in this election, but it would not surprise me if both of them were pro-Beijing.

    When I voted in the Australian consulate in Hong Kong the previous election, Hong Kong-Australians were present giving out Chinese leaflets on how to preference Labor, but not for the Liberals. So both sides are at it. Although at least those leaflets were prominently red (the colour of Labor) and did not try to imitate official/neutral communication.

  2. mollymooly said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 4:17 am

    In Ireland it is illegal to place election posters within 50 metres of a polling station.

    My definitions (Ireland's Westminster system is fairly similar to Australia's):
    * "election returns" are results, vote totals.
    * To "return to power" implies you (a candidate, party, or government) were in power before (though not necessarily immediately before); to "be returned to power" carries no such implication.

  3. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 5:09 am

    Here it only has to be outside the polling station premises – generally outside the gate if it's something like a church or school in its own grounds, but outside the door if it's a hall opening onto the street. (I think there's also a rule about not attaching things to the premises, including the railings, but since a board leaning against the railings in the same place would be fine, I can't see that it makes a lot of difference.)

    Copying the colours and style of official signage seems like a whole other matter, though – and if it has been done only on Chinese language posters that does seem a bit suspicious (assuming fewer officials can read Chinese than English, and so are less likely to catch it).

  4. R. Fenwick said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 5:16 am

    When I voted in the Australian consulate in Hong Kong the previous election, Hong Kong-Australians were present giving out Chinese leaflets on how to preference Labor, but not for the Liberals. So both sides are at it.

    How-to-vote cards are legal and widespread at Australian elections, though; all the major parties and some minor ones usually have volunteers standing outside polling booths, handing them out with gay abandon. The concern here is not that it's Chinese material suggesting how one can cast one's vote for the Liberals. It's that it's a full-sized corflute printed in AEC colours that's doing so under the guise of official AEC instructions.

  5. David Morris said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 5:22 am

    The Australian Liberals are very much comparable to the US Republications. Draw your own conclusions about whether that makes them good or bad.

  6. R. Fenwick said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 5:27 am

    @Victor Mair:
    the Liberal coalition government, although I'm still not confident that I fully understand how this works.

    Basically, there are three parties with substantial representation in the Australian Parliament: Labor (nominally the urban blue-collar party), Liberal (nominally the white-collar party), and National (nominally the party of the rural sector). Primary industries have traditionally been a crucial part of the Australian economy, but the rural sector forms a relatively small proportion of the total Australian population, so normally neither the Liberals nor the Nationals win enough of the vote to govern in their own right. For this reason, because they both lean conservative (and more and more so as the Overton window shifts to the right), for many years now they've worked as a tight-knit coalition that's as often as not just referred to as "the Coalition" in Australian political parlance and functionally more or less equivalent to the US Republican Party, though not (yet?) quite as rabidly conservative as the current batch of Republicans seem to be.

    (Which, in my book, means the Coalition are the bad guys in this election, but then, I'm one of those kooks who thinks the government should have a role in providing a functioning social safety net for its citizens, and who believes that neoliberal trickle-down capitalism is a catastrophic failure.)

  7. Vireya said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 5:36 am

    I didn't realise "rort" was Australian English, so thanks for that. I'll keep that in mind when communicating with people elsewhere.

    As for "the government was returned": the "Government" is the party with the majority in the House of Representatives. The alternative party is the "Opposition". After this election, we have the same Government as we had before. If they had lost, the previous Opposition would now be the Government.

  8. Martin Sullivan said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 5:41 am

    The sense of “return” in #2 above is, I believe, common to many Englishes (it’s definitely common in UK English), and is presumably related to the traditional role of ‘returning officer’ (the chief public official in a given constituency who presides over elections and vote-counting).

    I always personally interpreted that sense as relating to the returning officer in some way sending (returning) the results to parliament (or the electoral body in question). It’s definitely not about a specific MP or government ‘going back’ into power, because we can (and often do) use the word ‘returned’ as a synonym for ‘elected’ even when the individual or party hasn’t won before, which is why you can get Google results for “first returned” (as in, “London first returned MPs to Parliament in 1283” and so forth) or “returned as the new MP”.

  9. Jim Breen said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 6:24 am

    The Chinese signs, which appeared in several electorates, especially in Chisholm where the two main candidates were originally from Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively, certainly pushed the boundaries of what has been considered acceptable and legal in Australian election advertising. I expect aspects of it will end up in court as the wording and implied branding through colour, etc. may well have broken the law covering such things.

    Another interesting aspect is that the mandatory authorization appearing on the advertisement seems also to have been in Chinese. The Act apparently does not mandate a language or script. If that's not addressed we may well have election advertisements with the advertiser's identification in all sorts of language/script combinations. (Swahili in Babylonic cuniform?)

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 6:27 am

    @R. Fenwick:

    "it's a full-sized corflute"

    I had no idea what that was. After looking up what it referred to, I realized that — although I've been seeing lots of it used for a wide variety of purposes in recent years (printing of signs, boxes, packaging, architectural models, etc., etc.) — I don't have a fixed term for it in my own vocabulary. I would just have referred to it by some such ad hoc term as "corrugated plastic sheets / boards".

    Here's the entry for "Corrugated plastic" from Wikipedia:

    Corrugated plastic or corriboard – also known under the tradenames of Cartonplast®, Polyflute, Coroplast, FlutePlast, IntePro, Proplex, Correx, Twinplast, Corriflute or Corflute – refers to a wide range of extruded twinwall plastic-sheet products produced from high-impact polypropylene resin with a similar make-up to corrugated fiberboard. It is a light-weight tough material which can easily be cut with a utility knife. Manufacturers typically offer a wide variety of colors and thicknesses (quite commonly 3, 4, 5 mm).

    Corrugated plastic made of polycarbonate is sometimes referred to as Twinwall plastic.

    Chemically, the sheet is inert, with a neutral pH factor. At regular temperatures most oils, solvents and water have no effect, allowing it to perform under adverse weather conditions or as a product component exposed to harsh chemicals. Standard sheets can be modified with additives, which are melt-blended into the sheet to meet specific needs of the end-user. Special products that require additives include: ultra-violet protection, anti-static, flame retardant, custom colors, corrosive inhibitors, static-dissipative, among others.

    This material is commonly used to erect commercial, political or other types of signs and for constructing plastic containers and reusable packaging. It is widely used in the signwriting industry for making signs for real estate sales, construction sites and promotions.

    The last decade has found its increasing use among guinea pig, rabbit, domesticated hedgehog and other small pet enthusiasts as components of DIY cages. Additionally, it is used by members of the remote-controlled aircraft community to build nearly indestructible SPAD model aircraft.
    Use of corrugated plastic in welded hollow plastic plate air-to-air heat exchangers. From U.S. Patent 4,820,468

    At least one manufacturer of air-to-air heat exchangers (used in heat recovery ventilation) uses a fused stack of sheets of this material alternating with spacers made of the same material as the heat-exchange medium. One air stream passes through the corrugated channels in the interior of the sheets, while the other passes between the exterior layers of the stacked sheets.

    Corrugated plastic is usually made from polypropylene which is capable of being recycled. Resin identification code 5 applies: the number 5 surrounded by a recycling symbol, with the letters "P P" below

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 6:31 am

    For those in the know, which Chisholm candidate was the Liberal Party candidate — the one from Taiwan or the one from Hong Kong?

    Also, I note that the characters are in their traditional forms, which would apply in both cases. Are the middle-class Chinese residents of Chisholm mainly from places that use traditional characters?

  12. Jim Breen said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 6:45 am

    @Victor. The candidates were Gladys Liu (ex Hong Kong) for the Liberal Party, and Joyce Yang (ex Taiwan) for the Labor Party. Liu won the seat narrowly. The ethnic Chinese voters (either born in Australia or naturalized) are almost all from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, so one would expect traditional hanzi to be used.
    Until recently one rarely saw simplified hanzi on signage in Australia. It is now becoming quite common, especially in tourist-oriented venues, and realtor adverting.

  13. Bathrobe said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 6:59 am

    “the government was narrowly returned”

    I would interpret this as meaning that the government was returned to power. Nothing to do with electoral returns.

    If Labor had won, I'm not sure if anyone would say that "Labor was narrowly returned".

  14. David Morris said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 7:22 am

    Oh, all right, I'll nail my colours to the mast and say that the Liberals and Nationals are very much the bad guys. But I live in one of the safest seats in the country (held by Labor), so it doesn't really matter what I say.

    BTW the Labor Party is officially 'Labor'. At the time it was founded, there was a movement towards '-or' spellings in Australian English, which has since been reversed. All major style guides specify or recommend '-our' spellings, but that might be undone by Microsoft Word. (Not if I can help it!)

  15. Ouen said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 8:12 am

    Interesting that a middle aged person of Hong Kong origin would use the pinyin Liu rather than Lau to write the surname 劉

  16. Ouen said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 8:16 am

    Ah. Her surname is actually 廖,Liao in pinyin and Liu in Cantonese romanisation, there’s nothing curious about that name for a Hong konger at all. I should’ve googled before posting my initial comment

  17. Guan Yang said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 8:23 am

    Martin Sullivan, we also have a “tax return”. A search warrant issued by a judge is supposed to be followed by a “return”. Writs of habeas corpus was also traditionally followed by a “return” by the officer it was issued to.

    British elections are precipitated by a “writ of election” issued by the Queen for each constituency, to the returning officer for that constituency. I couldn’t easily find the text of these writs, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they instruct to the returning officer to submit a return with the outcome of the election, just as other writs traditionally required a return.

  18. Adrian Bailey said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 9:45 am

    Returned is a synonym for elected.

  19. Chas Belov said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 12:09 pm

    In San Francisco, there can be no electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place, so a partisan sign such as this would be illegal.

  20. Jonathan D said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 6:42 pm

    There is some history to this in that at a recent by-election the other party (Labor) put up signs using the same Australian Electoral Commission-imitating style in several languages (including Chinese), but with content that simply described what to do to cast a valid vote for anyone, rather than referring to a particular party. So in this case Liberal supporters are saying that it's already established that using AEC colours is not a problem.

    I'll leave it to the fluent readers to judge just how likely the wording here is to be understood as the only way to vote, rather than an obvious partisan instruction, but it seems to me possible that it's the combination of the message and the style that pushes the line here, rather than either on its own.

    Jim Breen, I would think that the law should require the authorisation to be in the language of the sign (at least).

    Chas, it's true that the restriction on signage in Australian federal election is a lot less than 100 feet. But then again, in San Francisco the 100 feet is measured from "entrance of the room in which voting takes place", so something like the picture above may well be allowed.

  21. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 9:03 pm

    In the U.S., each state sets its own guidelines for signage restrictions. In Pennsylvania, signs and folks distributing materials Only have to stay ten feet away from the polling place.

  22. R. Fenwick said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 1:21 am

    @Victor Mair:

    I had no idea what that was.

    Fair enough, too, and my apologies for the continued use of untranslated Strine. :)

    As you note, "Corflute" is a trademark for a type of double-sided corrugated plastic, but the term "corflute" has taken off in recent years in Australia as a genericised term for an electioneering sign printed on this material. Oxford University Press Australia had it as their Word of the Month for March 2017, with the earliest citation for the generic sense appearing around 2000:

    "The thieves, trying to find something of value, had pulled out the back seat to see what was in the boot. … All it contained was two corflutes the car's owner had souvenired from Premier Peter Beattie and Member for Woodridge Mike Kaiser's campaigns." (Brisbane Courier-Mail, 17 July 2000)

    Some later genericised examples:

    "If one has to prove that they have only spent $50,000 on electoral expenditure, the next obvious question is: what is electoral expenditure for campaign purposes? I recall specifically asking the Attorney-General Paul Lucas at the time whether the A-frame that the corflute is attached to is considered expenditure or whether it is just the corflute." (MP Jarrod Bleijie, Electoral Reform Amendment Bill Introduction, 21 November 2013)

    "Joe Jurisevic is a sitting councillor seeking re-election who has said he does not have any advertising corflutes spruiking his merits for another term." (Harriet Tatham, Electoral signage: Political tool or neighbourhood pollution?, 10 March 2016)

    "Jamie Christie has packed up his corflutes, but now he's unsure whether he will pack up his political career." (Jasper Lindell, Election results 2019: Jamie Christie most successful independent in Canberra in recent memory, 22 May 2019)

  23. Thomas Rees said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 12:03 am

    @R. Fenwick:

    Now you have to tell them what “spruiking” means! I live in Southern California, but I follow Australian politics, partly because of the colourful vocabulary. One of my favourites is “[Dorothy] Dixer”, meaning a planted question in Question Time. Dorothy Dix was twentieth-century American advice columnist who wrote her own questions.

  24. R. Fenwick said,

    May 27, 2019 @ 3:22 am

    @Thomas Rees:

    Good grief, I just can't stop with the Strinisms! :P I honestly was not aware that spruik wasn't part of the standard Englishes. But yes, we do get a bit colourful with our vocabulary in many areas, including politics. Other terms that are either specific to or originated in political discourse include furphy, spill, and feeding the chooks, as well as the recent but very popular democracy sausage.

    For those interested, spruik is an Australian/New Zealand verb that basically means "to sing the praises of, to promote, to advertise, to hawk"; rarely it also means "to speak in public" in a more general sense. Spruiker is the derived noun, and is basically the equivalent of hawker, barker in other English varieties.

    The major dictionaries are somewhat coy about the etymology. OED leans towards German Spruch (pl. Sprüche) "saying, statement, quote, slogan", which I think is pretty reasonable in view both of the sense ("slogan" → "sloganeer") and also the very earliest spellings: OED cites sprucher (1893), spruking (1894), sprooker (1899), and sprook (1901). (A great deal of Australia's immigration during the latter half of the 19th century was from Germany, mostly people fleeing the failed Märzrevolution of 1848 and military conscription after the 1871 formation of the German Empire.) However, for the modern form of the word I believe Wiktionary has the answer: it's probably by false etymology under influence of Afrikaans, as a result of Australian soldiers returning from the Boer War (1899-1902). The first citation from OED for the spelling "spruik" is from a 1902 issue of the Sydney newspaper Truth (14 September) (CW: racist caricatures and slurs), referring to a boxing barker, and serendipitously gives all the inflected and derived terms:

    "Lockie the Spruiker" that "spruiked" for years
    at the Gaiety door,
    Has gone out of the 'spruiking' business,
    and never will 'spruik' any more

    Moreover, OED only gives a single subsequent example of any other spelling, a 1908 example of sprook; otherwise spruik essentially became the single accepted spelling basically right after the Boer War. (Of course, Afrikaans probably didn't supply the word directly, and the –ui– digraph of Afrikaans renders [œy], not the [ʉː] of Australian English.)

  25. Jim Breen said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 9:18 pm

    For those following the issue of Chinese signage, etc. in the recent Australian elections:
    The article is mainly about the use of WeChat, which has been quite an issue in terms of complying with electoral laws, but the Chinese signage is part of it.

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