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Australian attempt to avoid boat-naming debacle results in 'Ferry McFerryface' scandal

Last year, the Australian government announced the results of a competition to pick the names of six new ferries that would enter into use in Sydney. Five of the names picked were of prominent Australians, including doctors and indigenous leaders, but when it came to naming the final ferry, things went another direction - and the boat ended up with the name "Ferry McFerryface."

Justifying the decision, New South Wales Minister for Transport and Infrastructure Andrew Constance admitted that it was an odd choice but said it was what the people had wanted.

"It is not everyone's cup of tea, but the people voted for it so we listened," Constance tweeted in November.

However, new information reported by Australian media outlet 9NEWS this week suggests Ferry McFerryface did not come close to winning the public vote. And despite the fact that it cost 100,000 Australian dollars ($81,000) to hold a competition that was in part designed to weed out ridiculous names, the local government ignored the results and chose Ferry McFerryface.

Worse still, the scandal may not stop there. After the local government announced the name of the ferry would be changed to that of a children's author, May Gibbs, on Tuesday, another report quickly suggested that name was also ineligible under the rules of the competition.

Sydney locals had first been called on to help select the ferry names in 2016. Voters were asked first for nominations in three categories (arts and culture, connections to Sydney Harbor or science, environment and innovation), which would then be sent to an honorary panel that would recommend names. The general public would then be asked to cast their votes on the nine names suggested by the panel, using the Name Your Ferry website and the social media hashtag #yourferry.

Yet when the time came to announce the last name in November, Constance said Sydney residents had not picked the panel's suggestions and instead voted for another name: Boaty McBoatface. That name had won a similar 2016 vote held in Britain for a polar research vessel just two months before the Australian vote had opened.

The British government later overturned that decision and instead named the vessel after naturalist Sir David Attenborough. However, Boaty McBoatface sparked a global trend in names around the world, with names like Trainy McTrainface becoming a regular occurrence in naming contests. The British government eventually saw the funny side and gave the name Boaty McBoatface to a subsea research vessel on the Sir David Attenborough.

Constance said that as that name was already taken by the British vessel, his government had no choice but to go with the second most popular name. "Ferry McFerryface will be the harbor's newest icon, and I hope it brings a smile to the faces of visitors and locals alike," Constance said in a statement.

But not everyone was amused. A representative of the union whose members were due to staff the ferries said that workers were frustrated by the decision. "The Transport Minister is demonstrating here that he treats public transport as a joke," Australian Maritime Union's Paul Garrett told 2GB Radio.

The name became a political issue, with an opposition leader pledging to "dump this silly name" if his party came to power in the next election in New South Wales, due be held in early 2019.

On Tuesday, 9NEWS reported that documents it had acquired through a freedom of information request revealed not only that Ferry McFerryface had been ineligible for the competition, but also that the name had attracted just 182 votes in the final round of voting. Instead, the clear winner was Ian Kiernan, the founder of environmental organization Clean Up Australia, with 2,025 votes.

After the 9NEWS report appeared this week, Constance told reporters that the name was "only a bit of fun with the kids" and that his government would now be renaming the boat after Gibbs, a beloved author of books for children. 9NEWS subsequently reported that Gibbs was also ineligible as she was not in the winning category of science, environment and innovation.

Constance has justified his decision to use the Ferry McFerryface name by arguing that the name had received a larger number of nominations in the first round of the multistage naming competition. However, the complicated naming process had been chosen specifically to avoid a repeat of the Boaty McBoatface controversy in Britain: When the contest was first announced in 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that a name like Ferry McFerryface was "unlikely to make it past the government's handpicking four person panel."

"They've been very stupid," Kiernan told reporters Wednesday. "I won on the votes. But it's been a political hijack."

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian defended Constance the same day, telling a news conference that "from time to time we can look back and think we could have handled things differently or better, that goes without saying." However, ABC News reports that despite facing about a dozen questions from reporters on the issue, Berejiklian avoided two words in all her responses: Ferry McFerryface.

Author Information: Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.