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Future of the National Tally Room again in doubt

While its seven metre-high board of polling figures and swarm of electoral officials may have come to symbolise Australian political suffrage, the future of the National Tally Room as the centre of election night may again be in doubt after ABC election numbers guru Antony Green ran into technology issues on Saturday night which meant he could not offer predictions.

The problems started at around 7pm on Saturday night, when a power outage combined with a lost network connection meant the analyst could not receive any data on Victoria’s state election. The count was being held at Etihad Stadium after the Victorian Electoral Matters Committee objected to the VEC’s initial plans to abandon the Tally Room.

At the time Green explained to viewers that he was not receiving any updates on the latest polling results and that meant the ABC’s figures were behind that of the VEC. Later in the evening Green clarified his comments, telling viewers that the problems were not the fault of the VEC or Etihad stadium but instead came from the ABC. He told The Australian today that the reason for the glitch may have been a result of the temporary ABC tally room set-up.

In a blog post on the set-up of the Victorian Tally Room last week, Green pre-empted Saturday night’s technological gremlins by saying that Aunty was having a few problems connecting to the VEC data site: “Another reason not to be in a tally room as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

It’s not the first time Green has had a crack at the Tally Room. In a two-page submission to the 2007 Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) inquiry into the future operation of the National Tally Room, he wrote that that it was “redundant”, had “outlived it’s usefulness” and had “simply become a publicly paid for backdrop for the media.” Green says that the AEC should drop the Tally Room and that media networks should move to a more permanent set-up.

There seems no good reason to continue spending hundreds of thousands of dollars putting hundreds of electoral officials and media representatives in a concrete and steel shed in the northern suburbs of Canberra,” he wrote. “It is the efficient dissemination of results on election night which is the important Australian tradition, not the physical existence of a National Tally Room.”

Despite Green’s submission, the JSCEM recommended that the NTR be retained for future federal elections, because it promoted “a visible symbolism of transparency in the election process”:

The committee supports the continuation of the NTR given its historical
place in Australian politics and elections. Australia is one of the world’s
longest running democracies, and needs to value its history and traditions.

The committee supports the continuation of the NTR given its historical place in Australian politics and elections. Australia is one of the world’s longest running democracies, and needs to value its history and traditions.”

According to the AEC submission to the inquiry, the NTR costs more than $1 million to build and operate. “The cost of the NTR, and the burden which its establishment within a tight timeframe places on the AEC, continue to be a significant concern for the AEC, especially in a period in which resources are stretched.”

At the time, the AEC recommended that for the NTR to be continued at future elections, then additional funding was required, “either through the budget or through charging, to cover associated costs”.

A spokesperson for the AEC told Crikey that the JSCEM is yet to meet following the 2010 federal election, “however any decisions about the future of the National Tally Room are a matter for parliament”.

Despite Green’s objections, the TV networks remain fans of the NTR. Free TV responded to the initial JSCEM inquiry by writing that the NTR was a “key part of broadcaster’s election night coverage as it offered a central focus for the election night count”.

In response to the AEC’s concerns about the cost of the NTR, Free TV said that “broadcasters do not regard the cost of setting up a temporary studio at the NTR as an ‘unwarranted’ expense. Rather, broadcasters believe the enhanced coverage they are able to provide the viewers via the NTR is a necessary and justified expense.”

Currently the Virtual Tally Room is considered the official source of AEC election night results. During the 2007 election, the Virtual Tally Room recorded more than 110 thousand hits.

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    Norman Hanscombe
    Posted Monday, 29 November 2010 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Rather than talking about either being dropped, it might be better for both simply to ensure it’s done better in the future. It appears (to an outsider) that insufficient resources are being allocated to booth staffing in Victoria, which is zilch to do it technological problems. As for the ABC, for the most accurate/up to date reporting possible, it could do far worse than establish reliable contact with major parties so that Green/whoever has the sort of booth variations which so often enable Party apparatchiks to seem miraculously more accurate than whatever figures are on the boards.

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