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Broken electoral system, not 1370 votes, to blame for WA mess

An inquiry into how the AEC managed to lose critical votes has laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Electoral Commissioner. But there is plenty to go around.

Questions surrounding the competence of the Australian Electoral Commission have intensified this week after a report into the Western Australian Senate fiasco catalogued a string of operational deficiencies combined with a “a culture of complacency” in the AEC’s handling of Senate election counts.

Conducted by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty, the inquiry was unable to establish when and how 1370 ballot papers went missing in the course of being transported first from regional counting centres to a warehouse in suburban Perth, and then to the site in central Perth where the recount was conducted.

The report nonetheless offers that it is “tempting to say that the ballots are most likely to have been mistakenly destroyed”, with ballots in one case said to have been stacked at a loading dock along with cardboard rubbish destined for a recycling centre.

More pointedly, the AEC is castigated for its “loose planning culture” and “complacent attitude toward ballot papers”, prompting questions to be raised about the security of Ed Killesteyn’s tenure as AEC commissioner.

The responsible minister, Michael Ronaldson, has said both the commission and Killesteyn personally “must accept full responsibility for the failure”, while Killsteyn himself evaded a question put to him on Monday by Fran Kelly on Radio National as to whether he had considered resigning.

Appealing though talk of bureaucrats taking “full responsibility” may be to both politicians and a justifiably aggrieved public, the top brass at the AEC can be forgiven for thinking Ronaldson should have been a little more generous in sharing some of that blame around.

Well before the present situation unfolded, Australia’s leading academic authority on electoral law, Graeme Orr of the University of Queensland, found Australia’s electoral legislation to be “exceedingly detailed to the point of being overwrought”, thanks to “ad hoc parliamentary tinkering” by legislators with a “particular and vested interest in electoral rules”. And sure enough, Keelty’s report points as much to the complicated nature of our electoral machinery as to the competence of the individuals charged with making it work.

One issue is the organisational structure imposed by the Electoral Act, in which each of the 150 electorates has its own responsible officer answering to only six state offices and the central office in Canberra. As Peter Brent of Mumble points out, this causes responsibility for election operations to be thinly spread among officials who have too little to do between elections and too much to do during them, and who suffer the morale problems attendant to a structure that allows few pathways to promotion.

Tellingly, the Keelty report notes that the officer for one of the two electorates from which votes went missing is “known for his care and professionalism”, but was required to leave the B-team in charge at the time the ballot papers were transported as he had been recalled to assist at the recount centre in Perth.

Difficulties of this kind might have been avoided by the organisational overhaul the AEC has long advocated but never been allowed to implement because, as Brent notes, parliamentarians “like having an AEC office in their electorates”. Here at least the government has foreshadowed that remedial action might finally be taken.

Another factor that should be kept in mind is that the loss of 1370 out of 1.3 million ballots was decisive not because of a fine balance of support between those candidates who are in the hunt for the two disputed Senate seats, but because of a close result between two peripheral parties at an early stage of the count. This is symptomatic of an electoral system that in its fantastic complexity introduces multiple mission-critical points to the counting process, each representing an opportunity for things to go wrong — all for the apparent purpose of allowing parties with negligible support to fluke their way to victory.

Despite ample opportunity to consider the increasing mess wrought by above-the-line voting, group preference tickets and proliferating micro-party candidacies, one post-election parliamentary inquiry after another has failed to recommend that anything be done about it.

In other developments, both the ALP and the Palmer United Party have lodged petitions to have the original count validated by the High Court, reflecting their shared objective of winning the final two seats at the expense of the Greens and the Australian Sports Party.

While such an outcome would require the discrepancies exposed during the recount to be overlooked, it can equally be supposed that ordering an unprecedented state-wide byelection is not a decision the court will take lightly, despite it being the favoured position of the AEC. Should it be so, WA voters will return to the polls at an indeterminate time early next year, in what looks likely to be a far more hostile environment for the Coalition than that which prevailed in September.

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  • 1
    wayne robinson
    Posted Wednesday, 11 December 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    As a Western Australian voter, I’m looking forward to returning to the voting booth next year…

    Perhaps one solution would be to change the method of counting senate votes. Instead of allocating senate seats to the parties or groups which already have a quota or quotas, why not eliminate parties and groups and distribute their preferences in order of increasing numbers of primary votes, until such time as all remaining parties or groups have at least, say, half a quota? And then allocate senate seats as in the present system.

    It would mean that it would no longer be critical how the excess votes of the major parties are distributed. And that the least popular micro-parties would be prevented from winning a seat with a fortunate distribution of preferences.

  • 2
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 11 December 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I would fear losing the bath water sodden baby were electoral “reform” to limit the number or form of parties nominating which would simply entrench the 19thC dinosaur party structures.
    The simplest way to stop the “preference whisperer” abuse would be removal of the above the line option, introduced by PJK -in 1984 (sic!) in memeory serve - because, in his opinion, ALP voters needed to remove their shoes to tick more 10 boxes.
    Make the number of boxes ticked a proportion of the total ballot, say 10 or 20% and watch the fur fly as the behemoths realise that their domination of the swamp is about to end.

  • 3
    j.oneill
    Posted Wednesday, 11 December 2013 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    As I understand the present system of Senate voting one either goes through an extraordinary process of listing often literally dozens of candidates in order of preference (which very few voters apparently do) or voting ‘above the line’ in which case inter party deals decide the allocation of preferences. Frankly, neither system commends itself as either democratic or practical. The result is as the writer suggests, one “allowing parties with negligible support to fluke their way to victory.”

    I know that it is heresy in Australia to suggest that we are not the world’s perfect exemplar of democracy, but, as umpteen other democracies show, there is a simpler and more effective way of allocating Senate seats. Instead of the present system, the voter should have one vote, which they allocate to the party of their choice. Seats are the allocated to the parties in accordance with their share of the vote. Eg: Liberals get 33% of the vote; they get 33% of the available seats. Set a minimum, say 5% to be even considered for election removes the lunatic fringe parties whose electoral support is often less than 1%, but wind up with a Senate seat for 6 years because of the “flukes” of the preference system.

    I know that some people argue that that puts the power in the hands of the party list makers, but so what? How is that different from the deals that the parties do now to put someone at No 1 in the list etc.?

    Who knows, we might even end up with a Senate where the membership actually reflects party support in the country. Now there’s a dangerous thought.

  • 4
    zut alors
    Posted Wednesday, 11 December 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Note the hilarious irony of Keelty reporting on the ineptitude of the AEC. This is the same fellow who oversaw the Dr Mohamed Haneef debacle.

  • 5
    wiki
    Posted Wednesday, 11 December 2013 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    There is an inevitable problem within the structure of the AEC which the author alludes to;out of electoral seasons the AEC officials are hard pressed to fill a day.When Elections are in prospect or on the AEC officers could use 25 hour days.The obvious rational solution which is never going to happen wold be to amalgamate all the state and territorial election bodies into one national professional electoral commission.This would mean that the AEC or its successor would have much greater recourses to bring to the task,would have electoral work across the cycle and the capacity to offer a much greater professional structure to its staff.It could be set up as an independent commission with commissioners drawn from the Australian and State Parliaments ,Governments or Judiciaries.But as I said it will never happen.Too much vested interest

  • 6
    DF
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    I feel a bit sorry for Ed Killesteyn. He was moved to the AEC from a position as Dep Sec at Immigration (DIMA, DIMIA, DIMAC and whatever. His move followed DIMIA’s handling of the Vivien Solon case, which was as a result of a decision of a former DIMIA staffer who has since resigned and is allegedly running a motel on the East Coast), and not Killesteyn’s fault.
    I have a friend, a teacher of 30 years standing, who until this election had always worked at the school hall in her rural town on the NSW South Coast. She said she no longer wanted to be involved because the AEC did not look after the returning officers properly (eg long days and insufficient breaks) due to budget problems. This would hardly be Killesteyn’s fault.

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