Yesterday, the Australian Electoral Commission performed an act that, in a rational world, would have excited no interest. Since last weekend the commission has featured a “national two-party preferred result” on the front page of its virtual tally room, which has assumed tremendous psychological interest as Labor’s margin has steadily eroded from 0.6% to 0.4%.

However, the tally had a flaw that biased it in Labor’s favour: there were no Labor-versus-Coalition figures available from strongly conservative Kennedy, Lyne, New England or O’Connor, where the notional two-candidate preferred counts conducted on election night involved independents. This was only balanced out by left-wing Melbourne, where Labor and the Greens were correctly identified as the front-running candidates for the notional count.

For whatever reason, the AEC decided yesterday to level the playing field by excluding seats where the notional preference count candidates had been changed since election night, which in each case meant left-wing seats where the Liberals had finished third to the Greens (Batman and Grayndler) or Andrew Wilkie (Denison). The result was an instant 0.4% drop in Labor’s score, reducing them to a minuscule lead that was soon rubbed out by further late counting.

In fact, very little actually changed in yesterday’s counting, which saw a continuation of the slow decline in the Labor total that is the usual pattern of late counting. The media, regrettably, has almost entirely dropped the ball on this point. Mark Simkin, of the ABC, last night reported that Labor’s lead had been eradicated by the “latest counting”, as opposed to an essentially meaningless administrative decision.

Lateline, too, informed us that Labor’s two-party vote had “collapsed”, and Leigh Sales’ opening question to Julie Bishop on Lateline was essentially an invitation to gloat about the fact. Most newspaper accounts eventually get around to acknowledging the entirely artificial nature of the 50,000-vote reversal in Labor’s fortunes, but only after reporting in breathless tones on the removal of votes that will eventually be put back in.

The reality is that nobody knew who had the lead on the two-party vote yesterday morning, and nothing happened in the day to make anybody any the wiser.

The Prime Minister equally had no idea on election night when she made her ill-advised claim to the two-party majority mantle. Only when all seats have reported Labor-versus-Coalition counts, which is probably still a few weeks away, will we be able to say for sure.

The best we can do at present is to construct a projection based on the votes counted and our best assumptions as to how the gaps in the vote count data will be filled when all the figures are in.

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