Voters in Western Australia, vox-popped ad nauseam by media outlets this week, aren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of returning to polling booths tomorrow to decide Senate seats. Prime Minister Tony Abbott — who had secured three crucial red benchwarmers in September, only to have to risk them all again — has plenty of sympathy. And he’s directing his anger at the Australian Electoral Commission. He warned today:

“The tragedy of the vote last time was that in the end, due to the ineptitude of the Australian Electoral Commission, we couldn’t be confident in the results in the last two seats. I think the Australian people are entitled to expect much better performance from the Australian Electoral Commission this time.”

Voters, indeed, are entitled to have faith in the process. That 1370 votes vanished in the general poll last year is at least careless; that 75 votes from an aged-care home had to be declared invalid during voting yesterday hardly restores faith.

But nor can this be a witch-hunt by politicians — led by Clive Palmer, whose bluster on the issue has been embarrassing for a federal MP — inconvenienced by the results. As Crikey‘s William Bowe has long argued, the AEC has a pretty faultless record — and our paper-based, hand-counted system will never be flawless.

The Australian today quotes Liberal sources saying yesterday’s blunder is the “final straw” and a “growing group of MPs” are “agitating for root and branch changes at the AEC”. That will concern many electoral watchers who maintain the system isn’t exactly broken.

If there’s a better system that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg — and there are plenty of problems with many of the alternatives — let’s have a proper inquiry and make the transition. A fair dinkum debate in public, not among disgruntled party players in Canberra.

Peter Fray

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