Herbert MP Ewen Jones
Herbert MP Ewen Jones

Facing the prospect of a Parliament in which every vote will matter, Malcolm Turnbull suffered a grievous disappointment on Monday when Labor pulled eight votes ahead as the last ballots were accounted for in the Townsville-based seat of Herbert.

Certainly that isn’t the end of the matter, with the Australian Electoral Commission to commence a recount tomorrow. The Liberals can take some heart from the knowledge that the last two recounts in federal lower house seats — in Fairfax at the 2013 election and McEwen in 2007 — respectively changed the original margins by 21 votes and 17 votes.

But the fact of the Labor lead is embarrassing for Liberals who had failed to leave wriggle room in claiming 77 seats, such as Victorian frontbencher Alan Tudge on ABC Radio in Melbourne on Monday.

Such comments form part of a pattern first evident when Turnbull emerged late on election night to proclaim “every confidence that we will form a Coalition majority government in the next Parliament”, based on “the advice I have from the party officials”.

Turnbull’s confidence at that moment was surely exaggerated, and there could only have been relief in the government camp as postal votes indeed brought home the bacon in four seats where they had trailed on election night, in one case by over 2000 votes.

Herbert looked likely to make it five, as Labor’s 900-vote lead dwindled steadily then disappeared altogether last Thursday.

[Stability? Forget about it — strap in for a wild ride]

However, late rechecking of ordinary votes turned up significant anomalies at the Townsville and Kirwan pre-poll voting centres, which were corrected to Labor’s net benefit by 256 votes.

Despite the best efforts of crack Liberal scrutineer George Brandis, a 44-vote lead for Liberal National Party incumbent Ewen Jones on Thursday became a 12-vote lead on Friday, then an eight-vote lead for Labor’s Cathy O’Toole when the last ballot was counted on Monday.

These events have tested the nerves not just of the two major political parties, but also of the AEC, which has been yearning for an incident-free election after the Western Australia Senate debacle of 2013.

Measures to ensure there would be no repeat have unavoidably prioritised ballot security over the speed of determining the result, at a time when the latter objective has been under pressure from rising support for minor parties and the dramatic growth in pre-poll and other non-standard voting methods.

All the while, a public accustomed to fast and reliable electronic services in every aspect of life has been finding it increasingly hard to understand how an election result can remain up in the air more than a fortnight after polling day.

Speed and accuracy: the AEC dilemma

It’s in this atmosphere that the AEC has been adjudicating on the delicate matter of the recount that must follow a result as close as that in Herbert.

The AEC endured two recount-related nightmares in 2013, the more consequential of which was that conducted for the Senate in Western Australia, in which 1375 ballots counted the first time around proved impossible to locate.

The other resulted from Clive Palmer’s victory in the Sunshine Coast seat of Fairfax by an initial margin of 36 votes, which was revised to 53 by a recount conducted amid ongoing bluster from Palmer about AEC corruption.

The AEC sought to place itself at arm’s length from future suggestions of partiality by publishing a recount policy in April 2014, “to ensure recount requests are determined in accordance with the Electoral Act and recommendations contained in the Henderson Report” (the latter having been conducted after the McEwen recount in 2007).

With such high aims in mind, it’s striking to observe that the AEC has abandoned the policy when given its very first opportunity to follow it.

Had it been observed, the Herbert count would now be proceeding to a formal distribution of preferences, in which last-placed candidates are progressively eliminated until only two remain — something that can only begin when there is a completed primary vote count.

[It’s time to vote online]

To ensure we don’t die wondering in the period of up to three weeks before this occurs, the AEC conducts an indicative two-party preferred count alongside the primary vote count, in which the race is narrowed to two candidates deemed likely to survive to the final round.

While this count monopolises attention, it is really just keeping score ahead of the full preference distribution that constitutes the official result.

According to the policy, only with this distribution does it fall to the AEC to conclude that the margin is below the 100-vote threshold that triggers an automatic recount.

But in Herbert, it was announced yesterday that the result of the indicative count was so close as to leave no doubt, and that the recount could proceed immediately without the formality of the preference distribution.

Starting tomorrow, the AEC will be back at square one, conducting a primary vote recount alongside an indicative two-party count, finally to be followed by the preference distribution — a process it says is “expected to take approximately two weeks”.

In the final analysis, the preferences of the 30,081 voters in Herbert who voted for minor party or independent candidates will have been counted, checked, recounted and scrutinised once more time with the final distribution of preferences.

But that’s one time fewer than provided for by the AEC policy, which would have inserted a first distribution of preferences between the checking and the recounting.

In the meantime, scanning and optical character recognition have insinuated their way into the counting process for the reformed Senate system.

Events in Herbert provide good reason to think this will prove to be the thin end of a wedge.

*To read more from Crikey‘s William Bowe, visit The Poll Bludger

The Australian Electorate Commission responds:

Section 279 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 provides clear legislative capacity for the AEC to commence a recount at any point prior to the declaration of the result. The decision to move to a recount was based on the DRO’s judgement that a full distribution of preferences would not obviate the need for a full recount.

The policy document is predominately intended to guide AEC staff in responding to requests by candidates for a recount. The AEC is confident that the recount will be completed before the last date for the return of the writs for this election.