The Tasmanian Election Tally Room crowd. AAP.

“You not talking to me?” the rather glamorously coated middle-aged woman said, as she made her way through the crowd to the bar at Hobart’s tally room at last Saturday’s election.

“Sure as hell I’m not talking to you, you’re a bloody Liberal,” said the somewhat irascible man beside me, already getting his defeat on.

She tossed him a look of contempt and carried on.

“You know her?” I asked.

“Known her for thirty years! We’re mates. Sorta.”

Ah, the tally room! The moving, heaving, mass of humanity practising actually existing democracy. The bar outside the main room. The big board with all the numbers. The general public streaming in. The media pen, with its sad buffet of curling sandwiches and warm home-brand cola.

Hobart’s was a corker last week — the last one left in Australia and, so it is said, the last time Tasmania will run one. That would be a mistake. Far from abolishing the last tally room, we should be bringing them back everywhere. They never should have gone.

The digital revolution has made the tally rooms unnecessary. The information that once had to be got in one place is now instantly distributed. Fair enough, we get that. There was a time when the big board — with hand-hung numbers — was the only place to get the most up-to-date info.

Now, it’s available on your phone. But on Saturday night, people were still using the big board — now digital — as the source of their info. It actually served a purpose, giving you a chance to scope all the numbers in one go. Furthermore, this was people gathered in one place, one time, to see the results of a vote.

No one was excluded from the room, in the Grand Chancellor, on Hobart’s waterfront. People coming and going from dinner wandered in to watch for 10 minutes. They spoke to each other. The party leaders came through to give concession and victory speeches, all in the same place. The crowd provided a pool of people for the networks to vox pop. There were a few cops on duty, but there was no argy-bargy.

Why on earth would you abolish such things, simply because of the expense? Quite aside from being a live and real event, it’s a TV event of the sort that networks need, to provide spectacle and viewer numbers. The expense is derisory compared to a major sporting fixture, or an outside outdoors broadcast.

Security is the term given. By which is meant several things. Politicians fear the public, and the possibility they will have to interact with them. Institutions now have a default setting of atomisation and fear, assuming that human beings together are to be managed as a threat situation — and fearing notions of liability if they do.

That process simply destroys public life. When there is no one — at the head of an electoral commission, a public broadcaster, in government — to say this matters, this is worth keeping, renewing, re-inventing, then public life simply dies. Everyone should be concerned about this.

But Labor and the Greens should be especially attentive. For they only live as parties, if they can summon up the collective spirit within society.

Sure, have an election night, straight from TV studios, everyone watching online in their concrete-pile apartments, or McMansions, huddled away from each other, the “African gangs”, the hoons, etc. But which party do you think benefits most from a combination of individual isolation, and fear of the other?

Bring back the damn tally rooms. Give people the right to gather together, as citizens and adults. Even to say to each other, “I’m sure as hell not talking to you!”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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