By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra
The Australian Electoral Commission, which should be above controversy, finds itself at the centre of a perfect storm.
In recent weeks Clive Palmer, albeit without evidence, has blackened its name at every opportunity.
Now (on the day Palmer was finally elected in Fairfax by 53 votes) the AEC has announced it has lost more than 1300 Senate votes in the knife edge Western Australian contest.
On worst scenario, this could force a fresh Senate poll in that state, which would be a huge cost, annoy voters and put the upper house numbers to a fresh test.
The WA disaster is against the background of Coalition hostility towards Electoral Commissioner Ed Killestey. The then opposition was angry when Labor re-appointed him, although his existing term did not expire until the new year. The Coalition wanted to make its own appointment.
The AEC said in today’s statement that in the WA Senate recount “a serious administrative issue” had come to light. Some 1375 votes, all counted first time round, were missing. These included 1255 formal votes and 120 informal ones.
The commissioner said he had “initiated an urgent examination into the circumstances which led to the apparent misplaced ballot papers”. He’s called in former federal police chief Mick Keelty to get to the bottom of it.
The recount came after the Palmer United Party candidate and Labor won the final spots, with the Greens and the Australian Sports Party missing out. At a crucial choke point in the complicated count, it had come down to 14 votes.
The recount will be finished (with the missing votes excluded) and the outcome examined by the AEC, which will also have the Keelty report, before it decides whether the matter should go to the Court of Disputed Returns.
The AEC, a candidate or a voter can petition the court (which is the High Court). It is hard to see it not ending up there (unless the votes suddenly materialise) but what the court would do can’t be predicted.
The government today lashed out, with Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson declaring he had “personally expressed to the Electoral Commissioner my strong view that this situation is totally unsatisfactory and that I, as the responsible Minister, view this matter very dimly.”
In opposition Bronwyn Bishop, then shadow special minister of state claimed the AEC and the then government were too close and said a Coalition government would have a review of the commission.
Palmer jumped on the WA affair today to accuse the AEC of fraud, saying the commission “may have burned” the ballot papers “or put them in a rubbish bin or shredded them”.
“There needs to be a full judicial inquiry into the AEC officers that have been involved in this fiasco,” said Palmer, who wants the original Senate count to stand.
The embattled Killesteyn was sensible to call in the former police commissioner. But it’s hard to see where he is going to get any political protection.
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Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.