Western Australian voters are a step closer to heading back to the polls after the High Court said that result from the September election could not stand.
In the decision, Justice Hayne held that the loss of 1370 ballot papers meant that those voters were prevented from voting and that the previous results could not be used to stitch together a result. Earlier, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) put up its hand to say ‘we stuffed up’ in losing the ballot papers.
Justice Hayne says calling the election is “the only relief appropriate”, but has held off from declaring a final result. He is expected to deliver his final verdict later this week.
The anxiously awaited decision in this bitter court battle revolved around the fifth and sixth Senate seats for Western Australia, which Labor’s Louise Pratt and Palmer United Party’s Zhenya Wang won in the initial count. After a recount was demanded, these last two seats switched to the Australian Sports Party’s Wayne Dropulich and Greens Senator Scott Ludlum.
The reason for the changed outcome was that between the time of the original count and the recount, 231 votes from the Division of Forrest and 1139 from the Division of Pearce disappeared. Not even an investigation by the former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty was able to uncover any trace of these two-metre long ballots.
The Constitution sets a minimum of 33 days for an election campaign. If the final decision arrives this week, the weekend of 29 March is the earliest date a new election could be held.
Richard Bell, a Sydney-based barrister experienced in electoral disputes, said that in the likely event that the original result was disregarded, there would be no opportunity for an appeal.
“That’s part of the legislation. The legal position is that the Court’s decision is final and conclusive. That’s where it will end,” he said.
“What will come next is really much the same as where everyone was. It’s like going back in time … The election is called. The whole process of calling an election in a formal way happens.”
Impact on the government
If the new vote goes ahead, it could be unpleasant for the incumbent government. Governments don’t like by-elections because they can see their vote slip. Some argue that the voting public punishes the government for the inconvenience of being forced back into a polling booth. The ‘preference whisperer’ Glenn Druery said a similar factor may come into play in WA.
“Disaffected Labor voters have sent the party a message all over the country, and particularly in WA, where the Labor vote was very low. So that’s happened. That whole ‘punish the Labor party’ feeling in the electorate has happened. And we are going to see many Labor voters who voted for the Liberals go back to Labor,” said Druery.
In the event of a second poll, the Senator Online Party, which will be recontesting the WA senate election, agrees that it will be tough for the government to draw even or go better than the number of seats it won last time.
“Yeah look, I’ll be surprised if the Liberals get the third seat again,” said its founder Berge Der Sarkissian.
But recent polls tell a different story, with the Coalition up by four points over Labor in the two-party preferred vote. Bill Shorten’s popularity has taken a nosedive, seemingly because the majority of Australians agree with the decision to withhold government assistance for companies like Holden, Toyota and SPC Ardmona.
Perhaps the LNP’s regained popularity will translate into votes in WA.
Impact on the minor parties
Preference whisperer Glenn Druery has promised to be back in the thick of the action once the Court’s final decision is known.
“We are certainly going to reconvene the minor party alliance. After the examples of Ricky Muir, Wayne Dropulich and Bob Day, the minor parties are well aware that this works, and works very well. And I believe it will be even more disciplined this time around than it’s ever been,” he said.
The micro party kingmaker is “of the firm view” that the Micro Party Alliance he coaches will crown one of its members a Senator at another vote. But exactly which of these parties will claim the coveted prize in WA is an open question, given that each will be competing desperately against the others.
“At five minutes past midday, if we have a result, my phone will be melted. It will go into meltdown,” Druery predicted yesterday. “The emails will go out that we will have a meeting [of the micro party alliance] and a date will be confirmed depending on when the election will be.”
The greatest impediment to the micro parties is likely to be the cost of campaigning again, which is prohibitive for many of these tiny political organisations.
“Will [the AEC] reimburse or refund the fees of all the parties that ran?” asks Druery. “It may be difficult for some of these parties to find money to run again. It’s $4k to nominate, and then they’ve got all of their expenses on top of that. At a bare bones minimum, if they run a cruise control election, it will be four grand. You know, that’s a lot of money just a month after a federal campaign.”
The PUP bites again
Another viable contender for one of the WA seats is the Palmer United Party, which is likely to throw a vast amount of cash at the election, but suffer on preferences, according to Druery.
“Palmer certainly has a chance, no doubt about it. But it is my view that the last two spots will be [won by] a minor party, Palmer, a Green, a Nat, or a third Lib. They’re all going to fight for those last spots.”
Clive Palmer is barred from joining the Micro Party Alliance because Druery and his pals consider the PUP to be “too big”. Palmer is also unlikely to have many friends in the major parties, and may suffer from a lack of diplomacy when it comes to negotiating preferences elsewhere.
“He’s yet to gather a really smart, strategic team around him. I’m sure in time it will come,” said Druery. “As I keep saying to these people, it’s about taking the crumbs off the table. If you try and get the loaf, there will be blood on the floor and it’ll be yours, and you’ll get nothing.”’
Dropulich could be dropped
Senator-elect Wayne Dropulich has the most to lose from a decision by Justice Haynes to void the original result. He faces having his seat snatched from his grasp before being able to take it up on July 1.
“He may go down in history. Has there even been a senator-elect who hasn’t taken his seat?” asks Druery. “It’s unlikely Wayne will get there. But then again, we are in unprecedented times.”
The reason Dropulich would miss out is that his micro rivals are unlikely to preference him highly the second time around, as they won’t want to lower their own chances of snaring his seat.
Dropulich was seen as “innocuous and harmless, in a nice way” by the other parties at the recent federal election, according to Druery. He harvested valuable preferences because he was not seen as a threat, but turned out to be deadly at the ballot box to the surprise of many.