There are calls for a fresh election to be held to resolve the West Australian Senate result, following revelations that nearly 1,400 votes have gone missing.
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) revealed on Thursday that 1,375 votes, which had been verified during the initial count, could not be “located, rechecked or verified in the recount process”.
The AEC has asked former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty to investigate the “serious administrative issue”.
Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop says she is disturbed by the development.
“Our democracy, our system of government, depends upon there being integrity in our electoral system,” she said.
“And we certainly hope that the mystery of the missing ballot papers is resolved as soon as possible.”
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon says if the ballots are not found, voters should go back to the polls.
“It will cost a lot of money, but there is no choice,” he said.
“Better to cost money now than have a result where there is a question mark over those that have been elected. I think that is the safest course to take.”
The votes were classified as 1,255 formal above-the-line ballots and 120 informal votes and were mostly from the electorate of Pearce, with some also from the division of Forrest.
AEC spokesman Phil Diak says there has been an exhaustive, but ultimately unsuccessful, search for the papers.
“We’ve looked methodically through all the premises where those votes were stored and where they were stored,” he told ABC News 24.
“We’ve exhaustively and comprehensively in WA in all the premises tracked where the votes have been, transported and so forth, and it’s not until today – with all the last parcels of votes to be recounted opened – that that process of elimination has led us to the conclusion that they have been misplaced.”
Mr Keelty has been asked to hold an independent inquiry, tasked with “establishing the facts regarding the misplaced ballot papers, and identifying any administrative process and/or procedural failings that may have occurred”.
Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson, also a Victorian Senator, has released a statement saying he viewed the development “very dimly”.
“The news that the AEC cannot find 1,375 ballot papers relating to the WA Senate recount is as disconcerting as it is deeply disappointing,” Senator Ronaldson said.
“I have 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.”
The recount was ordered three weeks ago, prompted by the close Senate result and appeals from both the Greens’ Scott Ludlam, who lost his seat, and the Australian Sports Party candidate who was edged out in final preferences.
It puts in doubt the seats of Palmer United Palmer Senator-elect Zhenya Dio Wang and Labor’s Louise Pratt.
Palmer says AEC ‘deliberately rigging’ the election
PUP party leader, the billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer, has seized on the revelation, accusing the AEC of deliberately rigging the election.
“It’s just trying to rig the election, it’s trying to stop our party from having the balance of power and the AEC interfering in politics,” he told ABC radio.
PUP’s Zhenya Dio Wang was declared the winner of one of the final Senate spots after only 14 votes separated two minor parties at a crucial point in the counting.
Mr Palmer, who has edged ahead in the lengthy recount of the seat of Fairfax, says the original count must stand.
“Firstly, there was a count on a full number of votes and our candidate won,” Mr Palmer told 7.30.
“Secondly, there was a recount and they lost the votes. You can’t rely on the recount, you’ve got to go back to the full count or go to an election. If they lose the votes you can’t use the count.”
And he has called for a judicial inquiry, alleging the AEC may have destroyed the ballots.
“The AEC may have burned them – who knows? Or put them in a rubbish bin or shredded them,” he said, referring to the missing votes.
“How do you lose ballot papers that are supposed to be kept secure under the law?
“There needs to be a full judicial inquiry into the AEC officers that have been involved in this fiasco.”
— Clive Palmer (@CliveFPalmer) October 31, 2013
But Greens Senator Scott Ludlum says the ballot papers must be found before any result can be declared.
“It’s inexcusable,” he told ABC radio’s PM program.
“We think its completely inappropriate for the results of these seats to be declared until those votes have been found otherwise you effectively disenfranchise 1,300 people.”
Lost ballots could lead to fresh election
The AEC says the recount will be finalised “shortly” – with an announcement of the result expected as early as tomorrow.
However, the AEC’s Phil Diak says there is little hope of finding the papers.
“At the moment unfortunately they have been misplaced and are unlikely to be located at this stage before we distribute the preferences and complete the declaration of the poll for the recount in Western Australia,” he said.
There is already speculation the result will be challenged in the High Court, as the Court of Disputed Returns.
Constitutional law expert Professor Anne Twomey says the lost ballots and the tight initial result could lead to a fresh election.
“The High Court would consider practicalities, like the margins involved, when deciding if a fresh election is needed,” she said.
“Because the first count was so tight .. obviously the prospects of a High Court decision ordering a re-run ballot would be very high.”