All of the 150 House of Representatives seats now have a clear winner. Unlike some other recent elections, there has not been any real knife edge seats, which is probably just as well given the uncertainty over who will form government. Given how finely balanced things are with the hung Parliament result, it could have caused real mayhem if the 2007 result in the Victorian seat of McEwen had been repeated this time around.
On that occasion, it took two full weeks for the Electoral Commission to declare Labor’s Rob Mitchell the winner by just seven votes. More than a week later, after a full recount, the Liberal’s Fran Bailey was declared the winner by just twelve votes. Labor appealed this result to the Court of Disputed Returns, which handed down its judgement more than seven months after the election had been held, ruling that the Liberals won by 31 votes (and ironically even that judgement originally indicated the margin was 27 votes, which had to be adjusted to 31 after the AEC provided clarifying information and notification of a clerical error in information contained in the original judgement).
No doubt the Courts would have ruled on the issue much more quickly in 2007 if government had then been hanging in the balance in the same way it is now. Even though our electoral system and our administration of it is light years ahead of the ramshackle farce that occurs in the USA (and is generally better than pretty much every other country on the planet), these sort of glitches are a reminder of how crucial it is to get these things right.
If we had had a knife edge seat this time which had also involved inappropriately handled ballot papers, which looks to have occurred this time in the fairly close but not knife edge seats of Boothby and Flynn, things could now be getting very ugly indeed. It is a reminder that getting things as right as possible takes time, and when results are very close, it is crucial that there is public confidence in the system.
Having followed some of the individual seat and booth counts in specific seats more closely than usual this time, I noticed a few not insignificant errors in the counts. Whilst some element of human error is inevitable, I do wonder if the strong demand for delivering results from each booth as quickly as possible on election night increases the likelihood of such errors.
This isn’t to have a go at the Australian Electoral Commission, which as I noted above, is possibly unmatched when it comes to managing the electoral process. But the reality is they have to employ a huge number of casual staff solely for the election, at least some of whom have no previous experience. Partly this is for the handing out of ballot papers during the day, but it is also these people who count the votes after the booths close at 6pm. Even one person not turning up on the day – which can happen just as often when the AEC employs casual staff as it can when McDonald’s use casual staff – can create a big headache at an individual polling booth.
All of us want to know the ‘official’ result on election night as quickly as possible – no one more so than candidates and their parties – but perhaps a bit less haste on the night might mean fewer mistakes that have to be picked up later. Anyway, whilst people seem to be gettng more and more edgy that the Independents still haven’t decided who they are supporting to form government, more than 10 days after the election, we should recognise that it is not really that long a period. As with counting the votes, it is better to take some time and properly assess all the information, rather than rush in due to pressure to produce a quick outcome.
The current hung Parliament in Australia provides a real – and very rare – chance to get some long lasting improvements in the way our Parliament operates. I would much prefer to wait a few extra days to make sure these improvements were as good as possible, rather than miss this opportunity just because of unnecessary anxiety about the need to have an outcome as quickly as possible.
If there was a seat this time as close as McEwen was in 2007, we would be having to wait a lot longer in any case, so we should count our blessings that there are no knife edge contests this time and leave the people who have to make the decisions sufficient time to ensure they make one that is fully informed.
PS The title of this post derives from my googling the ‘more haste, less speed’ maxim. This showed some variants of the term were used as long ago as the year 1350. The specific phrase I used for the title of this post derives from 1705, but won’t show up on a google search because the word ‘moderate’ was written as “mod’rate”. The idea of mirroring something written over 300 years ago appealed to me more than any concern over having an overly long or not very specific title to my post.