The re-run West Australian Senate election will be a referendum on the first half year of Tony Abbott’s reign, but will also prove the biggest test yet for the nation’s electoral commission.
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) admitted on Thursday that about 75 pre-poll votes at the RAAFA Estate retirement home in Merriwa, in Perth’s outer suburbs, were put in an unsecured ballot box and then transferred to a secure box in breach of proper procedure.
The votes were declared invalid and the retirement home’s elderly residents had to recast them on Friday.
One of the residents said she hadn’t even put her vote in a box and it had instead been taken by “the lady”.
Both sides of politics were troubled to hear of the latest controversy to dog the AEC, which was lashed by former police commissioner Mick Keelty after his investigation into the 1370 ballot papers that went missing during a recount last year.
The AEC’s harshest critic, Clive Palmer, called for more heads to roll, after two key AEC staffers resigned over the last debacle, and even called for a royal commission.
Mr Keelty found fault with just about every aspect of the AEC’s handling of the second count, but the commission said on February 28 that it had implemented key practical recommendations of his probe.
But two days before West Australians marched back to the polls for the fourth time in just over a year, those reassurances were a distant memory as news of yet another ballot box blunder emerged, leaving confidence in the AEC shattered.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has not held back in his disdain for the AEC’s “ineptitude”, said Australians had a right to expect there would be no errors this time around.
AEC spokesman Phil Diak said every step would be taken to minimise the chance of mistakes, and refuted suggestions voter fatigue in WA would result in a low turnout, saying early voting had been encouraging.
Meanwhile, Labor’s lead candidate Joe Bullock has increased his press conference appearances – particularly at schools – after earlier commentary that he’d not fronted the media enough, all while copping fresh flak for reportedly telling a Christian group in November that Labor needed unions so it didn’t follow “every weird lefty trend”.
He also reportedly called the ALP membership mad, said he’d rather be expelled from the party than vote for gay marriage, and revealed he had voted against Labor in 1975.
The Liberals pounced on Mr Bullock’s reported comment that running mate Louise Pratt – who he shunted to second on Labor’s ticket – was a “poster child for the left”, saying it pointed to disunity and dysfunction in the party.
On Friday, Mr Bullock also brushed aside a recently revealed assault conviction, saying “that was a long time ago”.
The Liberals have had their own controversies – at the state level, with former Treasurer Troy Buswell quitting Cabinet and facing criminal charges after a mental breakdown following late-night, post-wedding car crashes – but Mr Abbott remains supremely confident it won’t dent the party’s election chances.
And what about their stablemates, the Nationals? Candidate Shane Van Styn – affectionately referred to by Barnaby Joyce as “Van the Man” – has also appeared media-shy, proving less visible than his deputy leader.
Palmer United Party’s Dio Wang has also been scarce in Perth, fronting regional media rather than facing the harsh glare of the metropolitan spotlight. He said it was more important to talk to voters than journalists.
But his leader has been all over the press, saying those who wanted to interview Mr Wang could get on a plane and see him on the hustings in Broome, Karratha or Kalgoorlie.
PUP was also criticised for bombarding the airwaves and blanketing WA’s only daily newspaper in campaign advertisements, with the highest office in the land through to the Greens accusing Mr Palmer of trying to buy a seat in the Senate – although Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has also splashed a fair amount of cash on ads.
Mr Palmer says it’s his own personal money and he can do with it as he pleases.
But Greens leader Christine Milne tied it back to Mr Wang’s absence from mainstream media.
“It really makes no sense that he’s spending a fortune on advertising but is gagging his own candidates from talking to the people,” Senator Milne said.
“And that’s because when they open their mouths, they say something different to what Clive wants to say.”
PUP was also lambasted by the Liberals for preferencing the HEMP party seventh out of 33. The HEMP party’s lead candidate James Moylan has said he doesn’t even want to be a politician.
Mr Palmer, as usual, shot back.
“The Liberals are preferencing high on the ticket of the Liberal Democrats, who don’t believe in the legalisation of hemp, they believe in the legalisation of heroin and all drugs,” he told AAP.
“They also believe in assisted suicide, abolishing the pension – which maybe Abbott does too – and abolishing social security.
“And they’re getting the preference way before us in the Liberal ticket.”