Abbott's Senate hangs by a 14-vote thread

The recount of Western Australian ballot papers could swing either way… taking Tony Abbott’s tenacious grip on the Senate with it.

There was not a lot of attention on Friday given to a pivotal decision by the Australian Electoral Commission to award Greens senator Scott Ludlam and Australian Sports Party’s Wayne Dropulich a partial recount of WA Senate ballot papers. 

‘Partial’ is a bit deceptive. All papers marked ‘above the line’ will be recounted – that’s 96 per cent of 1.3 million – and 40,000 informal ballot papers will be re-examined. Only the ‘below the line’ papers, on which voters have numbered all candidates in order of preference, will be left alone. 

This probably should have gotten a few more prominent headlines. One Perth-based source said “well it’s WA – we never get much attention”, but he is missing the point. 

The recount jeopardises Tony Abbott’s hold on the Senate, assumed until this news broke to be reasonably secure. 

To recap, three minor-party senators were thought to be lined up with three Palmer Unity Party senators, to give Abbott a decent six-person voting bloc that would assist with pushing through any legislation blocked by Labor and the Greens – the main one being Abbott’s core promise to repeal the carbon tax. 

However the Ludlam recount hinges on just 14 votes. Taken in the context of around 1.3 million ballots cast, that number is well below a normal count margin of error. It could swing either way. 

Whether those 14 votes were in favour of PUP candidate Zhenya Wang or, hypothetically, in favour of Ludlam, a recount would always be sought. That’s because when preferences are being distributed, it matters a great deal which candidate is knocked out of the race first. 

The appeal Ludlam lodged was based on the very low number of votes that determined one of the candidates being knocked out – in this case the Australia Christian Party was knocked out ahead of the Shooters and Fishers party by just 14 votes.

If an above-the-line recount changes this order of preference being distributed, Labor’s Louise Pratt will lose her Senate seat, as will Wang.  

The informal votes being re-examined could also easily sway the result, as historical precedent shows. 

In July 2008, a full eight months after Kevin Rudd swept to power, Liberal candidate for the seat of McEwen Fran Bailey was given victory in her lower-house seat with 113 informal votes being overturned by the Federal Court.

AEC spokesman Phil Diak says that in the WA Senate race, it is likely to be several weeks more before the recount is complete.

It would be very hard to quote odds on this battle, though the Bailey precedent would suggest it’s marginally more likely to go against Wang. 

If some newspapers are silent on this story, Liberal HQ will not be. While the net effect of Pratt and Wang going, and Ludlam and Dropulich winning, would still give Abbott the chance of a Senate majority, the Coalition would have to parley with the unknown Dropulich.

The Sports Party doesn’t have much of an agenda, except to get more kids involved in sport. How easy it would be, therefore, for the Abbott government to throw its weight behind such a benign issue – who could disagree with that objective. 

Oh, and while funding new kids sports programs across the nation, the government would have time to educate an incoming senator about some of the things it wished to change. 

That Abbott Senate majority hangs by a thread. If it is lost, the full set of policies from Perth-based civil engineer Drupolich will become apparent. One thing we do know, is that there are plenty of engineers within the Greens party membership – something to keep Abbott awake at night in the weeks ahead. 

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