West Australians are set to go back to the polls within weeks for an unprecedented standalone Senate election after the High Court today voided the results of last year’s disputed ballot.
High Court Justice Kenneth Hayne, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, agreed with the Australian Electoral Commission that the loss of 1370 ballot papers changed the close result.
“(The Court) found that, without regard to the voting intentions recorded in those ballot papers, the conclusion that the loss probably affected the result of the election was inevitable,” a statement issued by the court said.
Justice Hayne rejected the argument mounted by Labor, the Palmer United Party and the Liberals that he could combine the results of the re-count with the records of the original election night tally of the missing ballot papers to decide who won the seats.
He also knocked back Labor and PUP’s suggestion that a further 945 ballot papers that had been challenged during the recount should be re-scrutinised. Labor and PUP had argued these votes had been incorrectly counted.
Justice Hayne will hold a further hearing on Thursday to make his final rulings but it appears a fresh poll is the only option available.
It is understood Prime Minister Tony Abbott will have responsibility for setting the election date.
With the Constitution setting a minimum 33 days for an election campaign, March 29 looms as the earliest date Mr Abbott could call the poll.
Complicating the choice of dates is the need to avoid a clash with the Easter school holidays, which run from April 12 to April 27.
Delaying the election to May would also put the campaign period into the run up to the Federal Budget, when the Government is expected to make a raft of swingeing and unpopular cuts.
A Senate only election in just one State has never been held.
The new poll is expected to cost taxpayers at least $13 million.
It has the potential to cost the Liberals one of the three seats it won in September, making Mr Abbott more reliant on crossbenchers to pass key legislation.
The AEC has been deeply embarrassed by the lost votes bungle.
The initial count gave Palmer United Party’s Dio Wang and Labor Senator Louise Pratt the last two seats but a re-count awarded the seats to the Sports Party’s Wayne Dropulich and the Greens’ Scott Ludlam.
The result hinged on whether the Australian Christian Party or the Shooters and Fishers Party were eliminated first.
PUP and Labor benefited with the Shooters 14 votes ahead but the re-count gave the Christians a 12-vote gap, changing preference flows.
Analysis of the original tallies show that if the ballot papers had not been lost, the Shooters would have been one vote ahead, delivering the seats to PUP and Labor.
The AEC argued that a new election was required because the number of lost votes exceeded the margin.