Australia Federal Election 2016: What Happens Next?

The short answer is “counting continues”. The long answer is that “counting continues, and it’s a much more complicated process than you might think”. But before I go into how votes are counted, it’s worth taking a look at how they’re cast, because understanding that is important to understanding why counting takes as long as it does.

Starting at the Start:
Voting actually commences before polling day, in several different ways.

There are pre-polling centres across Australia (and the world, but I’ll come back to them) where you can vote ahead of time for whatever reason (say, if you have to work on polling day). Many, but not all, of these are also polling booths on election day. In the cases of those that are also polling day booths, these pre-poll votes will have begun being counted by now, after the polling day votes are counted on election night. In the cases of those which are not, these votes will have been sent to the divisional office to await counting.

There are also mobile pre-polling booths, which primarily exist to serve people in hospital who cannot physically attend a polling booth otherwise. These booths operate throughout the pre-polling period and also on polling day, finally reporting back to their respective divisional offices. (If you look at the results for nearly any division across the country right now (that is, on this Sunday after election day), you’ll see that the majority of votes from these mobile booths have not yet been counted.

There are postal votes, for people who can’t get to a polling booth. These are individually addressed: for each division, postal votes go back to the divisional office for their division. Postal votes are allowed two full weeks – up until the second Friday following polling day – to arrive at their divisional office.

Finally, there are international votes, which are chiefly held at Australian embassies and consulates across the world. Most of these operate pre-polling and polling day services. These votes will be sent back to Australia, and then separated out to their respective divisional offices.

The Big Day
Polling day is when the majority of the country votes and eats sausages (or the local and/or dietary equivalent). According to surveys, it’s also when the majority of voters decide who to vote for, which implies that the gut rather than the mind drives a lot of our electoral results. After the business of voting finishes – it runs from 8AM to 6PM in most locations (and if you go too early in some of them, you’ll be there before the sausages are ready) – the business of counting the votes begins.

Spare a thought for the poor bastards doing the counting on election day, because they are the unsung heroes of this story. The AEC hasn’t updated its staffing practices in a long time – and unfortunately, what we have doesn’t scale well. FT employees on election day start at 7am, and work until they’re allowed to go. They do get some breaks, but they’re not allowed to leave the premises during their entire shift. (They also get paid a fixed amount, irrespective of how many hours they work – this year’s crew got ripped off there.) It’s a pretty shit job, no matter how many sausages you eat.

On election night, the only votes counted are those cast at the physical polling booths on that day for the division the booth is in. (Some few polling booths serve more than one division – counting is particularly slow at those booths, because the staff have to split up and each of them works on only one division’s votes). Very few divisional offices are also polling booths (they mostly lack the space for it), so votes that are sitting at the divisional office do not get counted on election night. This year, with a very high pre-poll vote, that means there’s a good chunk of votes still to be counted – 25-30% in most divisions – so this election is still, potentially, anyone’s game.

Also, on election night, Senate votes are barely looked at. This year, we have a count only of first preferences of above the line polling day votes only counted on election night. I’ll come back to this.

They don’t work the Sunday, never have. No idea why not.

You Keep Talking About Divisional Offices
I do, and it’s because they’re very important.

Divisional offices are where all votes are centralised for counting. So not a lot of counting gets done on Monday, because the Monday is largely taken up by logistics. Monday is when all the polling booths return their votes to the divisional offices, and they each need to be checked to make sure that the numbers match. (A counting of ballots, rather than votes, if you follow me.) From these, the absentee votes (votes cast in one division that belong to another division) have to be separated out, and sent on to where they should be. In most divisions, this means nearby and intra-state votes get sent directly to their divisional offices, while votes for divisions in other states are bundled separately, but sent to their respective state head office to be dispatched to their divisions (which usually means an extra day for the travel and sorting).

From Tuesday onward (sometimes late Monday for the smaller urban electorates), divisions start receiving their own absentee votes, which must also be checked off and then added to the counts.

Throughout this period, postal votes will continue to filter in – the AEC allows until the second Friday following the election for all of them to arrive – they are also each checked off and added to the count.

International votes, like other absentee votes, go to state head offices first, then out to divisional offices. They usually take longer to arrive due to the vagaries of travel times and international freight schedules – some of them will take more than a week to arrive, and the AEC cannot declare a count completed (which is different from declaring a result) until they are all counted.

Plus, all of this is complicated by human error – which is less about votes miscounted than mislaid. It’s not uncommon for a division to receive votes intended to go to another division with a similar name, and these need to be redirected to their correct location.

What About the Senate?
The Senate votes take much longer to count than the lower house votes, for a number of very good reasons:

  1. Before you can even begin counting Senate votes, you need to separate the above and below the line votes, because these two groups are counted apart from each other (and totalled at the end of each count). Currently, all Senate votes go into the same ballot box on polling day – the AEC could save quite a bit of time and money just by putting them in separate boxes.
  2. There are a lot more candidates. Even the simpler above the line vote usually has twice as many candidates as a lower house vote, and below the line there can be more than a hundred candidates.
  3. More candidates mean more eliminations, and thus, more rounds of counting. A lower house seat might have a dozen candidates – at most, it gets counted 11 times. A Senate vote, with over a hundred candidates, is likely to get counted more than twice that.

And because the Senate does not determine who forms the government in our system, it is also generally given a lower priority in counting than the lower house. Each day at each divisional office, there will be at least one count for each house, but the lower house will inevitably be counted before the Senate – although towards the end of the count, the pace picks up, and the Senate votes will be counted multiple times each day as candidates are eliminated.

But Wait, There’s More!
And all of this does not take into consideration the possibility of recounts, which are certainly going to be demanded by a variety of parties in some of the seats with narrow margins (Batman and Cowan, for example, are both very likely to go to recounts based on what we’ve seen so far in the count). There is no set number at which the AEC must have a recount, but generally any result with a margin under a hundred is going to be recounted.

And then, of course, there’s still the possibility – at this point, the likelihood – of a hung parliament when all the counting’s completed in any case. In which case it will be up to the crossbenchers – projected to be at least six of them right now, with possibly more to come – to decide who they want to back. If anyone.

Which means we might go back to the polls yet again, and who knows how that will come out. Probably an even closer result.

Oh, and after all this, the joint sitting of both houses that’s required to try to pass the bills that served as the trigger for the double dissolution in the first place will still need to be held, and will quite likely result in those bills being defeated anyway, because on current numbers, there’s no way that the LNC – even if it wins the election – has the combined numbers in both houses to get it through.

June 6, 1835 — John Batman makes a treaty with the Wurundjeri people

John Batman was a Tasmanian who organised a syndicate of investors to fund him and some other settlers to build a new village on the banks of the Yarra River. Of course, this land was already occupied by the tribes of the Kulin nation, primarily the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung, each of which greatly outnumbered the small group of settlers Batman led. Thus, Batman made a deal with the chiefs of the Wurundjeri, purchasing a small stretch of land. In time, the village would become Melbourne (today a metropolis of more than four million people, very few of them members of the Wurundjeri or other Kulin peoples).

However, there are many grounds on which to dispute Batman’s treaty. It is a matter of some dispute whether the tribesmen Batman dealt with understood the deal they were making in the same way Batman did – among the Kulin people, as among most Australian Aboriginal peoples, land was not owned by individuals in the same way it was by Europeans. Legally, even by the standards of colonial empires, Batman was also on shaky ground, as he had no authority from the Crown to make such a deal. And while it does appear that, at least to start with, the colonists made efforts to deal in good faith with the various Kulin peoples, misunderstandings were inevitable between two such disparate peoples, leading to bloodshed on several occasions. Later colonists, who were not party to the original deal, treated the Kulin (and in time, the other native peoples of Victoria) much worse. Batman, like so many of the natives, was dead by then.

Batman signs treaty artist impression
As mentioned in:
Solid Rock — Goanna

1915 — Allied forces land at ANZAC Cove in Gallipoli

The idea was simple enough: to reinforce their Russian allies, the British forces needed a sea port, and those on the Black Sea were much less well defended than those on the Baltic Sea. So it was decided by the British high command, prominent among them the First Lord of the Admiralty, one Winston Churchill, that it would be necessary to invade and hold the Dardanelles – the narrow straits between the Black Sea and the greater Mediterranean. Unfortunately, this mean invading Turkey, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, whose capital of Istanbul sat at the far end of the straits.

The invasion was seen primarily as a naval engagement, with British naval forces blockading the straits and its ports. A few land invasions were planned to capture key strategic points – forts and watchtowers – after initial resistance to the British navy proved stronger than intended.

The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) was at this point largely encamped in Egypt, making them conveniently close at hand to serve as an invasion force. On the morning of April 25, 1915, the ANZAC forces landed at what is now called Anzac Cove. Ottoman resistance again proved stronger than anticipated (it’s almost like the British high command was composed entirely of arrogant racists incapable of learning from experience or something), and although some land was held, it was eventually evacuated in January the following year, and the idea of capturing the Dardanelles was abandoned. Of course, before that point was reached, approximately 250,000 men on each side lost their lives in what was ultimately one of the most pointless military campaigns of the entire Twentieth Century.

As the first major engagement to be fought in by Australian forces, it is still commemorated today as Australia’s national day of remembrance, Anzac Day.

Referenced in:
And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda — Eric Bogle

1942 — Japanese planes attack Darwin

The Japanese air raid on Darwin was mounted by 242 Japanese planes launched from four aircraft carriers. It was intended to soften up the air force and navy bases there in preparation for the Japanese invasion of Timor the following day. Between 9:58 and 10:40AM that day, the planes sank three warships and five merchant ships, while damaging ten more. Twenty-one dock workers were killed in the raids.

This would be the first of a total of 97 air raids against targets either in Australian waters or on the Australian mainland. Most of these were on various sites across the northern coast of Australia between Port Hedland, Western Australia and Townsville, Queensland, with the great majority of them being on military or civilian targets in Darwin. The last air raid took place on November 12, 1943, striking Parap, Adelaide River and Batchelor Airfield (all in the Northern Territory). By that time, the tide of war had turned, and Japan could no longer strike so close to Australia, although the end of the war was still nearly two years away.

Referenced in:
Tojo — Hoodoo Gurus

1770 — Captain James Cook is the first European to make contact with Australian Natives

It was on his first voyage of discovery that Captain James Cook’s ship the Endeavour, sighted the eastern coast of Australia. A man aloft in the crows nest, one Lieutenant Zachary Hickes, made the first sighting, which Cook repaid by naming Point Hicks (spelling was not, apparently, one of Cook’s many talents). But although they saw evidence of the natives of this new land – the smoke of numerous campfires, mostly – it was not until four days later that first contact was made between the Englishmen and Australian Natives. (Specifically, members of the Gweagal people, who dwelt on the shores of Botany Bay around modern Kurnell.)

Perhaps setting a template for future interactions between blacks and whites in Australia, the contact was hostile, although no one was killed. Cook and his crew continued on their way after spending a week or so in Botany Bay, taking home news that would eventually spell the doom of the Gweagal and a great many of their relatives.

Referenced in:

Solid Rock — Goanna

1788 — The first British settlement in Australia is founded at Port Jackson

On this day in 1788, British soldiers, citizens and convicts landed at Port Jackson in what is now Sydney. They raised a Union Jack, drank a toast, said some prayers and then set about their mission. The ongoing dispossession of the native peoples, the rampant deforestation, the extinction of native species of plant and animal, the destruction of a way of life that had endured for forty thousand years and more, the abolition of ancient languages and stories, and the general dehumanisation of the poor bastards whose only crime was to get in the way of Britain’s ego continues even to this day.

If the citizens of Australia continue to vote for parties which are not members of the Coalition, it may well never be finished…

Referenced in:

Solid Rock — Goanna
Point of No Return — Immortal Technique

“Bow River” by Cold Chisel

In an earlier installment of this series, I mentioned Cold Chisel’s “One Long Day”, which I find myself terribly sorry there wasn’t a place in this list. But I promised myself only one Chisel song, and as brilliant as that one is, it loses out to “Bow River”. They both have a similar subject matter, but one is a mellow bluesy piece and the other one is rock’n’roll – no contest, really.

That subject matter is something that flows on naturally from the last couple of installments of Australian Anthems: it the idea of getting away from it all. The flipside of urbanisation is the desire to get the hell out of the city, for good or for just a weekend, and feel truly free.

The Australian built environment is quite centralised and dense – it doesn’t take more than a few hours driving to get out to an area where even the farms are fairly far from each other, and you can imagine what this land was like as a wilderness.

This longing is a holdover from our frontier past, although in recent decades it also partakes of environmentalist sentiments. Either way, it’s a desire for clean, fresh air and no sounds but the wind and occasional birds.

At the same time, it acknowledges that this dream is a forlorn one without the money to pay for it (and the logical corollary, that working will be necessary to get that money together) – and that furthermore, when this holiday is over, however long it lasts, nothing will remain but the memories of it.

“Don’t Tear It Down” by Spy V Spy

Urbanisation is a fact of life in this country, particularly when you look at how many of us live in our cities compared to the vast expanses of rural land and wilderness that make up our nation. Cities, as I’ve already noted, force us into contact with each other, and where there’s contact, there’s friction. And cities also have their own traditions and feelings associated with them. As Cold Chisel put it in “Flame Trees”: ‘we share some history, this town and I, and I can’t stop that long-forgotten feeling…

Australia is a young land as far as the built environment goes, and so it’s only recently that we’ve faced the issue of whether to conserve or destroy the architecture that previous generations have left us. On the one side, conservation is expensive and poorly understood, not to mention getting in the way of vastly more profitable new developments. Destruction, on the other hand, isn’t so simple. The old Australian belief in terra nullius finds its modern expression here, as if demolishing an old building also demolished its history and the memories of all who ever went inside or even just walked past it.

It doesn’t work that way. People don’t work that way. We live, we love, we laugh, we work, we play, we cry, we fight, we drink and we die, and we do almost all of these things in the built environment almost all of the time. Even after death, we’re buried and memorials are built for us in cemetaries and such. The built environment is the physical environment in which we exist, the stage upon which our plays are acted, and we cannot help but invest it with emotional significance. It carries the weight of memory and sentiment – almost every step we take through the streets of our towns is down memory lane.

Ask any fan of a suburban AFL club how they feel about the abandonment of the suburban grounds, and almost all of them will tell you stories not just of their team’s home ground but of all the others. How much more so for the place where you got married, or met your love for the first time, graduated, got a job or a promotion, lived, walked your dog, and any of a million other activities, great and small, earth-shattering or trivial?

More than any other, “Don’t Tear It Down” is a plea to that environment, asking that it be saved and protected and cherished. Because as the natives of this land knew long before the white man ever got here, the land is our story.

“Whatareya” by This Is Serious Mum

Possibly the most fundamental conflict in Australian society – more than any question of morality or ethics – is one particular social divide. It’s the one that lies between the two groups characterised by TISM as the yobboes and the wankers. Between the university-educated and the trade-school-educated; between the book reading and the Herald-Sun reading; between chardonnay and beer drinkers.

Americans would recognize it as the divide between jocks and nerds, but here in Australia, although it springs from the same roots, it goes wider. It’s a difference between levels of education, and thus, levels of income. Ultimately, it is a division between the working class and the middle class. But these are all just labels, indicators, general trends. To be a yobbo or to be a wanker is a matter of personal identification. It’s a decision you make for yourself in primary school, not even knowing you’ve made it.

Australia is a land of considerable social mobility, but to travel from one of these tribes to the other is a difficult thing to manage, as both groups are insular and suspicious of outsiders. That said, increasingly, Australia finds itself culturally perched in between the two groups, as politicians of all stripes try to position themselves to appeal to both groups and unwittingly create bridges across them. Australia’s high level of urbanisation also tends to break down the barriers, as it forces the two groups to interact more than would otherwise be the case (as in Australia’s rural areas, where the proportions skew massively towards yobboes rather than wankers). For that matter, there’s a strong tendency in both groups towards culturally appropriating the other group – and this is, of course, because they are not two separate cultures, but merely two facets (albeit large ones) of the larger Australian culture as a whole.

It is, despite what the song implies, perfectly possible to appreciate James Hird and James Joyce, after all. But for exposing the fault line, making it visible, the song deserves a greater recognition, if only to remind us all of a mistake we shouldn’t make.

1770 — Captain Cook’s expedition sights the east coast of Australia

It had already been a long voyage – the Endeavour had been at sea since August 1768 – when the eastern coast of Australia was first sighted. Lieutenant Hicks made the sighting, and Cook named the point he had discovered in Hicks’ honour. Point Hicks is located near the eastern extremity of the state of Victoria, between Orbost and Mallacoota. Although he had been aiming for Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Cook quickly realised that he had found a separate landmass to the north of it, based on the the south-westerly trend of the coastline away from Point Hicks.

From here, Cook and his crew proceeded northward along the coast of Australia. Ten days later, he made his famous landing at Botany Bay and encountered the Australian natives for the first time (members of the Gweagal tribe) – although from observations of their many campfires, Cook had been aware of them (and presumably, they of him) for several days by that ppint.

Referenced in:

Solid Rock — Goanna

“What About Me?” by Moving Pictures

I doubt that Garry Frost and Frances Swan intended to create the absolute anthem of the Howard years when they set out to write “What About Me?” but they succeeded admirably. For song inspired originally by empathy for “a little boy waiting at the counter of the corner shop”, it became the absolute opposite: to most people listening to the song, it invokes little more than their own sense of self pity.

Anyone actually listening to the last verse would have taken away a different message – “I guess I’m lucky, I smile a lot…” as the song itself says – but few people seem to have looked much past the chorus. The boy in the first verse, the girl in the second, each of them is looking for little more than some basic human dignity, an acknowledgement that they are a person. Little enough to ask, and indeed, in the Eighties, when the original version was first released and the clip frequently seen on television, it did seem that at least some people had gotten the message. (My rose-tinted view is less so than it seems – the song was the national number one selling song for six weeks in 1982, and it seems unlikely that so many buyers were so lacking in self-pity even then.)

In 2004, Shannon Noll released a cover of the song which sold over 280,000 copies and also reached number one on the charts. This version of the song – by a winner of Australian Idol, no less – seemed to sum up exactly why John Howard was Prime Minister. By 2004, he had persuaded a large portion of the nation that they were “battlers” – people who honestly believed they were doing it tough. After all, they could barely able to afford the mortgages on their investment properties and the private school fees for the kids. By that time, “What About Me” was more reminiscent of the words put in Howard’s mouth by Casey Benetto: “What’s your country done for you?” than of the original call for good manners as social justice that Moving Pictures intended.

These two tendencies of “need a hand, mate?” and “I’m alright, Jack” are polar opposites, yet both very much a part of the Australian psyche. They are the two sides of most of our political debates, albeit rarely expressed so baldly, as to do so would be neither relaxing nor comfortable.

In suggesting this song as our national anthem, I find myself very much hoping we do not prove deserving of it as one…

“Most People I Know (Think That I’m Crazy)” by Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs

To most of Australia, this song is one the few really well-known flower child anthems. It represents free love and hippie shit and all that. The other side of the Sixties from songs about Vietnam.

And there’s certainly an element of that in the song. But to most people listening to it, it’s more an anthem of individuality. We all prize that about ourselves. The little eccentricities that make us us. (The irony of an anthem for individuals is as lost on the fans of Billy Thorpe as it is on the fans of, say, Rage Against The Machine.)

To me, though, what’s more interesting is the one line in the song that talks about God. You know, the line that most fans of the song ignore and wish wasn’t there.

Because isn’t that mostly how we feel about religion in this country? Oh, we have our various faiths, but in the national character, there’s a deep discomfort with anyone who talks about it too much. It’s not so much that it’s an embarassment as simply that it’s a matter that most of us – at least until the last decade or so – think of as a private one.

But this song violates that privacy at the exact same instant that it defeats our expectations of what a hippy anthem should say. And it’s that irony, and that contradiction that makes me think this song would be a good national anthem.