By ERWIN CHLANDA
The election of a Mayor for Alice Springs is far from accomplished: The one we have, Matt Paterson, is temporary, or so it seems.
His challenger, Jimmy Cocking, is taking a string of complaints to the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT).
Electoral Commissioner Iain Loganathan says: “With the extremely tight margin, I can understand Jimmy would take this action.”
Once a vote count is finalised it is only a tribunal or court that can overturn the result. Although highly unlikely it could be appealed all the way to the High Court.
In such a tight result ultimately it is up to Mr Paterson and Mr Cocking as to when they accept the result, shake hands and call it quits.
“But no-one can force them to. It’s their right to take it as far as they wish.”
The Electoral Commission does not have the power to say hey guys, that’s it, and declares one of them the winner.
Mr Cocking says the Commissioner has the power to call for a recount prior to the declaration, due to the closeness of the result (initially 17 votes): “This was requested by me and this was standard procedure with my scrutineers on the night of September 10 when it came down to 17 votes.
“The Commissioner approved a recheck of the preferential votes and the margin under scrutiny came within two votes.
“The fundamental focus of my appeal is that it was a partial recheck – the preference votes only,” says Mr Cocking.
“It was not a full recheck – fresh scrutiny of all results including the first preference votes.
“We were only formally advised this the day before the recount.”
Returning officer in Alice Springs Wayne Harlock says while the process wasn’t called a re-count of primary votes, in fact that’s what it was (see also below).
Mr Cocking says the count did not take place “under scrutiny; [his helpers] were observers only, they were advised they could only observe. I had volunteers organised but didn’t want to waste their time.
“There were no scrutineers on the other side as well.
“This was different to my understanding of what scrutineers were allowed to do and it felt like the scrutineers were wasting their time if they couldn’t call out what they can see or ask the counters to slow down.”
Mr Loganathan says training scrutineers on their role is not the commission’s job and Mr Cocking agrees, saying at best there are lessons being learned from Election 2021 by candidates and their helpers.
“Are they observers or scrutineers? That is the key question here. They are usually new at the job.
“The helpers have much less experience when compared to political party functionaries [in state or Federal elections].”
Mr Cocking says he thought that all the votes were being re-counted, and he gave this as a reason for taking his complaint to NTCAT. [This sentence updated 1.22am Sept 19.]
He now “must state the grounds on which [he] seeks relief from NTCAT and … state the nature of the remedy sought”.
This needs to happen within 21 days but Mr Cocking says he’ll be ready in seven.
He says he and his team are finalising the “grounds” to be put to NTCAT and he was not prepared to comment on them.
When human beings use pencil and paper to formulate a message things can go wrong. That’s not a problem when the margins are large, when the number of doubtful ballot papers is too low to affect the result.
But it’s crucial when the margins are narrow.
Is a 1 a 7? Is a 3 an 8?
Some choices are not black and white.
Yet they determine whether a ballot is formal or informal.
And when just two ballot papers are making the difference between who’s Mayor of an iconic Aussie town and who is not then a lot of eyes will be turning to Alice Springs.
Meanwhile for Mayor Paterson, duly appointed, it’s business as usual, with Mr Cocking’s declared support – only it’s not clear for how long.
And with a third of enrolled voters in the NT not even turning up at the ballot box it wasn’t a great week for democracy in the NT.
NOTES from Returning Officer in Alice Springs Wayne Harlock:
• The count on election night was an indicative count only, where first preferences and obvious informal votes were sorted accordingly (the margin on primary votes after this process was significant – leading candidate Cocking 683 ahead).
• A thorough recheck of all formal and informal votes was undertaken from Monday, August 30, where scrutineers could challenge ballot papers. This also resulted in a significant margin of first preference votes between candidates Cocking and Paterson.
• After the cut off for postal votes on noon Friday, September 10, no candidate had received the majority of votes.
• It was evident a recount of primary votes was not required as the margin was over 600.
• A full distribution of preferences was then conducted with scrutineers in attendance. At this point in time ballot papers could not be challenged as they have already been reviewed twice.
• Upon completion of the full distribution of preferences the leading candidate was in front by 17 votes, and in accordance with the NTEC’s recount policy, the commission determined a recount was necessary as the margin was less than 100.
• The instruction from the returning officer was to recount votes transferred to both candidates, Cocking and Paterson, to ensure they were correct. In addition, all informal ballot papers were reviewed.
• The recount was conducted on Tuesday, September 14 at 9am with scrutineers from both candidates in attendance. Scrutineers were once again able to challenge ballot papers in the recount.
PHOTO: Damien Ryan hands over the Mayor’s reins he has held since 2008 to Matt Paterson – for a duration unknown.