The most marginal victory in Australian political history was not challenged in the Court of Disputed Returns despite Labor alleging fraudulent postal votes, a new report into last year’s Territory general election has found.
The hotly contested seat of Barkly was won by the CLP’s Steve Edington last August by only five votes – which would typically trigger a dispute in the courts – but Territory Labor chose not to pursue the close results for their own reasons that have never been made public.
The lead changed multiple times over 13 days while votes were counted and recounted, with Labor’s Sid Vashist at one point leading by more than 100 votes.
But that lead evaporated after the final count of postal and declaration votes on September 4, 2020 gave Mr Edgington a five vote win.
The NT Electoral Commission 2020 election report shows both the CLP and Labor filed official complaints about one another’s conduct in the Barkly electorate during the election.
Labor filed a formal complaint alleging postal votes collected from NT Cattlemen’s Association members, “including those hand delivered” more than a week after the polls closed were “fraudulently completed”.
“The complaint also alleged that some or all of the Barkly postal votes received from Monday 24 August onwards were cast after the deadline of 6pm on 22 August and declarations on the back of the postal vote envelope were fraudulently completed,” the report stated.
The CLP meanwhile lodged a formal complaint of their own, questioning the legitimacy of the same person being used to attest to multiple declaration votes cast at remote mobile voting centres.
An “attestor” is someone “who is enrolled [to vote] who can confirm the identity of someone who is not enrolled, in lieu of the accepted evidence of identity”, the report stated.
The NTEC determined there was no limit to the number of times one attestor can act in that capacity.
They also investigated Labor’s complaint about the Cattlemen’s Association members’ ballots and concluded that five postal votes that had been hand-delivered to the NTEC’s Darwin office on August 31 – a week after the polls closed – had “all been declared correctly”.
The NTEC did not explain how “postal votes” could be allowed to be hand-delivered.
Yet despite those hand-delivered votes being counted, a total of 227 returned postal votes in the electorate were not admitted “because the declaration was dated or timed after 6pm on 22 August, or where the date and time was not stated at all”, the report said.
“Just over half of these were postal votes received from prisoners.”
The 2020 election was the first year that the NTEC did not require a witness sign a postal ballot, which raised eyebrows at the time, because the only thing stopping voters from completing their ballot after knowing the preliminary results was their own conscience.
Labor had publicly raised vague postal vote allegations shortly after the election, but in a twist of irony, a complaint had been filed against them for using government resources to solicit postal vote applications using a government email server which was in breach of the Electoral Act.
The email account was shut down sometime in July, before the August election. That issue was not addressed in the NTEC election report, but it’s understood the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption may be looking at it.
Labor president Erina Early did not respond to questions about why the close election results in Barkly were not challenged in the Court of Disputed Returns.
“This is the smallest margin of any federal or state/territory election that has not been referred to the relevant Court of Disputed Returns,” the NTEC report stated.
In 1987, the NT Labor Party challenged former chief minister Ian Tuxworth’s 19-vote victory over Maggie Hickey in the same electorate of Barkly at the Court of Disputed Returns. They were successful overturning the result, but Mr Tuxworth later won the byelection.