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By-Elections By Recount

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By-Elections By Recount:
Hare-Clark revision 1917

At the 1913 general election the Solomon Government gained 16 of the 30 seats contested. Thus a working majority existed, but a by-election in early 1914, after Speaker Davies died, resulted in a ‘hung’ Parliament (15:15). The required by-election was duly held at the polling booths of Denison on 10 January 1914 with a field of six candidates. However while Davies had been a Liberal Party member, the by-election winner was an ALP candidate who had lost his seat at the general election. Ex-MHA William Sheridan succeeded by gaining 111 preference votes over his nearest Liberal Party rival F. D. Valentine who had also lost his seat at the earlier poll. The importance of this by-election outcome is that it shifted the balance of numbers on the floor of the House of Assembly. Subsequently, in April 1914 after Speaker Evans (Liberal) was replaced by W. A. Woods (ALP) this enabled John Earle (ALP) - with the support of an Independent - to briefly assume the Premiership.

A longer term outcome was that the 1914 by-election result helped nudge the Hare-Clark system towards by-elections by recount rather than polling booth elections. Underpinning the need for change, in September 1915 a Select Committee on an Electoral Bill wrote that it 'felt strongly that no electoral amendments would be satisfactory that did not deal with the problem of by-elections'. The Committee recommended that a count-back system using retained ballot papers be used because it would 'not alter the representation of parties in the House of Assembly.' This landmark idea was given to the Committee in evidence by a certain Mr Samuel Bind, Coach Builder of Burnie, which is a quite a coup for an outsider![1]

Furthermore, what seemed the final straw(s) for polling booth by-elections began in April 1917. Following his resignation from Parliament even Earle's top spot for the ALP in Franklin was lost to a Liberal, who had previously been seventh out of eight candidates. Compounding this three more by-elections were held in July 1917 for Bass, Darwin and Denison, each of which saw ALP seats lost to a National Party candidate. In short, the Government lost four of six by-elections, thereby dropping its parliamentary representation from 14 to 10 in the then 30 Member House of Assembly.[2]

In 1917 the incumbent Lee Government initially attempted to change the Electoral Act to provide that by-elections would simply go to the next highest vote winner. This was amended by the Government and a new statute was passed to confirm that casual vacancies would in future be dealt with by a recount or countback of the ballot papers of the outgoing candidate from the previous election. The 1915 Committee had argued that such recounts would ensure 'fairness and stability to both sides', but when the Bill was debated in the Legislative Council, Stafford Bird pointed out that it might mean that  unsuccessful candidates who lost their deposit would be eligible to nominate or ‘consent’ to be included in the recounts. Speaking in favour of the Bill, Tasman Shields conceded this point but countered the suggestion that a polling booth by-election would illustrate voters' latest thoughts by arguing that voters elected Members for a full parliamentary term regardless of any subsequent 'change in mind'.

Nevertheless, after being received by the State Governor on 23 February, Act 7 Geo V No. 65 gained Royal Assent on 23 August 1917. This 'contingent vote' as the Mercury called it, was first put to the test on 27 January 1919 when E. Mulcahy (Liberal) resigned and was elected to the Senate. Accordingly, all of Mulchay’s ballots were reexamined, including those gained via the completion of a transfer to him that had ceased upon his initial election. After several recounts W. J. Connell (Liberal) was successful, although the Examiner noted that ‘it will be remembered that the successful candidate lost his deposit at the last election.’[3 Another feature of this new statute was that it provided for automatic return to State Parliament should a local MP fail to be elected at a Federal election. Thus when J. A. Lyons unsuccessfully attempted to change to the Federal House of Representatives on 13 December 1919 a by-election occurred a month later on 17 January 1920 to legalise his automatic return to the House of Assembly.[4]

A more straightforward recount took place on 28 January 1920, while a more unusual one occurred on 11 July 1922 because W. W. F. Pearce (ALP) died shortly after Election Day. A by-election recount was necessary and nine of the eleven unelected candidates declared their ‘consent’ to be included in the recount. The 1797 votes received by Pearce on 10 June were examined and after several exclusions the candidates were whittled down to two leading ALP contenders [W. E. Shoobridge 1230 and B. Watkins 1127], and with just 58 votes of Independent-ALP candidate D. E. Dicker remaining the Returning Officer declared that it was ‘unnecessary to proceed further.’[5]

Shoobridge was declared elected and since then the only by-election held at polling booths was the Denison By-Election of 1980, which is unique in three ways. First; it was ordered by the Supreme Court after a rather complicated round of petitions against several candidates in various seats for exceeding campaign expenditure limits; secondly, it was a polling booth by-election the first since 1919, and thirdly it is the only by-election ever for all seven seats in any one electorate. That said a concise statement of the rationale for recounts instead of polling booth by-elections is that they are 'based on the concept that those who have lost their representative should choose the replacement.'[6]

 

Terry Newman

 

[1] T. Newman Hare-Clark in Tasmania pp.80-81.

[2] Mercury 19/1/1917 p.4, Mercury 31/1/1917 p.7.

[3] Examiner 28/1/1919 p.5.

[4] This generous provision was subsequently blocked by Federal law and removed by Electoral Amendment Act 1921 (12 Geo V No.57).

[5] Mercury12/7/1922 p.7.

[6] J.F. H. Wright Mirror of the nation's mind: Australia's electoral experiments Sydney : Hale & Iremonger, 1980 p.108.