The entire state of Western Australia could be heading back to the polls in what could prove an early test of the Abbott government's popularity after more than 1300 votes went missing during a recount of WA Senate ballots.
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'Lost' votes causing stress
Labor senator Louise Pratt admits delays in settling the trouble-plagued WA Senate vote have been 'distressing', as candidates seek legal advice and wait to see whether 1,375 lost votes are recovered.
In what would be an unprecedented move, the High Court could order a fresh vote for the six WA Senate spots, giving the state's voters the chance to alter the balance of power in the upper house.
Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson lashed the Australian Electoral Commission after it revealed it had misplaced 1375 ballot papers, which had been verified during the initial count but could not be located for the recount.
"I have personally expressed to the electoral commissioner my strong view that this situation is totally unsatisfactory and that I, as the responsible minister, view this matter very dimly," Senator Ronaldson said.
Former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty has been called in to conduct an independent inquiry.
Electoral commissioner Ed Killesteyn apologised for the missing papers, which he said could not be found despite "exhaustive efforts" to locate them.
The votes were classified as 1255 formal above-the-line ballots and 120 informal votes from the divisions of Pearce and Forrest.
The WA recount began on October 17, after an appeal by the Greens and the Australian Sports Party over the initial result, which hinged on a margin of just 14 votes at one crucial stage of the count.
In the first vote, Greens senator Scott Ludlam and the Sports Party's Wayne Dropulich lost out to Palmer United Party's Zhenya "Dio" Wang and Labor's Louise Pratt, who took the fifth and sixth Senate spots.
Senator Ludlam said the result should not be declared until the votes were found or while Mr Keelty was investigating.
Senator Pratt said she was "deeply disappointed" by the development, which she said was "not only gravely concerning for me as a candidate, but also for all other candidates and the people of Western Australia".
Party leader Clive Palmer, who stridently opposed the recount, called for the original result to be restored. "Is the AEC trying to rig the election? Are they committing a fraud? Or are they just completely incompetent?" he said.
ABC election analyst Antony Green suggested on Thursday that WA voters could be headed back to the polls for Australia's first Senate by-election.
He said the missing votes were almost certainly down to an administrative error but noted that another Senate vote would be an ''acute embarrassment" for the AEC.
"It's entirely possible that the vote would have been the same [with the missing votes included] but the problem is the the ballot papers cannot be verified," Mr Green said.
The AEC says it will shortly declare a result for the WA recount, but added it would "strongly consider whether any petition to the Court of Disputed Returns is necessary".
In happier news for the mining magnate on Thursday, Mr Palmer was declared winner of the Queensland lower house seat of Fairfax.
Mr Palmer – who has repeatedly accused the AEC of trying to rig the result – triumphed after a four-week recount gave him a final 53-vote lead over Liberal National Party rival Ted O'Brien.
Mr Palmer's initial seven-vote lead triggered an automatic recount, but the process dragged on after scrutineers, mostly from Mr Palmer's team, challenged the validity of tens of thousands of ballot papers.
The AEC will shortly declare a result for the WA recount, after which any candidate or WA voter or even the AEC itself would have 40 days to petition the High Court, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, for a fresh election.
With the new senators not due to start their terms until July 2014, a fresh vote could take place as late as May.