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Southern style democracy

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Mark Aldridge - democracy activist

The result of the recent South Australian election was challenged by a political outsider in a reluctant court and the South Australian public was left in the dark about the matter by the local press.

Unfortunately, the action was unsuccessful, though the battle for democracy in South Australia seems far from over.

Read David Donovan's story about this epic struggle, which was first published in Crikey on May 19. Much has occurred since and the next chapter will be placed on these pages in the next few days.

INDEPENDENT candidate for the Upper House, Mark Aldridge, has become a lightning rod for widespread public dissatisfaction about the controversial March 20 South Australian election and has petitioned the Court of Disputed Returns to hold a new election. The first hearing of this petition has been set for later this week: Wednesday, May 19.

This election was controversial on a number of fronts, with opposition leader Isobel Redmond calling it the “dodgiest” she had ever seen. It was won by the incumbent Labor Party in the teeth of a hostile electorate, despite receiving only 48 per cent of the two party preferred vote and having a swing of almost 8 per cent recorded against it. Incredibly, in the final wash up, Labor managed to lose just a single seat.

In the aftermath of the election, opposition parties and independents complained bitterly to the press about such incidents as Labor volunteers masquerading as Family First and handing out fake Family First how-to-vote cards; letterboxing campaigns that smeared opposing candidates and misrepresented party positions; and even of Labor registering the name of the Isobel Redmond reply paid with Australia Post and then not passing on her letters until after the election. The SA electoral commissioner, Kay Mousley, stated at the time that none of these actions were breaches of the Electoral Act. However, doubts have arisen over her performance as reports emerged of a single family voting 159 times in the election and electoral officials not collecting ballots from certain hospitals and nursing homes. There was also a record number of informal ballots in this election: a staggering 5.8 per cent of the total vote.

Meanwhile, out of the spotlight, Mark Aldridge has been collecting over a thousand statements and depositions from disgruntled and disenfranchised voters who say they did not receive their democratic rights at the March 20 election. At the same time, he is building an impressive grassroots campaign to get the March 20 election result overturned and a new election held.

The 45 year-old car yard owner and operator of a small native wildlife sanctuary does not have the deep pockets one usually needs when litigating against a the Government. Not being able to afford a barrister, Aldridge will be representing himself in court. He says that the hundreds of hours of work he has put into his campaign have stalled his businesses and may mean him ultimately losing his home.

Remarkably, this doesn’t seem to faze him and he is, in fact, quite upbeat about his chances in court. This may be because he knows more about South Australian electoral law than most inner-city lawyers. Aldridge has stood for election in federal and state polls several times since becoming actively involved in politics in 2001 and during this period has, indeed, launched two actions in the Court of Disputed Returns.

His experiences, whilst educational, have left him cynical about the system and the state of democracy in South Australia. In 2002, when he ran as an Independent for the Senate, Aldridge said he was disappointed by a system that appeared biased in favour of the major parties and against Independents. He said that electoral officials had left his name off the ballot paper above the line, something he felt was undemocratic. Consequently, along with another candidate, he petitioned the Court of Disputed Returns. He was unsuccessful because the electoral Act does not allow non party candidates to have their name next to their voting box above the line on the ballot paper.

“Since that time, I have become very interested in the voting system and politics in general. It’s clear to me that the structural biases inherent in the system were due to those that wrote the laws having a vested interest in the outcome,” said Mr Aldridge.

During the 2006 election, Aldridge did not stand, and was disappointed when he could not find a list of all the candidates before the election. He said that the Advertiser publicized that a lift-out on all the candidates would be in the paper on the Wednesday before the election. He was stunned to find that the paper had included only the Labor candidates in this publication. Again, he lodged a petition before the Court of Disputed Returns, arguing that he had a right to access of the choice of candidates before the election. And, again, he lost the case, the court finding that the electoral commission’s role in public education was only about “how to vote" not about explaining voters choices.

The first inkling Aldridge had that all may not be right with the most recent election was when he began to receive hundreds of calls from confused voters in the final few days before the March 20 poll.

“On the Friday before the election I was inundated with phone calls, as it appeared many voters were searching the net under “How to vote in SA” and I had a web site of the same name,” said Mr Aldridge.

“By the Saturday I was receiving more calls than I could answer from a very confused electorate. Most had no idea what an upper and lower house was, who was running and where they had to go to vote,” he said.

After the election, he began to become further overwhelmed by calls from people who felt that their democratic rights had been abused on election day. This made him decide to act.

“The phone went mad on the days after the election,” said Mr Aldridge.

“Friends phoning to say they went to vote for me, but were told they could not vote as they were no longer on the roll. People who never received their postal votes and even people being turned away from the polling booth due to what they were wearing,“ he said.

“The calls were staggering, and all of them were pissed off at missing out on their vote for one reason or another.”

A few days after the election, Channel 7’s Today Tonight programme did a feature on Mark Aldridge and this “dirty election”. After that, the stream of complaints became a flood as hundreds of voters contacted Aldridge to gripe about their unhappy experiences on polling day. He called for their complaints in writing and started collating the many emails and online complaints he had received. After that, statutory declarations started pouring in. In the end, he had collated over 260 pages and almost 1700 written complaints.

Aldridge then drew up an application to the court of disputed returns in the same manner he had in 2006 and lodged it at the Supreme Court acting as the Court of Disputed Returns, as is required within 40 days of the of the writ of election being issued. After that, things began to go somewhat awry.

“This time I did not receive a hearing date as I had in 2006, and the registrar took all my copies,“ said Mr Aldridge.

“On Wednesday 28th, a full week and a half later, I attended the court in person to see what was happening. They said they had sent me an email and to return home and read it. Instead I phoned my wife from the court to have her read the email to me,” he said.

His wife relayed the message that the court petition was not going to be accepted.

Aldridge went straight back to the registry to demand answers. At that time, the registry returned all the copies of his application with a covering letter stating he had no right to lodge the application, that the statutory declarations should have been affidavits, and that he had no right to ask for an election to be deemed void.

“It seemed as if the rules had changed since 2006,” said Mr Aldridge.

In a sinister twist, soon after lodging this petition, Aldridge received a threatening anonymous call at his family home telling him to drop his action.

“A few days after the first petition was submitted, the court refused to return my stamped copy, so I insisted upon a receipt,” said Mr Aldridge.

“The receipt confirmed the documents were in the court safe and given they were my only copies, I was feeling fairly exposed. It all seemed very unusual,” he said.

“Then, on the Thursday, a few days after lodgement, I received a phone call telling me it was in my best interests to drop the case. Whoever it was knew the content of the documents, which would not have been possible without access to the documents the court had apparently secured.”

With the 40 day time limit ticking away, Aldridge went back and worked furiously to put his submission into the format the Court now required. He also went out and got his supporters activated. This time, when he resubmitted the petition to the Court a fortnight later, he took about a hundred of his supporters with him. When the court turned him away again, they parked a truck outside the courthouse, set up a picket, and hunkered down in tents and sleeping bags until the Court opened the next morning.

“On Monday May 3rd, we had to have all 280 pages witnessed and made up in triplicate, then when we went to hand them over, they turned off all the lights and said the registry was closed,” said Mr Aldridge.

“So we all stayed overnight and waited until they were well and truly opened and then submitted them on the Tuesday morning. Even though the place was empty, they still insisted we take a number,” he said.

“The registrar couldn't get the ticket machine to work, so he decided to serve us, which entailed handing him the documents and leaving.”

The Court finally accepted the petition on Thursday 6th of May and Aldridge has now, at last, been given his day in court. The first hearing of this petition will be on Wednesday, 19th May.

Aldridge said he believes that court officials were deliberately attempting to delay his action to stop the action being heard.

“I would say the stalling over the past month with the filing of my petition was, firstly, to find some way out of having it hit the records and in being heard,” said Mr Aldridge.

“And the other is to run me out of time, as petitions must be filed with in 40 day of the return of the writ,” he said.

Apart from the Court frustration, one of other noticeable aspects of this affair is the fact that the only major metropolitan newspaper in South Australia, the Advertiser, has offered little if any coverage of Aldridge’s attempt to overturn the result of the March 20 election. The editor of the newspaper, Melvin Mansell, was contacted and asked why the paper had not reported this action.

He replied with the following short statement:

“We [the Advertiser] have reported on the action and will do so again whenever appropriate.”

There have been grumblings amongst the Liberal party faithful in South Australia that the Advertiser has a decided slant in favour of the ruling Labor Party. Certainly, the Premier Mike Rann -- an ex-journalist, nicknamed ‘Media Mike’ for his clever use of the press to spin his the Party’s message -- certainly boasts of a strong relationship with Melvin Mansell on his Twitter site, the two of them apparently breaking bread on a regular basis.

Sadly, there is no doubt that Aldridge’s case would have been bolstered by the many other submissions he would almost certainly have received as a result of the added exposure from a report in the only metropolitan newspaper in that one newspaper town. The reporting of the Advertiser on this matter will be under close scrutiny when the case goes to Court this week.

The electoral commissioner, Lyn Mousley, was also contacted for her views on the issues presented in this article. As at the time of publication, no-one from her office has responded.

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