Election 2013 media panel

Vale the Tally Room

Election campaigns can bring on nostalgia in journalism academics and other exiles from the old country; this one more so as made-for-television-and-social-media visits to cheering schools and industrious workplaces, doorstops and studio interviews have brought a new level and type of control to the spaces of politics.

So a melancholic moment on election day for the national tally room. Tally rooms have been a place where cracks in the façade of control occasionally appeared, where the politics of the Australian states and nation played out with a raw physicality – exposed to anyone who bothered making the journey out on election night.

My local tally room, at Hobart’s Wrest Point Casino, is always worth a visit after a state election. In the early evening, after the polls close, it shuffles along at a pace set by electoral updates, television lights switching on and off and sudden waves of back-slapping that accompany the appearance of federal senators or former premiers.

As the call of results draws nearer and each leader is rumoured to be close, the spatial divisions between the public, the media and the politicians evaporate. The cameras turn on the crowd, and groups jostle for physical domination of the room. Supporters, signs, elbows. All are deployed in a touching, if sometimes painful, symbolic display of democracy.

Bewilderment is the emotion that is most raw to witness on the tally room floor. Sometimes you even see it in the victors. It becomes particularly intense when polls are close and minority government with the Greens arises as a possibility. After the last Tasmanian election, the sight of a Labor powerbroker with long-seated animosity towards the Greens sitting alone in the Birdcage Bar – the nearest bar to the tally room – staring sadly into his scotch made it clear that Labor would eventually be forming minority government.

There is no national tally room tonight – abandoned by the networks for the greater level of control provided by their studios, it became superfluous – and there has been little opportunity for regret. At a cost of $1.2 million, it was the only sensible decision by the AEC.

Its contribution to democracy had become largely symbolic – as symbolic, perhaps, as the notion of a public, media and political leadership, openly sharing an accessible if sometimes painful, and costly, space.