Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Estimates hearings, 14 February 2012
Australian Electoral Commission
- Mr Ed Killesteyn, Electoral Commissioner
- Mr Paul Pirani, Chief Legal Officer
Senator RHIANNON: In your submission to the JSCEM inquiry, you raised concerns about the long delay in disclosing donations, making it impossible for any illegal action in this area to be considered by the Court of Disputed Returns. Does the AEC have any specific cases of concern where delays in reporting have prevented effective enforcement of legislation?
Mr Killesteyn: We do not have any specific case of concern, but, for example, the latest set of returns due in November last year actually included expenditure in relation to the 2010 election, so it was some 18 months later that they were reported. I think our submission was simply making the point that inherent in the current system is this delay. Particularly for such an important event as the 2010 election a lot of expenditure that is now being reported was in association with that election. One has to ask whether that delay is acceptable.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Going back to your response, does the long period of delay before we get to 1 February when the information has to be disclosed sometimes make it more difficult to pursue these cases?
Mr Killesteyn: It could do; it depends upon the circumstances of the matter. You are talking about action in the Court of Disputed Returns, which has to be done within 40 days of the return of the writ. So potentially there could be a disclosure which does not become public until some 18 months later. I do not have any specific cases in mind, unless Mr Pirani does.
Senator RHIANNON: So you do not have any examples where that has happened?
Mr Pirani: No. The issue more is that if we are trying to pursue criminal proceedings it is the age of the allegations and the evidence and people's memory and issues like that—and Senator Fierravanti-Wells has raised the issue about Coastal Voice. The ability to locate the evidence is quite often inhibited, which means it is more difficult for us to take any action.
Senator RHIANNON: At the last round of estimates we discussed new options for parties, candidates and donors to submit their returns online. I was interested in how this is proceeding and how popular this option was for submitting the return for 2010-11.
Mr Pirani: It has proven to be extremely popular. Most of the political parties are now using it and we have a number of donors, particularly large corporations, who are using it. It has proven to be popular. We still have issues with smaller donors and independent candidates, but the use of the online lodgement facility has proven to be extremely effective.
Senator RHIANNON: Would you have proportions?
Mr Pirani: I would have to take that on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: If you could take that on notice, thank you. It is very pleasing to hear that it has been quickly taken up. Do you see the shift to disclosing in this way as opening up the possibility of more regular disclosure and possibly what is often called continuous or regular disclosure?
Mr Pirani: That is certainly one of the recommendations that came out of the JSCEM report on campaign financing and political expenditure. The AEC has been trying to ensure that we have the capacity to handle online lodgements, and whether that is going to be done in a timelier manner is something that we are conscious about. There have been discussions about that for a long period of time. Indeed, there was a bill that was first introduced in 2009 to increase the disclosures and there is still a bill that is before the Senate that has the same requirements. The AEC has been attempting to ensure that our systems are capable of giving effect to that legislation if it gets enacted.
Mr Killesteyn: Our view remains that the more you move towards contemporaneous or continuous disclosure, the more reliant you will have to become on technology to facilitate that.
Senator RHIANNON: Mr Pirani, you just mentioned—if I understood correctly—that the AEC is working to be ready to make that shift if and when the legislation passes. Is that process within the AEC proceeding well, or are there any difficulties getting ready for that, hopefully, most likely change?
Mr Pirani: As with all organisations, we have issues of resources, particularly in relation to IT development. However, in this financial year we were able to get some additional funding from our investment committee to enable us to do the next stage of the funding and disclosure system. But there is still more work that has to be done on it and there are still more funds that will be required. Instead of doing it as a single system and trying to do all the systems work and rollout as a single package, we have staggered this now over several years so that we have been able to live within our means in developing various stages of the system.
Senator RHIANNON: In your submission to the recent inquiry into electoral matters and electoral funding, issues were raised about the complex laws being used by some parties and candidates to—if my recollection correct—avoid transparency and even create problems in enforcing compliance. What do the AEC see as priorities for making changes to cut down on difficulties in enforcing compliance?
Mr Pirani: The minister lodged a report late last year, Election funding and disclosure report: federal election 2010, and in that report we have a range of recommendations that we put forward that the AEC believes would assist in the transparency and ease of administration and guidance to people who have a reporting obligation. If I can refer to that report, Election funding and disclosure report: federal election 2010, and I am happy to table a copy if people do not have it, there are about 40 recommendations in there.
Senator RHIANNON: You are waiting to hear from the government about the response to those recommendations—is that where it is up to?
Mr Pirani: We are actually hoping that, depending on the government's response to the current JSCEM inquiry, some of these other matters may be able to be included in the government response and in any legislative reform package.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.