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Estimates: Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee (Australian Electoral Commission)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 28 May 2015

Senator RHIANNON: This is question reference number F77. I have put some questions in on notice about multiple voting, and in response to those questions you sent your submission to JSCEM about the matter, but there were two questions that you said were not applicable in answering, but I actually could not find answers to them when I looked at the submission. They were: 'If you use software, does it incorporate algorithms?' and 'Are the set of instructions for any algorithms used determined by AEC staff?' I could not find any reference to that in the report. I am still interested in how that is all done.
Mr Rogers : As I understand your question, you could not find the reference that we provided in the answer to your question. You could not find that particular link?
Senator RHIANNON: Yes. Well, I found the link. I found the report, but in your submission-which is about multiple voting and is very informative-I could not find anything about algorithms. I am trying to understand how you work this out and how you are using the software. Maybe I missed it, but I just wanted to ask that again, please.
Mr Rogers : I will just get the Chief Legal Officer to briefly answer that.
Mr Pirani : There is no algorithm that we use to detect multiple voting.
Senator RHIANNON: Good.
Mr Pirani : It is a process, and that was what was explained. That is what the reference in the submission was about. The submission went through the process that we use to first look at non-voting. We scan the certified lists of voters and the approved lists of voters to have a look at possible multiple marks and where there are not marks. We do a process where we first go and look at non-voting; then we go from that to the possibility of multiple voting. Letters are sent to the people who are identified, and the process is exceedingly manual.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. That is just what I wanted to check. Back on the Senate voting reform, have you at any stage talked to the New South Wales Electoral Commission or anyone in New South Wales with regard to their voting system, particularly with respect to how it was implemented.
Mr Rogers : No, I have not.
Senator RHIANNON: Could you explain how it works: do you only start looking at how a job can be done once you are given that job? Until the law is changed, even though there is a lot of talk and even though JSCEM has come forward with recommendations, you do not look at how that could be done until the act is changed-is that how it works?
Mr Rogers : Clearly the JSCEM report is now a matter for government, and government have not yet responded to that report. Clearly there may be some work that emerges from that for us when government responds to that. We are always involved in election preparation. On a daily basis we do a range of activities to prepare us for the next election. But, as I was indicating before to Senator Dastyari, first of all it would be inappropriate and secondly it would be impossible for me to prepare for a range of possible scenarios. There is a cost factor and there is a complexity factor. Particularly with the Senate voting system, for me to become involved in that before legislation was passed would be inappropriate, costly and, particularly as we are involved in a range of other activities, very difficult.
Senator RHIANNON: Right. That probably kills off all of my questions, Chair, so can I have a think about it please?
Senator Ronaldson: Senator, you have made a very good point. The trouble is we have a JSCEM report that was unanimous. The Australian Labor Party members were, as you are acutely aware, fully supportive of reform, but you now have a situation where Senator Dastyari and one or two others have apparently got a different view. And then we have the shadow minister and Mr Griffin, who are very experienced in those matters. You are probably a bit like me, wondering-
Senator SMITH: I do not mean to interrupt, Senator Ronaldson, but Senator Dastyari said his view would prevail.
Senator Ronaldson: Yes, that is very true. As you would be acutely aware, it rather does beg the question whether Senator Dastyari and Senator Conroy and Senator Wong are playing games in the Senate for the benefit of the crossbenchers. But the relevant shadow minister involved in this reconfirmed his position very recently in the House. You may or may not be aware of this, but I thought I would just read it for you:
These reforms will significantly strengthen our democratic process by reducing the capacity for manipulation and increasing transparency in our electoral system, which, despite these concerns, still remains among the most stable and effective in the world.
You and I would wonder whether one thing is being said for the crossbenchers in the Senate and something else is being said elsewhere. We will just have to wait and see.
Senator McKENZIE: Minister, are you able to table that?
Senator Ronaldson: This is a press article from The Australian this morning, but I am happy to take it on-
CHAIR: Minister, in the past there have been requests for the tabling of articles from which quotes have been taken. Do you have a redacted copy, without your highlights or any notes that you may have on it?
Senator Ronaldson: I do need to take my notes off the top that say: 'Utter hypocrisy of the Australian Labor Party. Who are they trying to impress by their comments in the Senate?' I am very happy to get a clean copy for you.
CHAIR: Thank you, Minister; your assistance to Senator Rhiannon has prompted a further question from her.
Senator Rhiannon interjecting-
CHAIR: I will go to a coalition senator if you have concluded your line of questioning, Senator.
Senator RHIANNON: I will come back to it.
CHAIR: We will come back to you.

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Senator RHIANNON: First off, I just want to go to some of the questions on notice. Thank you for giving responses. F43 was about discrepancies between donor returns and party returns. In your answer you said:
... the process flagged 172-
out of a bit over 10,000-
as potential discrepancies. Most of these were minor in nature.
What does 'minor in nature' mean, please?
Mr Rogers : I would probably rely on the words that are there. They are minor discrepancies. As it says, I think in the return, there were some 10,000 individual line items that we went through. It flagged some 172 issues as potential discrepancies. As I understand it, we are following up on each of those discrepancies, to seek some sort of resolution to make sure that they are no longer discrepancies. But there was nothing major that was uncovered during that process, to the best of my knowledge.
Senator RHIANNON: Is there an amount? When you say 'minor', is there an amount at which you are judging it is minor?
Mr Rogers : I think it is a judgement word. If it were major, it would be a large amount of money or there would be some other significant discrepancy, and that was not uncovered, as I understand it, in the process that we went through.
Mr Pirani : Certainly, in the ones that I have seen, the majority of the amounts are less than $20,000.
Mr Rogers : Every time that it is time for those returns, there are discrepancies on all sides of politics, and most of them end up being very minor, or in fact clerical errors.
Mr Pirani : The $20,000 was mainly identified from discrepancies between the returns of the political parties and donor returns. They were by far the larger number. So there has actually been a disclosure of an amount and that has been disclosed by the political party or the associated entity, but there have been a range of donors who have been identified from those returns who we have not yet received a return from. That is a matter that is ongoing.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Mr Rogers, with regard to the Senate vote, you explained your situation, but can you detail to the committee the complexity of the count at the moment, because that JSCEM report has been out for over a year?
I am trying to understand if there is a complexity in changing the system. Could you explain the complexity at the moment, and if we went to optional preferential voting how much would change? Anything you can elaborate on would be useful.
Mr Rogers : Again, this will sound very unhelpful and I absolutely am not meaning to be but it is impossible for me to comment on that question because it is an unknown at the other part of the process and I am speculating about something that is not yet legislation and has not yet formed part of the government's response. I know that the JSCEM report has been handed down but government has not responded to that yet. What I can say is that the Senate voting system is complex. It is logistically a difficult process that we do every election, but I cannot comment on potential changes to the system because I do not have the benefit of seeing what those changes would be.
CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon. I advised Senator Dastyari-and perhaps you were not aware-that it is unfair to ask the officers to comment on hypothetical circumstantial situations-
Senator RHIANNON: I am actually trying to explore. I totally understand your ruling. I actually thought theses were not hypothetical. I thought it would be something very real for the AEC, so that is what I am trying to understand. Can you even just talk about the software issues? You have software that assists you in the count now. How flexible is it? How adaptable would it be if there were a changed system?
Mr Rogers : Again, we currently use a piece of software, but I cannot tell you how difficult it would be to change that software until I knew exactly what the change was that we are talking about. I am not trying to be difficult but it would be impossible for me because there are so many variables involved in that process. I would put on the record that the software itself is an artefact, that is just the thing we use to assist with the process. It is there, but I do not know what the change would be so it is impossible for me to provide you with any further comment on how difficult it would be to change it.
Senator RHIANNON: I thought the AEC would work on contingency plans, because all of a sudden there could be a DD election and one of the things you specialise in is going into election mode or adapting to the nature of a change in government. Is it not a part of the job, particularly yourself in your leadership role, to be aware of where governments may move so you can be ready to give that advice and to move quickly as required?
Mr Rogers : That is absolutely correct. We do our planning on a regular basis to make sure that we are ready, should an issue occur, and ready to deliver an election. What I would say is that the commission is a servant of parliament. If parliament passes legislation we implement that legislation. Obviously, I love it when we get more notice than less, but it does not matter to me. We always implement the legislation that is passed. We pull out all stops and frankly, if we get close to the time, we invent new stops and pull those out as well.
CHAIR: I am loathe to interrupt but I am trying to assist Senator Rhiannon. Does your software allow you to model various scenarios?
Mr Rogers : To the best of my knowledge, no it does not. That is why it is difficult to give you any other answer than the one I have given about the complexity of that process.
Mr Pirani : The actual software reflects the requirements of the act, so part of the certification we obtain before we can use that software is that it is consistent with the requirements of the act. Until we know if there are going to be changes to the act, and what they may be, we cannot do anything with the software.
CHAIR: Regarding the article the minister was referring to, Antony Green is the go-to guy-they will ask what happens if this changes and he puts up various scenarios. But you do not have that capacity, and it is inappropriate for you to comment outside of any speculative requirement. You simply are not equipped to do that. You are equipped to do the job you are tasked with and nothing further?
Mr Rogers : To answer the first part of the question, because I do want it on record, we do take preparation very seriously. It is what we are doing on a regular basis, but there is a point at which it becomes impossible for us to prepare in the realm of speculation or hypotheticals. It would consume too many resources and in fact would not be possible unless we knew exactly what change was.
Senator RHIANNON: We are probably getting to the end of this but I want to clarify something. You said very clearly that you do take it very seriously, and that is what we always see with the AEC. Are you ruling out that there has been no consideration within any level of the AEC of Senate voting reform, and how you would respond?
Mr Rogers : That is an incredibly broad question. The AEC is a large organisation. We are doing a preparation in a range of different ways-
Senator RHIANNON: Are you aware of it?
Mr Rogers : If you are asking me whether someone, somewhere in a conference room in the AEC asked, 'Did you see that media report and what would we do?', I cannot answer that.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that there has been no consideration of Senate voting reform that you are aware of?
Mr Rogers : There has been no work to change our systems or to model different approaches based on the joint standing committee report and recommendations for change to the Senate voting system. It would be (a) inappropriate and (b) impossible for us to do to-because we do not know what the shape of that legislation would be.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Mr Rogers. Minister, considering the JSEM report came down 13 months ago-it was April 2014-why has there not been a government response?
Senator Ronaldson: The final report was tabled, as you know, about a month ago. It will be responded to in the fullness of time. I cannot add anything further to that. The government will respond to the final report in due course.
Senator RHIANNON: I refer to question F45. It was about 'other receipts'-always an interesting one. On the definition of 'other receipts', how does the AEC ensure that financial contributions that are disclosed as 'other receipts' are not in fact gifts. Do you just accept that at face value?
Mr Rogers : 'Other receipts' are not necessarily financial.
Senator RHIANNON: Yes, I know-but a lot are, aren't they?
Mr Pirani : Part of compliance program is to have a look at the spreadsheets and other financial documentation that is used to provide the information that is included in the returns. 'Other receipts' is not a requirement of the act; the act refers to gifts-it does not even refer to donations. So we have designed the forms so that people can clearly understand that there are donations and there are other receipts. We had had issues in the past where people had looked at these returns and had seen an amount paid by the AEC and thought, 'What is the AEC doing giving a donation to a political party?' The amount in those cases was in fact the public funding-included on the forms as 'other receipts'. The current form was designed to assist people to fill out the information and the categories-whether it is a donation or an 'other receipt'. It is filled out by the financial controller or party agent who puts in the return. When we go and do compliance reviews, we look at the basis on which they have categorised that information.
Senator RHIANNON: I think the answer to the question was on the issue of compliance. Could you just remind me of how your compliance system works and how often you check up on-
Mr Pirani : There is a compliance review program-you referred to it at the last estimates. The old program was that we tried to do everybody once every three years. There is a new program that is being worked on that I understand is going to be rolled out on 1 July. It has a new model of risk factors et cetera so that we can target specifically those matters that fall within the high-risk profile. These are things that all flowed from the McCloud review and the various recommendations that were made at that time. It was not considered enough for us to merely do people once every three years-people knew we were coming and things might have happened in the intervening period. We had these schedules out there and everybody knew when we were going to go in and do a compliance review. The position is now being altered, and the risk factors and the new modelling is going to be used as the basis for our targeted activities. Prior to recent times we would do every party once every three years.
Senator RHIANNON: The McCloud review-I have forgotten where I can see that. Is that on your website?
Mr Pirani : It is still on our website.
Senator LUDWIG: I just want to come back to the issue around the interim report that was tabled more than a year ago now. I accept that you cannot deal with hypotheticals. I accept that. That is not something we can ask. Maybe you could at least, for the benefit of the committee, take us through how a Senate ballot is counted now and what would happen if it did not have GBTs?
Senator Ronaldson: It is hypothetical.
Senator LUDWIG: The first part is not.
Senator Ronaldson: You want to compare and contrast, but you-
Senator RHIANNON: He is just asking about policies.
CHAIR: Let's deal with the first part of the question and that may prompt further questions.

 

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