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

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 25 Feb 2014

Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee



Australian Electoral Commission

Senator RHIANNON: There is a difference, Mr Rogers, as we all know, between the timetables for public disclosure between registered political parties and all the others—the candidates, the unendorsed Senate groups, and the Senate groups endorsed by more than one registered political party. Could you explain what determines this difference?

Mr Pirani : The actual differences are in the provisions of the acts themselves. The election returns are ones that are done by unendorsed candidates, and they are done 24 weeks after polling day. Then the registered political parties do an annual return, and they are lodged on 17 November the following year, after the end of the financial year, and we disclose it at that stage.

Senator RHIANNON: This is going back in time, but it is obviously what you are working with all the time. Was any reason given at the time to make that different?

Mr Pirani : I think you need to look at the history of the legislation, that originally in the early '90s they were actual election returns, and then it morphed into annual returns for registered political parties and associated entities and also for third parties who incur electoral expenditure. So it is purely an accident of history as to how the act has developed.

Senator RHIANNON: Is it something that the AEC has given attention to in terms of making this uniform, like possibly moving everyone onto at least a 24-week disclosure after polling day?

Mr Pirani : We have made numerous recommendations to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters about trying to get some alignment and also to shorten the reporting periods.

Senator RHIANNON: With regard to WA, there has obviously been this serious breach. While somebody must take responsibility—and we have heard the statement, which was useful—does the commission, Mr Rogers, believe that the underlying processes and procedures intrinsic to our Australian electoral system are at fault here, or is it human error?

Mr Rogers : I think we are on record as saying we take responsibility for what has occurred. In fact, the events over the last few days certainly demonstrate that. Organisations from time to time analyse their processes and performance. We have embraced the Keelty recommendations which speak to process, training and a whole range of other issues. It would be wrong of me to say that this was purely as a result of something to do with the act. I am on record as saying that we have taken responsibility for that. There is clearly human error in that process.

Senator RHIANNON: I was interested, particularly with the Western Australian election coming up, in election night. Obviously it is going to be a bit different; you only need to think about the Senate. Election night must put the AEC under enormous pressure. We see it from our side of the fence and your people are there often before 7 am in the morning until very the late at night. Because of everything that has been happening recently, I was thinking about the counting process. We all want to know what is going on in the House of Reps, but some of us are interested in the Senate as well. Considering how tired everybody is, and we make more mistakes when we are tired, how feasible is it to try and start the Senate vote on the Saturday night? Are there some practical things that we need to look at? The process of counting is so different between the House of Reps and the Senate, and your people have to switch from one to the other. Have any of those practical measures been thought through?

Mr Rogers : You are right—it is a very long day for around 70,000 staff that we employ during polling day. We are always looking at ways to try and streamline processes and make it easier, but it is a big effort by all of the staff. I am conscious that there is also pressure for results. Australians want to know the results of that election, and I think that is fair enough, so we have to try and design a system to cater for that, and that is what we are doing at the moment. There will always be, no matter how we slice it on the day of the election, a degree of pressure. That is the way it is, I think.

Senator RHIANNON: That is not something that is on the table, in terms of shifting the Senate and starting afresh? That is not up for consideration?

Mr Rogers : It is an interesting area. We have looked at this in the past. Some of our state colleagues have looked at this for their Upper House counts as well. They have a similar issue. I do not want to verbal any of my state colleagues. We have had discussions with them. Some of them are looking at various options, including bringing in a second count team, for example. I am very conscious that on a national basis we are already employing 70,000 people and it is already a significant activity, so we need to be careful about how we proceed. Again, whilst there is pressure, it is doable at the moment. When it is not doable, we will take further action.

Senator RHIANNON: What would be the long-term results if the AEC became a government department rather than an independent statutory authority?

Mr Rogers : That is a really difficult question for me to answer.

Senator Ronaldson: Hypothetical, too, I think.

Mr Rogers : That is really a matter for parliament rather than the AEC.

Senator RHIANNON: To what extent are AEC employees trained and tested on formality in voting in our electoral system? I am interested in what the training involves. I think we have all had experience of how this is often an issue of dispute. In close elections it can become very critical. I am very interested in how you handle that, right down to the people who are doing the counting.

Mr Rogers : Certainly.

CHAIR: Senator, could I ask you to place your further questions on notice, because we have a few other senators to ask.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay, thank you.

Mr Rogers : Formality is often the scene of lively debate in the polling place and at fresh scrutiny centres. I might just throw it to the assistant commissioner elections to talk through part of that process.

Ms Neilson : For our own staff we have a range of training materials—online training—where we help our staff through the theory of what is a formal vote and what is not a formal vote and some of the court judgments that have informed what would be seen as a formal or informal vote. Because it is such a practical activity, we have in-person training as well. We ran a simulated election prior to the 2013 election, and part of that was people going through actual ballot papers and determining formality and what to do with them. We give the same level of training to our own staff on election night, so they have handbooks and things with samples of what is or is not a formal vote.

After the 2007 election, one of the outcomes of the McEwen Court of Disputed Returns case was a recommendation that we provide the same sort of information to candidates, scrutineers and our own staff. So the Scrutineers Handbook has the same examples we give our own staff. Our own staff might get a bit more detailed, hands-on practical experience, but the Scrutineers Handbook has exactly the same information in it as we are providing to our staff. We have posters on formality principles in polling places. On election night we tend to tell our staff not to spend too long agonising over below the line, because it is very complicated, and if there is any doubt to put it the informal pile, and we will pull it out again at the fresh scrutiny. Prior to fresh scrutinies we run through the same thing with our fresh scrutiny staff—the ballot paper principles, the formality guides and things like that.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

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