Thursday, 7 August 2014

Speech in Parliament - Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters - 14 July 2014

Mr TONY SMITH (Casey) (10:23): On behalf the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters I wish to make a statement regarding the committee's inquiry into the 2013 federal election. Specifically, I wish to inform the House of developments relating to the conduct of the Senate election in Western Australia in 2013.

The 2013 federal election highlighted aspects of both our electoral system and the logistical conduct of federal elections that have to change. On the first matter, the committee has already produced an interim report on Senate voting practices, proposing reforms that will provide simplicity, integrity, transparency and clarity; and to provide voters with the power to express and to have their voting intent upheld and consequently restore confidence that Senate results fully reflect the will of voters.

When I tabled that report in May, I undertook to make a statement on the second area; namely, the unacceptable and inadequate processes and practices of the Australian Electoral Commission that came to light in the 2013 Senate election in Western Australia, where the closeness of the result necessitated a recount.

Public confidence in the ability of the AEC to ensure that federal elections deliver parliaments that reflect the will of the people is paramount. This confidence was corroded by the circumstances of the Western Australian recount, where it was discovered that 1,370 ballot papers had been lost. This ultimately led to an altered outcome and the subsequent requirement to run an unprecedented supplementary election, at a cost of $23 million to the Australian taxpayer. A federal election is one of the largest events held in Australia, and the AEC has always been held in the highest reward, both domestically and internationally, for the way that it conducts these elections. However, the events in Western Australia have clearly highlighted fundamental areas in the current system which must change.

The AEC responded to the debacle by appointing former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mr Mick Keelty AO to conduct an inquiry into the events in Western Australia. His report's conclusions and recommendations highlighted systemic shortfalls and failings in most aspects of Senate ballot paper security, storage and handling in Western Australia. Following Mr Keelty's inquiry, and the subsequent Court of Disputed Returns ruling voiding the 2013 Senate election result in Western Australia, the Australian Electoral Commissioner, Mr Ed Killesteyn, and Mr Peter Kramer, the AEC State Manager for Western Australia, both resigned in recognition that ultimate responsibility for the critical failings rested with them.

Earlier this year, the committee requested the Commonwealth Auditor-General to attend to aspects of the AEC's conduct of the federal election, and the Auditor-General has responded, announcing three related performance audits. The first report was presented to the parliament in May and follows up on the implementation of the previous audit recommendations regarding transportation and storage of completed ballots. The second audit report is expected to be tabled in spring and the third is scheduled on the Auditor-General's forward work program for 2014-15.

The current acting Electoral Commissioner, Mr Tom Rogers, has accepted responsibility and apologised for the events that occurred. The AEC has agreed to the Keelty recommendations and the recommendations from the first Auditor-General's report. The committee has noted the AEC's repeated apologies and its acceptance of the Keelty and audit commission recommendations. However, both the Keelty and ANAO reports have raised serious issues of institutional culture and the AEC must address these matters. There is only so far that an external scrutineer can go in identifying internal deficiencies and the organisation must now turn a critical gaze on itself.

The committee travelled to Western Australia twice in April to observe the conduct of the 2014 Senate re-run election and count and ballot-handling procedures. The committee has also travelled extensively and spoken to AEC officers from every jurisdiction about their practices. The committee has noted a disparity in basic practices. This has led to the discovery of further irregularities in vote handling, including the loss of 50 ballots in South Australia, which is completely unacceptable.

As a result of its ongoing inquiry the committee is unpersuaded that, as an organisation, the AEC is completely across the depth of cultural change required. Having said that, it is clear that the acting commissioner, Mr Tom Rogers, is driving the need for change and has embarked on a long and rigorous reform process that if successfully implemented should lead to a better agency. But this will require a more comprehensive understanding across the breadth of the organisation about the necessity for these agency improvements.

It must also be acknowledged that it was Mr Rogers who took the now infamous photographs within the Keelty report which literally gave the public the shocking snapshots of the reckless incompetence at the recount centre—pictures of ballots lying next to rubbish, pictures of ballots not properly labelled or packaged and pictures of ballots lying unsecured near open doors. It was Mr Rogers who took those pictures on his arrival to document what he undoubtedly recognised as a diabolical situation. It is to Mr Rogers's credit that, while his initial emotional response was shock, his instinctive professional response was to expose rather than to conceal.

The committee does not wish to pre-empt any further Audit Office recommendations by issuing a second interim report but will continue to follow closely the implementation of the AEC's response to the Keelty report and ongoing audit recommendations. However, the committee is hopeful that the Audit Office will have an ongoing presence in the AEC until it is confident the appropriate changes have taken place—even if this is for a number of years.

The committee will be conducting a full hearing with the AEC later this year, after the organisation has had a good period of time to implement and test both the Keelty and Audit Office recommendations. The committee's findings and recommendations on these issues will be provided in its final report on the conduct of the 2013 federal election early next year.

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