SUBJECTS: Electoral reform, AEC, voter identification, Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
DAVID SPEERS: After every federal election, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has a good look at how it was conducted and what problems might have been there. In 2013 we know there was a very big problem. 1370 votes went missing in WA. It caused that Senate re-election early in the term of the Abbott Government; and a lot of headaches for the government and for voters in the West as well. Some other issues have also come out of this. Today the final report of the Joint Stand Committee has been released. Its Chair, Liberal MP Tony Smith joins me now. Thank you for your time.
TONY SMITH: Thanks, David. Good to be back.
SPEERS: There’s been inquires and various things into those lost votes. Now, in your report, are you able to say what happened to those votes… how they were lost?
SMITH: No – and we make that clear. Mick Keelty also made that clear when he conducted his investigation. We have got to be blunt about this. This was the greatest failure in the AEC’s history, and when Mick Keelty inquired into it, unfortunately what he found was that there were so many failings. There was a smorgasbord of failings that he couldn’t say. As we say in the report, are never meant to be transported in open trucks, but on at least one occasion they were…
SPEERS: And you note, they may have literally fallen off the back of a truck!
SMITH: They may have. We have a photo in the report of votes being stored next to rubbish. They may have been thrown out with the rubbish. And during the recount itself, the centre wasn’t as secure as it should be. They had the doors open because of the heat, and all the rest of it. So you can’t rule anything out. All we know is it was a major, major failing.
SPEERS: It obviously led to an expensive and rather bothersome re-election…
SMITH: …$21 million…
SPEERS: …and reputational damage to the AEC as you note. Various procedures have been put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again. But are you saying in today’s report that further steps need to be taken?
SMITH: Yes, so the Keely recommendations and the AEC accepted every one of them, and is in the process of implementing them. They go to new procedures. Sometimes they go to just following the existing procedures around ballot transport, ballot security and storage. And that was really largely covered by Keelty. We’ve had a look at some of the other deficiencies that have come out through Audit Office inquiries and we asked the Audit Office to go back and have a look. They’re really around staff training and the record of staff training and how the management systems work within the AEC. So we’ve made a series of recommendations there that are really best practice, and we think those added on top of the Kelly Recommendations will improve things. But David, there’s also a cultural problem at the AEC and that’s going to take time. They’re on a journey. I’ve said they’re on a bit of a ‘renovation rescue’ at the moment, but we’ll keep monitoring things and one of the recommendations is to keep getting the AEC back to monitor how they’re rolling that out.
SPEERS: This isn’t all you’ve looked at. The issue of whether voters need to bring along ID when they cast their ballot. At the moment you turn up at the polling booth and you’re asked your name and your address, and they cross it off but as you know, it’s a trust exercise to a degree. Now you’re arguing that ID should be required. Are people actually voting twice… going down the road to another polling booth and voting again?
SMITH: Well, the figures on this are interesting. We’ve got them in the report out of the last election. There are about 18,000 multiple marks. Now, roughly half of those were found to be clerical errors. You’ve got a boring common name like Smith and the polling official can put a line through the wrong name. Then there are some other errors or some accidents—really with aged people and the rest. But not withstanding that there are a couple of thousand that admitted they had voted more than once, and the AEC cited some of the worst instances where there were three people whose names were crossed off in NSW 15, 12 and 9 times respectively. Now, that doesn’t mean they voted that many times, because the vulnerability is twofold. And it is people voting in someone else’s name, and it is also people voting more than once in their own name.
SPEERS: But if you introduce a requirement to bring ID, there is a risk of course that it’s going to mean that some people don’t vote, because they don’t have the ID or whatever, and the detractors and the minority report that’s been issues today from the non-Government members points to the experience in Queensland at the state election there where the voter participation from 91% to about 90%. Extrapolate that federally and you’d have more than 160,000 not voting.
SMITH: Look, I don’t buy that as a major issue. What we saw in Queensland was voter ID for the first time in Australian history and it worked extremely well. There wasn’t a single complaint. They’re just getting the stats through on voter turnout, but the turnout was hardly affected at all. Hardly affected. I mean, you’re talking small amounts that can be caused by any number of factors.
SPEERS: But if it’s a 1% difference…
SMITH: But they haven’t got all the final figures in. Let me put it this way, the traditional arguments have been that it would turn droves of people away. That’s been demonstrated to be false, and that people would be disenfranchised if they didn’t have ID, and that’s false too. If someone turns up without ID, they’re still able to vote. They’re given a declaration vote, and things are verified later. The number of ID types you could have in Queensland were very broad. It wasn’t just a driver’s licence…
SPEERS: You could bring a power bill…
SMITH: And all the rest. Now, we’ve got a compulsory voting system. We’ve essentially got a trust system and the vulnerability is there and that vulnerability should be addressed. It’s not too much to ask people to bring along a piece of ID. I mean, we have to do it when we pick up a parcel from the post office. We have to do it in so many ways. Most countries have voter ID, and I think strongly, as does the Government, that a trust system leaves us very vulnerable in close election results if it’s found that people have voted multiple times in someone else’s name, or their own. You’ll have another re-run.
SPEERS: Tony Smith, we will have to leave it there. Thank you for joining us this afternoon.
SMITH: Thank you very much.
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