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The fall and rise of AEC: how Tom Rogers got out the vote

Electoral commissioner Tom Rogers will arrive at Additional Estimates tomorrow with a reform plan already underway and the agency back on track after, arguably, the most troubled year of any public body.

Offered a tabula rasa and political will to make ambitious reforms, Rogers is seizing the opportunity. There’s no time for rest — the next federal election is around the corner, there can be no do-over, and no excuses if the Prime Minister makes an early call.

In the 12 months since former commissioner Ed Killesteyn resigned over the bungled 2013 Western Australian Senate election, Rogers has led the agency through a series of very public autopsies of its local mistakes, systemic failings and Rumsfeldian unknown-unknowns. Behind the scenes, Rogers has been building a reform program the likes of which few agency heads get an opportunity to pursue. In December, he was appointed to a five-year term in the commissioner role, a sign of the government’s confidence in this direction at the agency.

Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers
Tom Rogers

“Annus horribilis” Rogers replied when senators asked how he was holding up at one of his many inquiry appearances on Capitol Hill last year as acting commissioner. It was a moment of levity from the former 20-year veteran Army officer, who knows only too well the magnitude of the agency reputation repair task still before him.

Rogers has spent no time bemoaning the situation he has inherited as commissioner. No matter who he’s speaking with, he’s at pains to reinforce the facts: the AEC “stuffed up” and major reform is required. The fault was the AEC’s own complacency, nobody else’s, not the government or the minister, nor the parliamentary committee who oversees its operations.

Rogers can’t dictate the attitude of all his agency personnel, but he is trying to lead by example, not content to rely on an all-staff email, but repeating the mea-culpa at every opportunity until the culture catches on that there was a problem, it’s internal, and they can use all the external help they can get.

The AEC’s cultural complacency was thrown into sharp relief during the WA recount. As Rogers tells it, when the state manager fessed up on a video conference with head office that votes may have been missing, “it’s like the room elongated”. The WA officials still believed this was just a labelling error, they’d be discovered in another pallet, and there was no reason to panic. Famous last words of many a public official.

Rogers, then deputy commissioner, was the first head office official sent to WA to figure out what actually happened. The investigation tick-tock has him boarding a flight just hours after it was revealed there was no additional pallet with the missing votes. Within seven minutes of arriving at the recount centre he reported back to Killesteyn that there was a major problem that, like a plane crash, went beyond any single fault. Decades of Australia’s reputation for being global leaders in election management would evaporate that day.

“It’s an absolute opportunity,” Rogers now says. “You don’t often get a chance to say whatever we were doing was wrong. It’s now publicly known that it was wrong. We’ve got a blank canvas to actually fix it.”

“It’s now publicly known that it was wrong. We’ve got a blank canvas to actually fix it.”

Multiple reports have been published of the lost WA senate votes, from Mick Keelty, the Auditor-General Ian McPhee, and the joint standing committee on electoral matters. All of them were constructive and valuable —  it really wasn’t known before these investigations just how extensive the failings in the system were — but still the findings were difficult to hear for any public official, especially as it concerns one of Australia’s most cherished democratic institutions. Rogers accepted them all as they were released, all the findings, all the recommendations, without question. They were all helpful, free advice from experts only interested in getting the AEC where it needed to be. McPhee weighed in during his testimony on his latest audit report of AEC, revealing that the electoral commission sought ANAO’s ongoing advice and expertise even after the report was handed down.

The sweeping Keelty recommendations are being used as more of a minimum standard Rogers has set for the agency as they aim to deliver the best possible election, at a time they don’t yet know, with even more safeguards in place than ever before.

Core reforms in the first tranche included numerous additional security measures on the ballot logistics side and an overhaul of training for its officials and temporary personnel. An embarrassing lack of in-house project management expertise was revealed as part of the most recent audit, since corrected to ensure the training package is delivered on time.

People and technology reforms are being considered in the next tranche. Electronic voting rolls will play a role in fast detection of multiple-voters; already 7700 cases from the last election have been ruthlessly pursued. Informal discussions have also occurred with the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ census team on better ways to hire, or share, temporary staff. The AEC recruits and trains approximately 70,000 temporary polling officials for each federal election.

Rogers says these will not be either a quick or an easy fix.

“We continue to adapt our reform model to meet emerging issues and we are currently examining other ways we can ensure a speedy, controlled and successful reform journey,” he said.

“As a result of the directions I have given, the next federal election, should the electoral cycle run to a full term, will be staffed by an election workforce trained using contemporary learning methods and content and will apply processes that are consistent from polling place to polling place and from count centre to count centre. The organisation will also be operating within an approved assurance, compliance and planning framework supported by long-term implementation of better commercial practices for the handling and security of ballot papers and other election materials.”

Tomorrow: the reforms the AEC has planned next …

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.