Audit: Electoral Commission haunted by past mistakes

By Stephen Easton

November 6, 2015

The last of three audits triggered by the disappearance of 1370 ballot papers in 2013 is no less critical of the Australian Electoral Commission than the first two.

The three-part series had a single aim: to check up on what the commission did prior to the fateful 2013 federal election to implement nine earlier recommendations the Australian National Audit Office gave it in 2010. The final report tabled on Wednesday, which looks mainly at recommendations around electoral roll management, found once again:

“The actions taken by the AEC prior to the 2013 election in response to previously agreed ANAO recommendations have not adequately and effectively addressed the matters that led to recommendations being made.”

And like the first two audits, it points out the AEC not only failed to address the problems ANAO uncovered several years earlier, it also misled the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in 2014 by claiming all the recommendations had been completed by May, 2013.

In the second of the series, ANAO reported the AEC falsely claimed to have implemented some of its advice, when a plan on how to do so had not even been drawn up. It also found the commission had significantly overstated its progress towards implementing the recommendations of the Keelty Review into the missing ballots. It points to the need for “long-term changes in culture” as well as improved policy and procedure.

Tom Rogers
Tom Rogers

The third audit found that on electoral roll management, “some useful work had been undertaken” but “significant gaps” remained in the implementation action prior to the 2013 poll. Nothing meaningful was done to promote “more secure reporting of election night counts” or to develop comprehensive performance standards for how well the AEC runs elections.

The new report notes the AEC is in the thick of a major reform project triggered by the “various reviews and inquiries” into the embarrassing saga, led by commissioner Tom Rogers, who took the reins after his predecessor fell on his sword. The auditors are realistic about how long that cultural shift will take:

“Some changes are expected to be in place prior to the next federal election, but full implementation of measures currently being planned or actioned is not expected until the following federal election. These timeframes reflect the extensive body of reform work that is being undertaken in parallel with the AEC’s normal business-as-usual activities.”

The heightened scrutiny and pages of advice — which Rogers has broadly welcomed as a great opportunity to openly accept the commission’s failings and move forward from a black slate — is not over yet. As soon as the polls close in the next federal election, ANAO will be over the commission once again.

In response to the recent findings, the AEC “unreservedly accepts” its new recommendation to:

“… develop, publish and report against performance targets related to the accuracy and completeness of the electoral roll.”

The commission also agrees with the second piece of new advice to find a more reliable way to assess the accuracy and completeness of the electoral roll, but says new strategies and legislative changes have already reduced the number of “missing electors” from 1.5 million to 1.2 million.

In the most recent round of Budget Estimates hearings, Rogers said the AEC had taken ANAO’s advice to investigate a rise in pre-polling through more data analysis, and identified about 800 polling places that might be redundant.

As the lost votes that triggered leadership change and reform were cast in Western Australia, it is perhaps fitting that the Canning by-election provided the AEC with an opportunity to improve before the main event. Rogers said in Estimates:

“It was a good by-election. As you know, we have embarked on a journey since the events of 2013, and we are continually trialling new ways of doing business —particularly with things like packaging of material, which sounds boring but is a very complex series of events, when you magnify it out to the number of voters in a full federal election.”

The commission is still working on clarifying the guidelines it gives to temporary staff who help run the polling stations so that anyone can follow them easily.

“We are doing our own analysis of how Canning went,” Rogers said, adding that “at least most” of the state and territory equivalents will meet with the AEC towards the end of November to develop a set of common national standards.

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