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AEC audit: they promised reform, but did very little

The Australian Electoral Commission has failed to act on recommendations out of the disastrous 2013 missing ballots scandal — and broke promises to improve the integrity of the country’s voting system before the election.

Three years before the botched 2013 vote — which resulted in a re-run Senate election in Western Australia — the AEC falsely claimed to have complied with all the recommendations of an audit into its preparation and safeguards. Now it has been fingered for making false progress reports on the Keelty recommendations, made in the wake of the scandal.

The Australian National Audit Office now says 1.2 million votes were cast in the federal election where polling booths were not properly supervised, despite directions from the audit body to improve the system. Ballot box security was an issue at many more booths.

In a damning report published yesterday, the second of three follow-up audits, the ANAO rejected a swath of AEC claims about compliance with recommendations it had agreed to implement. Instead, the ANAO found “little had changed between the 2007 and 2013 elections” in the selection of voting and counting premises, there remained no workforce plan, large numbers of temporary polling staff were never vetted for suitability and nor were they trained. The job of recording performance assessment ratings of election officials was also incomplete.

And the commission was rebuked over the lack of follow-through on the more recent Keelty report, noting the records of the Keelty Implementation Team Extended program did not support the claims AEC made about its “high levels of implementation”.

At least the AEC’s response to external assessment had improved, the audit noted. Internal measures to respond to the Keelty report demonstrated “a greater commitment to organisation learning and improvement than was evident in the AEC’s response to ANAO’s earlier audit of the conduct of the 2007 election”. However:

“… by mid‐September 2014 a detailed implementation plan for the 32 agreed recommendations had not yet been developed, some nine months after the Keelty report was received and the recommendations accepted. An implementation plan could also usefully incorporate action to be taken in response to the three recommendations made by ANAO concerning ballot paper transport and storage that were agreed to by the AEC in ANAO Audit Report No. 31 2013–14.

“In addition, there were a number of aspects of the approach taken that reduced the assurance that can be provided about the extent to which the Keelty report recommendations were effectively implemented for the 2014 WA Senate election, and will be further progressed subsequently.”

The audit noted the AEC still has not completed spot checks of higher risk polling and scrutiny facilities, and the steps taken to promote complete and consistent assessments were insufficient.

The ANAO found the AEC’s acting electoral commissioner, Tom Rogers, over-promised in his testimony to the Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters earlier this year, when he told the committee that every polling place for the WA Senate election would have a ballot box guard allocated. Instead, the AEC found seven polling places inspected by KITE teams did not have a ballot box guard as part of the staff allocation.

A further 49 of the 203 polling places did not meet the interim ballot paper secure zone requirements, and only a quarter of polling places had inspection documentation indicating ballot secure zone signage was in place. The AEC also submitted that 92% of polling place officers in charge were “comfortable with the new procedures”, but the audit states it miscounted and only 18% of officials were clear about the new procedures.

Rogers’ testimony was given three weeks before the April 5 polling day, but after staffing allocation and training arrangements had been in place. To give misleading evidence to a federal committee is contempt of Parliament, a serious offence, but inadvertent misleading testimony is not uncommon and usually quickly corrected by public officials.

But the ANAO found misleading or false reports going back to its 2010 performance audit of the 2007 federal election. That audit recommended a more strategic approach to workforce planning — a complex task for an agency that needs to pull in large numbers of temporary staff at irregular intervals, often with little notice, and tasked with a role requiring unquestionable integrity. Those recommendations sought particular focus on the safeguards around selection, recruitment and performance evaluation of election officials. The ANAO found:

“The AEC had advised its audit committee that a workforce plan would be developed to implement the ANAO recommendation, but implementation action for this recommendation was recorded as having been completed without such a plan being developed … Rather than develop a workforce plan for the temporary election workforce as the AEC had initially proposed in response to the recommendation, it has continued to focus on operational workforce matters, particularly in relation to the recruitment and training of election officials. This has resulted in the AEC missing opportunities.”

The Mandarin has sought a response from Rogers on the ANAO’s claims of false reporting. Rogers was warned in July about the accuracy of advice given to the committee, after angering an MP with three contradictory answers from the AEC leadership.

Workforce reform still incomplete

The ANAO found wasted opportunities to reduce the number of election officials that need to be recruited and trained for staff static polling places, and no change to the workforce composition — including an ageing workforce — over the six years between the audited elections, nor was there any plan to tackle risks associated with its ageing workforce.

A third of permanent and temporary staff were never assessed for suitability for the rigorously non-partisan agency. The ANAO found that suitability was a key aspect of the recruitment policies that showed poor compliance under scrutiny:

“In addition to being consistent with recruitment based on the principle of merit, only appointing those people that the AEC has assessed as suitable for employment, in combination with the completion of appropriate training and the provision of adequate supervision, can be expected to increase the likelihood that officials will satisfactorily undertake their assigned role. However, for the 2013 election, 34 per cent of election roles were filled by people where there was no record of them having been assessed for suitability.”

A further third of staff did not receive all the required training. The ANAO noted:

“As a consequence, more than 1.2 million votes were received at 1141 static polling places for the 2013 election where the AEC had no central records of the responsible polling place OIC having completed all elements of the required home‐based training.”

But this time will be different, the AEC promises. It has agreed to adopt five new recommendations from the latest audit report. Owing to past behaviour, the ANAO has planned another follow-up audit to ensure compliance after the next federal election.

Rogers acknowledged the issues with the 2013 election, saying the agency was now “in the complex process of responding to these ongoing challenges”. His statement to the audit asserts:

“Since the 2013 federal election, the AEC has been in a period of self‐analysis, reflecting on existing operations in addition to the implementation of ANAO recommendations (Report No.31 2013–14 and Report No. 28 2009–10) and the recommendations from the Keelty Inquiry into the 2013 WA Senate Election. During this period, the AEC has also implemented recommendations, where possible, in the delivery of two highly scrutinised elections: the 2014 Griffith by‐election and the 2014 WA half‐Senate election.

“The AEC is continuing to rebuild its reputation with the community and its stakeholders, supported by work to ensure the fundamental principles of integrity, quality and transparency are integrated throughout all aspects of the AECʹs operations. The AEC acknowledges that the issues identified in the ANAO report relate to areas of development for the AEC, particularly planning and implementation across the entire organisation. Implementation of the ANAO recommendations outlined in this report will support this process.”

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters will continue its probe into the 2013 federal election next week, November 12-13. Rogers is expected to appear.

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.