Australia: Committee calls for private sector expert after ‘disastrous’ election failure

By on 17/04/2015
Victoria's Auditor-General has left his post.

The Australian Electoral Commission should hire a private sector expert to help it improve its culture and leadership capabilities, an inquiry into Australia’s 2013 federal election has concluded.

A total of 1,370 Senate ballot papers in western Australia were lost in the election – a loss the joint standing committee on electoral matters described as “the greatest failure in the history of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC)” caused by “multiple failures at multiple levels within the AEC.

It released its report ‘The 2013 Federal Election’ on Wednesday which puts forward 24 recommendations of reform for the commission.

The report includes a call on the AEC to start a “corporate culture, leadership and performance measurement reform programme”, which would be overseen by “an appropriately qualified private industry or academic subject matter expert on organisational culture and performance management”, as well as the electoral commissioner; the auditor-general; and the Australian Public Service Commissioner.

It also recommends that the AEC “develop a set of formal qualifications/certification for polling officials, in particular senior officials.” This, it says, would not only help improve performance but also “provide an additional incentive for individuals to serve as polling officials by raising the status of the role”.

The commission should ensure that officers in charge of polling places are given a “list of training completion for all staff reporting to them” and “develop a full set of relevant key performance indicators for all senior service delivery staff, to be measured and reported to the Parliament as part of federal election inquiry reporting,” according to the report.

As a consequence of the loss, the senate election in western Australia had to be re-run at a cost of more than $21m and “unprecedented damage to the reputation of, and confidence in, the AEC,” Tony Smith MP, chair of the committee, wrote in the report’s foreword.

He added: “That 1,370 votes could be lost is concerning enough; that the possibilities of how and where they were lost are so numerous highlights the multiplicity of logistical, procedural, cultural and competency failings that were a disastrous feature of the AEC in 2013.

“The AEC stipulates that votes cannot be transported in an open truck—yet some were during the transport to the west Australian Senate recount centre. Further, at the centre some votes were stored next to rubbish, and on occasion the centre was not secure.

“The possibility that votes (literally) fell off the back of a truck, or were disposed of with rubbish, or removed from the recount centre simply cannot be ruled out.”

The committee calls for the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to be amended to require voters to “present a form of acceptable identification” before casting their ballot, because, Smith said, “there is also an unacceptable vulnerability in the electoral system that enables some voters to vote multiple times within an electoral division.

Australia’s current voting system, he added, is “essentially trust-based: If a voter is prepared to be dishonest, there is nothing to stop them voting at other polling locations within an electoral division on the day, either in their own name, or in another elector’s name.”

Smith also noted that reform is already under way at the AEC and praised the its chief, Tom Rogers, for being “open, committed to major reform and determined to lead the required transformation within the AEC.”

However, he said that more reform is needed and added that if the report’s recommendations are implemented, alongside ongoing reform under Rogers’ watch, “there is a high probability that in the years ahead the disastrous events of 2013 will be seen as a turning point.”

A spokesman for the Australian government told Global Government Forum that the government will fully examine the report’s findings and table a response in Parliament within 90 days.

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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