Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
31/01/2017
Conduct of the 2016 federal election and matters related thereto

COSTELLO, Dr Craig, Private capacity

HINSPETER, Mrs Judith Ann, Private capacity

SINCLAIR, Ms Laura, Private capacity

Committee met at 09:15

CHAIR ( Senator Reynolds ): I formally declare open the public hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for the inquiry into the 2016 federal election. Today's hearing is one of a series of public hearings held around the country to hear evidence regarding last year's federal election. The close result in the division of Herbert has shed light on some issues that need to be examined further, including mobile polling booths, postal voting and voting on Palm Island. In accordance with the committee's resolution of 21 September 2016, this hearing will be broadcast on the parliament's website. The proof and official transcripts of proceedings will be published on the parliament's website. Those present here today are advised that filming and recording are permitted during the hearing. I also remind members of the media who may be listening on the web of the need to fairly and accurately report the proceedings of this committee.

I now welcome our local Townsville participants to give evidence here today. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and, therefore, has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and does attract parliamentary privilege. Would you like to add anything about the capacity in which you appear?

Ms Sinclair : I appear in a private capacity but am a member of the LNP and an active scrutineer.

Mrs Hinspeter : I am retired and living in Townsville.

CHAIR: I invite each of you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion and questions with the members. I understand, Dr Costello, you have some time constraints, so would you like to make your opening statement first?

Dr Costello : Sure. My motivation to put in my submission and to accept the invitation to appear is purely based around my long-held belief of the utmost importance of the integrity of an electoral system. The main principle of that is that we have an electoral system that requires compulsory voting and people get fined if they do not vote. There has to be an undertaking from the administration of that system to allow people to exercise their democratic right to vote in situations that are not of their making. In my opinion, the situation at the hospital was entirely foreseeable and entirely preventable with simple actions that could have been put in place. That undermines the integrity of the system. I do not think it was satisfactory for directions just to be given to the effect, 'Just write a letter so you don't have to be fined;' there needs to be more done to ensure that the integrity of the system is upheld and people have their chance to exercise their democratic right and have a vote. The other thing not covered in my submission is the integrity of information that is provided to the public and the sources which that comes from.

Ms Sinclair : I am very concerned about the integrity of the electoral system too. It has to be honest and fair and the outcome has to represent the views of the voting public. Unfortunately, there are too many things in it that undermine that. For example, with compulsory preferential voting where you have, say, eight or nine candidates, it becomes impossible for an ordinary person to clearly, in their own mind, work out their preferences to the eighth or ninth position. We end up with the situation where you get a lot of donkey votes and the position of the candidate on the ballot paper matters an awful lot because of the donkey vote.

The substance of my submission, though, goes into the concerns regarding the postal vote system, in particular the definition of 'authorised witness', because it is not made clear on the certificate form attached to the postal vote envelope, nor is it made clear in the printed leaflet supplied to voters. Bone fide ballots can be, and I suspect are, excluded from the count as a consequence.

I note in respect of admissibility of postal votes, AEC submission 66.9 reveals that following legislative changes in 2010, PVAs are no longer matched with postal vote certificates or used in any part of preliminary scrutiny, which used to require a comparison of PVA and PVC signatures. I was involved in a preliminary scrutiny. It was the first time I had been involved in this; it was all very new to me. The postal votes were divided into two piles—piles which were seen to be clearly admissible and piles where there was some sort of doubt. The piles that were in the doubtful category were to be looked at by the DRO and assessed. After I had been through that, I went home and I had a look at the act. The act makes it clear that the only authorised witness in mainland Australia is another elector. On the form that people are given and on the certificate that is attached to the envelope, it says, 'Authorised witness: eg, another elector.' That leaves the situation open to people putting in things like husband, wife and family member, which happened. So these ones ended up in the questionable pile and this troubled me.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: So a householder witness, if you like.

Ms Sinclair : That is right—a family member as a witness, yes. But strictly according to the act that does not work. The problem is that they have got rid of comparing the signatures on the PVAs and the PVCs, so there is no better check on it. If you are overseas, you have the big problem that there is a whole list of people that you can get as witnesses, but that sort of extensive list does not apply in Australia. We have the situation where the AEC is producing what I would regard as inadequate information for voters and then you have the act which is very strict, so the strict rules can apply after the poor, old voter has been—

CHAIR: Disenfranchised.

Ms Sinclair : Effectively, yes, and misled. It worries me greatly. It needs to be changed. I spoke to someone in the AEC office—it was not the DRO—the morning after I had read the act and said: 'Look, this is unsatisfactory. It needs to be changed.'

CHAIR: Ms Sinclair, if you would not mind just holding your opening statement there. We will come back to this issue and unpack that a bit further, but I would like to give Mrs Hinspeter an opportunity to give an opening statement.

Mrs Hinspeter : Sweet, seeing as Dr Costello has to leave.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Perhaps we could put questions to Dr Costello before he has to leave.

CHAIR: Absolutely. Mrs Hinspeter, if you could give a quick opening statement.

Mrs Hinspeter : I have always been actively interested in politics. We travel overseas a bit to see our son in the United States. When we were going, I applied for a postal vote. I thought I had to collect it before I left Australia, but I was pleasantly surprised that it was posted to me, which was great. I filled it out and I did things like put the secret answer to the secret question on the thing—thinking I had done everything. I read it—I do not know how many times I read it—and I said to my husband: 'We're up in New Hampshire; I'm not going down to the consul in New York to get a witness signature. You can't witness me and I can't witness you.' That was not really clear, but I felt that that was wrong—but I thought, anyway, it was posted to the address we asked for and we had put the secret answers on there. I cannot recall now whether we even bothered to sign the back of the envelope but certainly we could not get a witness. Our son lives in the United States; he is a dual citizen but he is not an Australian citizen; therefore, we posted ours off. Then we got that letter telling me our vote was not valid and I felt that that was quite wrong.

CHAIR: Thank you. We will definitely come back and discuss this further. I will open it up now for questions to Dr Costello.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Dr Costello, thanks for your statement, which we have read and understand. You practise regularly at the Townsville Hospital?

Dr Costello : I practise every Thursday at the Townsville Hospital and other times I attend meetings. My employment there is what we call a 'fractional start specialist', which is one day a week.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: But there are a number of junior doctors who report to you in cases where it is something you are involved in?

Dr Costello : One of my roles at the Townsville Hospital is deputy director of physician education and I am responsible for overseeing the physician training, which is internal medicine specialty training, with one of my colleagues who is the director.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: We know there were a number of patients in the subacute ward who did not get a vote. Is that part of the Townsville Hospital?

Dr Costello : It is part of the Townsville Hospital. People would be aware that the Townsville Hospital has been significantly expanded over its short life span of only 15 years. The subacute ward that is in reference to that statement is actually on the old CSIRO site on the opposite side on University Drive, or whatever it is called. But it is a connected facility of the Townsville Hospital. The doctors that staff that are employees of Townsville Hospital.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: According to your statement, a junior doctor reported to you that he had been approached by nursing staff about these people not being able to get a vote in the subacute ward. Did you do anything at any stage about that? Did you talk to anyone?

Dr Costello : The junior doctor raised that with me after the event when we were in discussion about organising the exam, which is my main role there. I then approached the switchboard because of what he told me about getting in touch with the switchboard and stuff to see if I could find out who they normally contact. I did not raise it with higher levels within the hospital.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Was any suggestion made to you at any time that the subacute ward was not part of the hospital; therefore, the patients there could not expect to have the AEC call on them?

Dr Costello : Not to my recollection.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: We know about the subacute ward, but have you heard of any other incidents where inpatients at a hospital in the last election wanted a vote but were not able to get it?

Dr Costello : I am aware of other people who were inpatients in the main hospital not being able to vote as well. My understanding is the number is north of 50 in total. That is an estimate.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Does that include the subacute ward or is it in addition to the subacute ward?

Dr Costello : My understanding of the discussion is that it is including.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: . I appreciate you have no direct evidence of this.

Dr Costello : I don't.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I am asking whether people around the hospital have been saying this to you or to others?

Dr Costello : I have a number of patients—and, obviously, I am not going to reveal them for confidentiality reasons; that would be a breach of my Hippocratic oath—whom I interact with in my role and I have had several of them comment to me that they were unable to vote. Some of them were in the subacute ward; some of them were in other parts of the hospital.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: That is interesting.

Dr Costello : The commonality is that I can pick through my patients—and, yes, my specialty is neurology, so this is not a big surprise—and most of these patients were not acute admissions the day before or short stay type people. That is the point I made in my opening statement. This was entirely foreseeable and entirely preventable. Most of the patients in the subacute care ward are there for weeks on end. We had an eight-week election campaign. It would be no problem to have people going through that ward a week before doing absentee or postal votes or whatever category it falls under to allow people the opportunity to have their democratic right to vote. Even in the main hospital, yes, there are going to be more acute admissions, but it is still foreseeable and preventable.

My understanding is that there were not as many people on the mobile voting team as there have been in previous elections. Now, I do not know the mechanism for that. But, even if that is the case, there are probably still ways that that can be prevented—by subscription and volunteers. All hospitals around, I think, have active volunteer services. Yes, there would be a process they needed to go through to work under the Electoral Act and stuff, but there is no reason why it cannot be put out and people requested whether they would like to do that to boost providing the ability to vote around the hospital.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I appreciate you cannot disclose your patient's name or details, but have you spoken to a patient who was one of those who could not get to vote? I am just interested to know, or to have confirmed, that the patients you have actually spoken to were assured in the course of polling day that someone would be around. It was only, I think, at five o'clock that the junior doctor—

Dr Costello : They were assured. That was the undertaking that was given to me by the junior doctor that reported the issue to me. My contact with patients since then and with a particular patient in respect of that, who is my patient who was on the subacute care ward at the time, has confirmed that they were assured during the day that they would get an opportunity to vote. Now, that assurance was probably based on previous experiences, from the nursing staff, but my understanding is that the nursing staff had been ringing and they would have been assured from higher levels up that they would get around.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: All right. Thanks, Doctor.

CHAIR: I have a quick question before I hand over to Mr Giles. At any one time, how many adult patients would there be admitted to the hospital? How big is the hospital—how many beds, roughly?

Dr Costello : From the last recollection that I have, it is about 450. It could be north of that, though.

CHAIR: Does that include the subacute care ward?

Dr Costello : Part of the difficulty in giving you an exact answer to that is how you judge beds in hospitals. In some classifications, day beds are accepted as beds et cetera. But you have the main hospital block, the mental health facility, the secure mental health fertility and the subacute care facility, and my understanding is the number of beds is 450 or thereabouts, maybe a bit higher. I am sure the executive could give you an exact number.

CHAIR: So we are looking at around 400, give or take?

Dr Costello : Yes.

CHAIR: Thank you. Mr Giles.

Mr GILES: Thank you, Dr Costello, for your statement and for coming along to present your evidence today. There are just a few matters I would like to explore from your statement and also some of the matters that Senator Macdonald raised. I should say to you that I think it is appropriate that we explore also with the AEC most of the issues you raised. We appreciate the basis upon which you have given your evidence, but there are a couple of things I would like to explore further, starting with this issue of the assurance that patients would get the opportunity to vote, because I think that is quite a significant matter. Can you explain how that assurance was given and by whom?

Dr Costello : My understanding is that the nursing staff member that reported it to the junior doctor had rung the switchboard throughout the day and had been put through to the person who was in charge of running the mobile booth, and they had given assurances that they would get around. And then, later in the day, when the doctor rang the switchboard and was put through, it was four o'clock or thereabouts, and I suspect it became pertinently clear that, with the amount they still had to do in the main block, there was no way they were going to get over there. That, I believe, was the change—when they said: 'Look, we are not going to get over there. Please give them the advice to write a letter so they do not get fined.'

Mr GILES: But you are not aware of patients having been told that directly?

Dr Costello : No. One of my patients reported to me at a later time, when I was speaking to them about it, that they were given assurances on the day—early in the day—that polling would be around.

Mr GILES: Assurances by the AEC?

Dr Costello : Certainly, assurances by the nursing staff, as I said when Senator Macdonald asked that question. I understand that was from the assurances given from higher up. But I am not the nursing staff member, so I do not know—

Mr GILES: No, I appreciate that.

Dr Costello : that that specifically came from the AEC.

Mr GILES: Just on that, I note that at the very end of your statement you point to Dr Kathiresu. Has Dr Kathiresu made a statement, to the best of your knowledge?

Dr Costello : I encouraged him to, and I believe Dr Kathiresu did make a statement, yes. I do not know if he is appearing here today. I suspect he will not.

Mr GILES: Perhaps the secretariat can follow that up, because I am not aware that we have been provided with that statement. Again, I appreciate that you are sort of relying on—

Dr Costello : What I can tell you in that regard is: obviously, because of levels of evidence, I am effectively now giving you evidence on someone else's statement, but I worked with Dr Kathiresu to put a statement together for him, and we worked on that because that is what he wanted to do. I do not know whether he followed it through.

Mr GILES: I should assure you, Dr Costello, that this is not a court, even though at least one of us is a lawyer, and we will try not to behave like lawyers. You are here to—

Dr Costello : I understand that sort of thing, but, coming back to my opening statement, I feel the integrity of the system is hugely important. I understand the concerns. If the doctor has not put in a statement, there are valid reasons why he has not put in a statement, even though assurances have been given in terms of concerns about training et cetera. They may be valid or invalid but those concerns were given. Part of that was the reason why I made sure I put in a statement, because I am concerned about the integrity of the system and I wanted this issue to be raised and I was not sure whether the doctor would proceed with his statement.

Mr GILES: Those concerns—and I am sure I say this on behalf of all members—are very important. I am just trying to ascertain, if there are matters that are not within your direct knowledge, where we need to go to follow those through to their conclusion. There are just two matters I want to explore very quickly. Firstly, you have been in your current role since early 2016; had you been working at Townsville Hospital before that?

Dr Costello : I returned to work at Townsville Hospital in February 2012. I had previously worked there from 2005 to 2009.

Mr GILES: So you have been employed there in the course of other federal elections?

Dr Costello : Absolutely.

Mr GILES: And your experience is that in those elections similar troubles did not arise in terms of mobile booths, or is that just not something you can comment on?

Dr Costello : It is not something that has specifically come to my attention. Mind you, I was at a completely different level in those sort of things and I did not have the responsibility of other doctors under me specifically, so they might have been there and they may not have sought me to report them to.

Mr GILES: Would you be able to comment on whether you thought that in previous elections there was greater resourcing allocated to the mobile booths?

Dr Costello : Only on the basis of what I have been told, which was by the person that was in charge of the mobile booth through switch—that normally they have more than one mobile team going around the hospital. For some apparent reason, this time, whether it was lack of people who they could have to do it or not, there was only one mobile team. I think that is a clear issue, but I think it is clearly preventable through other avenues.

Mr GILES: You mentioned in your evidence that one patient has spoken to you about not voting. Anecdotally—and I know that that was the basis upon which Senator Macdonald put the question—you said you thought north of 50 patients may have been affected. How many patients have spoken directly to you about having missed out on voting?

Dr Costello : I would say at least four to five patients that I have been in direct contact with. At least two patients who were in the subacute care ward at the time are current patients of mine.

Mr GILES: So the 'north of 50' is a guess based on what?

Dr Costello : North of 50 is a number that was given to me in discussions with other, higher members at Townsville Hospital when they were approached about it. That is why I do not have a specific number, and it is probably not my role to have that specific number.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: I do not want to drill down to blow by blow, other than just a global overview of the comments you made earlier around the integrity of the process. During the process of these hearings we have had the Australian Electoral Commission present to us on numerous occasions, and they have put forward a robust overview as to how focused they are on delivering an election with the utmost and highest integrity, through their staff, their procedures, their scoping, their planning. Have you spoken to the Australian Electoral Commission or contacted them to share the concerns that you have shared with the committee today?

Dr Costello : I have not personally spoken to the Australian Electoral Commission. I made a brief attempt to try that in the aftermath, in that first couple of weeks. It was through an Australian Electoral Commission number or something—I cannot remember what number. I was put on hold. They were probably getting lots of calls. My point is that this is not a personal attack on anyone within the Australian Electoral Commission. They have a tough job to do. But it is about getting the integrity of the system correct.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: So it is possible that the Australian Electoral Commission could be sitting in front of us giving evidence with their hand on their heart saying that we have had a flawless campaign or a flawless election, unbeknowing to the incidences that you are raising with us today?

Dr Costello : I suspect that it is possible that they could sit there with their hand on their heart and say, 'We did our very best and we've undertaken to do our absolute very best.' But there are still kinks in the system, and some of those kinks might be feet on the ground, the number of people who could be involved—those sorts of things—to run a system with integrity and allow people to express their democratic right.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: The seat of Herbert—we have come here because of the closeness. What was the final result?

Dr Costello : I think it was 37.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: You have just given evidence, earlier on, to say that you were of the opinion that there were upwards of 50 who did not vote. In your opinion, if those people had voted, could that have had an effect on the outcome of the election?

Dr Costello : Purely on maths, yes—50 is greater than 37. Now, if it was well north of 50, the further north of 50 the more likely it could have had an effect. That is a point. It could have made the gap greater. It could have meant that the thing went from 37 to 87.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: It could have gone the other way. Regardless, it would have had an effect.

Dr Costello : The point is the integrity of the system and the number of people who missed out—through, realistically, no fault of their own—on expressing their democratic right?

Mr BUCHHOLZ: So, for the benefit of Hansard: you have raised the issues of north of 50 in your own workplace. Not being a Townsville resident myself, are there any other stories or—

Dr Costello : You would have had to have been living under a rock to not hear the defence story, and I am sure that is probably part of your proceedings throughout the day. I work—

Mr BUCHHOLZ: I have, but I am interested in your comments—

CHAIR: Sorry—Mr Buchholz, I am happy for the—the witness has provided some secondhand evidence, but I am not sure that we want to go and drag up every rumour that we have heard in Townsville. So, if you have anything specific, Dr Costello, but if it is just—

Mr BUCHHOLZ: My final question, then, Chair: on the pretence that the Australian Electoral Commission may not be aware of effects that may have touched the integrity of the Australian Electoral Commission on the issues you have just raised, do you believe that there are other instances in the community that could go to the integrity of the Australian Electoral Commission?

Dr Costello : It is sad that we have these questions. Obviously these issues probably arise when there is a close result. But it is sad for everybody involved, because the legitimacy of the result will always be in question. And it is an important thing for a sitting member, as man of you are, to understand that the legitimacy of your election goes to the core understanding of you to represent your people. And if some of your constituents feel that you might not have been legitimately elected because of issues, it undermines your ability to carry out your duty as an elected representative for your constituents.

Mr DICK: Thanks, Dr Costello, for providing us with important information. Obviously we are relying on your evidence, which is second- or third-hand evidence, and we do not have anyone who was involved providing evidence to the committee. Are you aware of your patients making formal written complaints to the AEC?

Dr Costello : One of my patients informed me that she was going to make a complaint.

Mr DICK: She was, but you do not know?

Dr Costello : I do not know whether she did. My business with them is their medical care. It came up in discussions. I specifically asked this person because I knew that they were in the ward at the time.

Mr DICK: They did not raise it with you. You raised it with them.

Dr Costello : Yes. This lady then expressed her discontent.

Mr DICK: So one person raised it with you post election?

Dr Costello : No. Other people have raised it—

Mr DICK: With the AEC?

Dr Costello : with me, but this lady was intending to make a formal submission. I do not know whether she did.

Mr DICK: Okay. We do not know that. Tell me about the alleged 50 people—it could be less; it could be more people. What is the catchment area? Are they just Townsville residents, or would the hospital accept patients from as far west as—

Dr Costello : The hospital accepts patients from a wide area.

Mr DICK: If you were in Mt Isa, for example, could you come to the hospital for treatment?

Dr Costello : Townsville hospital is a tertiary referral centre for North Queensland. There are services that are provided at Townsville hospital that are not provided elsewhere. If you need those services because of your level of acuity, or your level of illness, you would be transferred from Mount Isa or from Ayr into Townsville hospital—for example, one of the things that Townsville hospital provides is an acute stroke service, which is not replicable in smaller centres, and therefore people with acute strokes will often be transferred to Townsville hospital for care.

Mr DICK: Sure. I understand the size of the hospital is greater than 500 beds. But, in terms of the acute patients we are talking about, effectively they could have come from more than half a dozen electorates. If you are a patient there, it is not necessarily Townsville—

Dr Costello : That is true. But I am sure there are fairly accurate figures, which would be available from hospital executive, of roughly what the make-up would be at any one time, which could give you a guide to better dissect that. They might even have the ability to give you very specific figures, from admissions on that day, of the postcodes people were from.

Mr DICK: I would assume that, being such an important hospital, it attracts patients from right across North Queensland, so your argument about the legitimacy—the veracity—of the election is diluted because those people were probably not from the Herbert electorate anyway. They would have been voting in other electorates. In terms of the figures of people who voted, more people voted at the hospital this time than at the previous election. Are you aware of that?

Dr Costello : No; I am not aware of that.

Mr DICK: About another 300 people cast ballots through hospital teams 1 and 2. The AEC in Herbert runs polling places probably at a number of institutions, but they say on the website the hospital teams were at various sites. More people voted at the hospital teams at the 2016 election than at the 2013 election.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Do we have that in evidence?

Mr DICK: It is on the website.

CHAIR: I have asked this of our AEC representative, who will shortly give us the breakdown numbers for the teams in the hospitals, so we will get those definitive figures.

Mr DICK: In preparation for the committee hearing I did an analysis of the figures that I looked at online. What I would be keen to do is go back to the AEC. With more people voting at those locations—and I think that they are some of the highest figures we have seen through those hospital teams in recent times for the Herbert division; I could not speak for any other North Queensland electorate—

CHAIR: Is there a question coming here?

Mr DICK: Yes. Are you aware of any other examples at any other elections where this has happened?

Dr Costello : No. I am not aware of any other examples at any other election where it has happened.

Mr DICK: Okay. Thanks.

Dr Costello : You do make the point that the legitimacy might be diluted, and it may well be. But, as much as I raised the point of legitimacy and that question mark hanging there, this is about the core principle of people expressing their democratic right.

Mr DICK: Absolutely. I was just responding to Mr Buchholz's point when he questioned you about the result in Herbert. It pricked my thought. You made the point about the legitimacy of the results in question. I do not believe it is, but, in thinking about all the people who are at the Townsville Hospital at any one time, more than likely, predominantly, they are not Herbert residents.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Is there a question there?

CHAIR: Are you clarifying your question or clarifying what Dr Costello said? I am just trying to work out where your question is.

Mr DICK: He made a point and I responded to his point.

CHAIR: As there are no more questions for Dr Costello, I thank you for your attendance here today. Have we asked you for further information? I do not think we have given you any homework.

Dr Costello : Not at this stage—no.

CHAIR: You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and you will have the opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors.

Dr Costello : Lovely.

CHAIR: Thank you for your attendance here today.

Mr GILES: Chair, obviously not to Dr Costello, but I did ask about the statement of the other doctor, if that could be noted—whether that has been received, if it were made.

CHAIR: It has not been received. I will just ask the secretariat to contact the doctor to see whether he intended to make a submission.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: That would only be in a private meeting of the committee.

CHAIR: Okay.

Mr GILES: Ms Sinclair, I know that you were making a series of opening remarks. The issue that I am interested in exploring with you is the extent to which your concerns about the postal vote process has been ventilated with the AEC, either with the divisional returning officer or otherwise.

Ms Sinclair : I expressed my concerns to—it was not the DRO; it was one of the other officers in the office the day after I started doing the preliminary scrutiny on the Monday. It was on the Tuesday that I went in and expressed my concerns that the definition of 'witness' was obscure, that there was a problem, and I acknowledged at the time that there is nothing much they could do about it. It was fixed in place for this election, but it needed to be looked at in future. I specifically said it needed to be looked at before there are any further elections. I feel very strongly about that because it is a problem that does not affect just Herbert; it affects the whole system. It is a problem; it is a mess. If I could go on a little bit, I have quite a few concerns about the quality of basic information produced by the AEC for the general public which can be unclear—

Mr GILES: I am very happy for you to go on, but I just want to clarify one matter. Have you directly put these matters to the AEC for a response?

Ms Sinclair : No, I have not since. I just spoke to them back—

Mr GILES: Please go on. I just wanted to understand that.

Ms Sinclair : I have further concerns about the quality of basic information produced by the AEC for the general public which can be unclear or misleading. I am not alone with these concerns and cite submissions 104 and 60 by way of example. Submission 104 complains:

Scrutineers and postal voters have been provided with inconsistent or ambiguous or contradictory or misleading material, directions or instructions ...

In a response from the then Special Minister of State, Michael Ronaldson, she was advised:

... you are correct in highlighting that the determining date of the postal vote is not specifically covered in AEC election materials. postal vote is not specifically covered in AEC election materials. I understand from the AEC that the wording is designed to achieve a balance between assisting electors to cast a vote while not providing overly technical information.

I think that sums the problem up. They take the easy path and it leads to all manner of problems for the voter. Submission 60 is a cry from an AEC staffer concerning poor training and guidance on polling day events and procedures. So I am not alone in expressing these concerns. There is a need to tidy things up for the benefit of the voter. I have other comments on other issues—

Mr GILES: Thank you for that. I think members are concerned to make sure that the information provided to voters adequately matches the detailed prescriptions of the act so that voters are adequately informed—

Ms Sinclair : I will read from the act. This is section 193 about authorised witnesses:

(1) An elector whose name appears on a Roll is an authorised witness.

That applies Australia-wide and, I presume, everywhere else. Then it says:

(2) Outside Australia, the following persons are authorised witnesses:

   (a) an officer of the Defence Force or of the naval, military or air forces of a Commonwealth country;

   (b) a person appointed or engaged under the Public Service Act 1999;

   (c) a member of the civil or public service of a State or Territory or of a Commonwealth country;

   (d) a Justice of the Peace for a State or Territory or a Commonwealth country;

   (e) a minister of religion or medical practitioner resident in a State or Territory or a Commonwealth country;

   (f) an Australian citizen.

So this points to the very problem that the Hinspeters had. If you are overseas, how can you find one of these people? It seemed to me that the obvious answer to their problem was to sign each other's forms as a witness. I expect that would have worked.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It does not sound right that you can witness your husband's or your wife's signature.

Ms Sinclair : I know. The problem is the forms you are given. The form—that is, the PVC—says 'authorised witness e.g. another elector' or something along those lines. That does not tell people enough. This is why people use a husband, wife, family member and people like that.

The other problem I have with it is that there is only a box to put a signature in. Most of the signatures—goodness me!—are totally unreadable. So there is no way by looking at that signature for the AEC to tell whether it has been a genuine witness or not.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Does the witness need to put their name and address and confirmation that they are an Australian citizen?

Ms Sinclair : No, nothing.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It is just a signature?

Ms Sinclair : Yes, just a signature.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You can put an X there?

Ms Sinclair : You can put an X there. You can do a squiggle. You can do what you like. The witness arrangement is frankly inadequate. If it said, 'Print your first name and last name,' then certainly they could check whether that person is on the roll anywhere in Australia quite easily.

Mr GILES: When you said a moment ago that you can put an X or squiggle there or what you like, on what basis do you say that?

Ms Sinclair : That is what people can do. If you look at people's signatures, how many are clearly legible? Some people go out of the way to make their signatures just—

Mr GILES: I hear what you are saying, but on what basis can you put that evidence to this committee?

Ms Sinclair : On the basis that that is what people do.

Mr GILES: How do you know that?

Ms Sinclair : I think we all know that. It is common knowledge. If you are asking me for a specific instance, that is a bit hard. But it is common knowledge. I think that is fair enough.

CHAIR: Is that something you have witnessed when scrutineering?

Ms Sinclair : I have not witnessed people doing their PVCs or anything like that. No, I have not.

Mr GILES: There are two small matters I want to raise quickly. You say under the heading 'A particular instance of concern' that 'It appears two of our members were away in the USA.' When you say 'our members', do you mean LNP members? Is that right?

Ms Sinclair : Yes, that was so.

Mr GILES: And just so we understand, that is the witnesses we are going hear from today.

Ms Sinclair : The Hinspeters, yes.

Mr GILES: Thank you for that. The last matter is under mobile polling places. It appears to me that a common issue between Dr Costello's evidence and the evidence that you put here is voters relying on people who are not AEC staff members for advice on their entitlement to vote. That is the case here, isn't it? The suggestion is not that the people in the nursing home were given misleading advice by the AEC?

Ms Sinclair : There is a specific submission that was put in by Bev Montgomery for—

Mrs Hinspeter : Brian Jeffrey from the Garden Settlement.

Ms Sinclair : That is right. What is his name?

Mrs Hinspeter : Brian Jeffrey.

Ms Sinclair : Brian Jeffrey—that is right. There is a specific submission in the body of the staff, so it is all in there.

Mr GILES: Perhaps the secretary can give us the number of the submission.

Ms Sinclair : It is a problem. By the way, I was speaking to the DRO the day before the election and she was telling me what difficulty she was having getting enough staff for the polling places. That was the day before, on the Friday before the Saturday election, so I can understand that she was having trouble finding people.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I want to ask Mrs Hinspeter a question. You have been around and you are a reasonably informed citizen. You found the postal vote application form difficult to read and understand, is that what you were saying in your evidence?

Mrs Hinspeter : Not having it with me now, I can remember reading it and reading it, and I said to Geoff at one point, 'You know, we could put anyone's signature there, but we're not going to.' Like Laura said, you could just put a name. And I thought, well, they were not even required to put who, like, if you did go and find a magistrate somewhere or a minister of religion who happened to be an Australian in America, because that was what we thought the criteria were, that they had to be an Australian, because in the village that my son lives in we know a lot of people but no Aussies. And I said, 'We could've easily done that.' But we read it and read it and read it, and because I do not have it and I was not able to get it, and even when I rang the AEC I asked them to post it to me, but they did not, to see—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: This was after the event.

Mrs Hinspeter : Yes, when we got home. And I said, 'I'm sure I read somewhere that there is a waiver for people who are able to meet those criteria.' But I did not have it in front of me, because we got home at the end of August and—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: But my question really was that you—and I do not want to use 'average' in a derogatory sense, but—as an ordinary person, found it difficult to follow: whether you needed a signature, a witness—

Mrs Hinspeter : That part was, yes. Everything else was straightforward. I made sure we folded it up and put it in two separate envelopes. I personally took it down to the Amherst post office. She did not weigh and she charged me less, and I said, 'Please weigh it.' And she weighed it and then she charged me more, so I was pleased that I did that. I was doing everything to make sure that we had a valid vote.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So that your vote counted.

Mrs Hinspeter : Then we got home and got that letter.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: What was the letter when you got home?

Mrs Hinspeter : It was just the letter saying our vote was invalid.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Had you been asked to explain?

Mrs Hinspeter : No, it just said, 'When your envelope was checked, unfortunately you had not signed or made you mark on the envelope'—the X that the gentleman was talking about—'so your vote could not be counted. If you have any question about your vote please call this number,' and I did; I called immediately, and I said, 'Explain why.' I spoke to a young gentleman called Drew and I asked him to ring me back. He did not ring me back, so I rang back myself, and I really did not get any answers at the end of the day. I have been involved in scrutineering and pre-polling and all that for years.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thanks, Mrs Hinspeter.

CHAIR: Are there any additional questions for these witnesses? As there are not any, I thank you both very much for your appearance here today. You will both be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and you will have the opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thank you very much. Just for the record, regarding the question about Beverley Montgomery's submission, it is submission No. 33.

Mr GILES: Thank you, Chair.

CHAIR: We will have a quick private meeting on the discussion we just had.

Proceedings suspended from 10:04 to 10:24