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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters - 11/06/2014 - Conduct of the 2013 federal election and matters related thereto

MITCHELL, Ms Kathy, Acting State Manager Western Australia, Australian Electoral Commission


CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Mitchell, for coming across. We realise you are the West Australian manager. For the sake of context for members and senators, Ms Mitchell was not the manager at the time of the 2013 election but was for the 2014 rerun. We are going to have a series of questions on both elections but just bear in mind that Ms Mitchell was not the manager at the time of the 2013 election.

I would like to focus on the rerun because you were operating in the wake of what was a debacle. You had obviously had the Kelty implementation team there to put processes in place. I presume you would say that you had implemented everything to the best of your ability prior to that rerun. Now, in the wake of that rerun, where would you say, 'That was a massive improvement; I think we have got that right but here are the areas where we have still got quite a way to go', if you were being candid on the basis that you cannot go from the situation where you were to perfection in the space of just a few weeks?

Ms Mitchell : We are in the process of evaluating our conduct of the Senate election that we conducted this year, so there are a range of matters that will be considered as part of that evaluation including the implementation of the changes that were put in place for the election. I would not suggest to you, Chair, or to any member of the committee that we have got everything absolutely perfect and there is not more improvement that we can do. Certainly, I think there are a range of matters that the acting electoral commissioner has previously indicated will take some time. Many of those issues go to training and the commentary in the Kelty report around the culture of the organisation. Those things take time to reach the point where you would consider yourself happy with the degree of change that had been achieved.

CHAIR: In terms of culture, there were a couple of issues that were concerning during the rerun and one received wide publicity—that was, the issue that occurred at the nursing home or the prepolling station with the ballot box not being constructed properly and the votes having to be taken twice. Obviously, the concern there was that the default position seemed not to be to wait and sort things out. There really was not time pressure in any event because you are dealing with—how can I put it?—a captive audience. Rather, the default position, for whatever reason, was to go ahead anyway. I do not hold you responsible for that because you had come in only a few weeks before and you are dealing with a large organisation. But in a cultural sense you would have to agree, wouldn't you, Ms Mitchell? As a state manager, when people in your organisation encounter a difficulty, you do not want their first reaction to be, 'We'll just wing it and go ahead,' do you?

Ms Mitchell : Certainly, receiving the advice about what had happened was not the happiest moment in my career in the AEC.

CHAIR: Were you flabbergasted?

Ms Mitchell : I was concerned.

Mr GRIFFIN: Don't lead the witness.

CHAIR: I am not trying to lead the witness. I know that is not a very Public Service word.

Ms Mitchell : We have a lot of well intentioned people who work for us on an ongoing basis and a non-ongoing basis. I personally spoke to the officer in charge of this mobile team. That person acted in a way that she felt was doing the best thing for the voters. Her concern at the point in time when she was having trouble constructing the ballot box was that she had a number of elderly people who had been brought by the staff of the nursing home to vote and who were therefore hanging around waiting for her to try and resolve an issue. So as not to distress those people, many of whom had serious mobility issues, and so as not to have them waiting around for an extended period of time she made a call that was clearly the incorrect call to make—no doubt about that—and she understands that now. She made a judgement at the time that she thought was the best judgement for the voters involved in the process.

Mr GRIFFIN: To be fair, I think it was understandable in the circumstances.

Ms Mitchell : I think it is understandable. She was inexperienced; she had not been an officer in charge before. She was doing what she thought was the best thing and it turned out to be absolutely the wrong things for those voters because we had to take the votes again.

CHAIR: We might go to Mr Goodenough and then we will come back on some of the more detailed issues. As you would be aware, we were there in the days after, not for a public hearing but for a tour of the counting centre. Senators Tillem and Ruston were over there during the count. So we will come back to some detailed questions on those.

Mr GOODENOUGH: My main query related to the incident at the mobile polling place. Were there any other incidents during the course of the election?

Ms Mitchell : Yes, there were some matters that we had to treat as premature openings of ballot boxes. There were six instances, five of which were instances where the ballot box did not actually open but the seals broke on the ballot boxes. There was no spillage of ballot papers from those ballot boxes but, because the seals broke, the advice from our chief legal officer was to treat those matters as premature openings of ballot boxes and so we dealt with those matters in accordance with the provisions that are now in the legislation.

There was one instance that was actually a premature opening of the ballot box. This relates to the Adelaide examples earlier on. A voter had incorrectly placed their declaration Senate ballot paper in the ordinary ballot box and the OIC opened the ballot box to retrieve that. The officer in charge has been spoken to about that. It was a failure on his part to pay attention to the procedures in his procedures manual, which make it very clear that you should not open a ballot box during the course of polling. He has accepted that he did the wrong thing. He has apologised for his error. As it turned out, because the voter had particularly dirty hands, the specific ballot paper was able to be identified because it had the dirty hand marks on it. So I was satisfied that the ballot paper that had been retrieved was in fact the voter's ballot paper. But I think it does lend itself to consideration of whether or not that person gets employed as an OIC again.

Mr GOODENOUGH: During the course of our tour in Western Australia, the topic of staff recruitment and training was raised. Do you have any plans in that area?

Ms Mitchell : WA is a particularly difficult state in which to recruit staff. They have the highest degree of turnover from election to election of staff in any other jurisdiction that we have in the AEC. They tend to average about a 50 per cent turnover, so that does make it difficult to deal with the recruitment issue. Part of the way in which we have resolved that is that we have used recruitment agencies to find suitable staff for us. I think that greater use of recruitment agencies is probably a potential future focus. I think there are also some issues that obviously the organisation is looking at in terms of the point in time at which we train them and the way in which we train them, and I think the acting electoral commissioner has probably said many things on that that I do not need to repeat.

Senator FAWCETT: Going to the Keelty report, which reflects much of the media reporting over the original loss of votes from the two booths in Western Australia during the election. Reading through his report, particularly the section where it talks about the outcomes of all the things that lead up, he put forward a number of scenarios whereby the ballots could potentially have been lost. Having been in scrutineering roles and seen how the AEC collects and marks ballots, particularly the handwriting on labels, which I notice was picked up in the Keelty report, what consideration was given to the possibility that the votes were never there—that they were actually double-counted initially—and so the recount was accurate because the votes were never actually there, such that the investigation should really focus in on the labelling as opposed to the transport side of things. Was that ever considered?

Ms Mitchell : If you look at the statistics we have provided in relation to the votes that were missing, they were actually for particular candidates. So, given that you are not then seeing that there is an increased number for those candidates, I think it is highly unlikely that there was a situation where they were double-counted. It is difficult for me to comment authoritatively on this because I was not in Western Australia at the 2013 election, but when you look at the detail of the votes that went missing, I have worked for the AEC for 30 years and it does not look to me as if it was an issue of double-counting of ballot papers.

Mr GRIFFIN: Are you aware of the article by Andrew Tillett in The West Australian some months ago now that quoted Pat Gorham, who was the officer in charge of the Swan View booth in Pearce. The article made a series of comments with respect to her views regarding the Keelty review and the recommendations, and was very critical of it. Could you go through that particular issue? I imagine Pat Gorham has been spoken to about some of her concerns.

Ms Mitchell : I personally spent an hour and a half on the phone with Ms Gorham going through her issues. I think it is a matter of opinion. I do not necessarily agree with all of the views that Ms Gorham has expressed. She has made a formal complaint, and that complaint is the subject of a form investigation, so—

Mr GRIFFIN: Obviously if it is a formal complaint there may be some constraints here, but a formal complaint to whom about what?

Ms Mitchell : To the Acting Electoral Commissioner. Her complaint falls into three categories: firstly, maladministration—that basically we still have not got it right; secondly, in relation to her terms of employment, which essentially go to the issue of the hours worked and the amount of pay and the expectations of an OIC in their particular role; and, thirdly, in relation to some improper conduct. Ms Gorham has made some statements about the manner in which other staff conducted themselves that she is not happy with.

Mr GRIFFIN: That matter is still under investigation. When it is possible for a report to be made to the committee on where that has landed and the detail around it, we would be interested. But obviously, while you are engaged in a process, that has got to be done according to the book.

Senator FAWCETT: I want to go from a matter of governance to the Keelty recommendations. I have seen in a number of government departments over the years that an external review will come in, we will do a report, we will issue a number of recommendations and, within a month or two, the media focus has gone and people have moved to different issues. Quite often the implementation of the recommendations has stalled, has been inadequate or there has never actually been a closed-loop system to report back, in this case perhaps to the parliament, on the status of the implementation, and, importantly, there has not been an independent party to provide an assessment of the efficacy of implementation of the recommendations. Can you talk to the committee about what plans are in place for subsequent reporting of implementation and, particularly, a subsequent evaluation of the efficacy of the recommendation implementation?

Mr Kitson : The implementation of the recommendations in the Keelty report and, indeed, a number of other changes directed by the acting commissioner remains the most active and energetic part of the AEC's current business. As recently as last week, we brought together all of the operational managerial staff from across our 150 divisions into meetings in Sydney and Melbourne, respectively, to provide both an update and an internal audit of the level of progress on the implementation of those recommendations. It remains the organisation's central mantra to deal with the change that is necessary to pursue those recommendations.

I would like to emphasise to the committee that the change reform program that is at hand in the AEC extends well beyond those which Mr Keelty recommended. I noted earlier that we see that as a baseline. There are a number of other areas that have become apparent to us as a consequence of the analysis, evaluation and, indeed, introspection that followed the Western Australian incident. We have necessarily looked at revising a number of areas of our practice. In parallel with this, as well as the necessary oversight of this committee and the role that the Senate estimates committee plays in understanding the progress that we are making, we have the Australian National Audit Office playing an active role in assisting us in making sure that we are not only implementing the Keelty recommendations but that we are tracking through in relation to the recommendations of other audit reports that go back over the last several years.

In terms of a formalised circuit-closing process, I do not think there is one that is commonly described, but I would say that the combination of ANAO, parliamentary oversight and, perhaps most significantly for the AEC, the determination of the acting commissioner and his executive team to make sure that the errors that were present in WA are not replicated in a subsequent electoral event provides—I hope—to this committee and to the public the greatest level of assurance that we can that there is nobody within the AEC who, for a moment, underestimates the gravity, the impact and the consequence of what happened and the uniform shared commitment to making sure that it does not repeat.

Senator FAWCETT: The ANAO put out a forecast of their potential or planned audits for the year. Is there a planned audit for the Electoral Commission by the ANAO in the next six to 12 months?

CHAIR: We should inform you that this committee has requested the Auditor-General to conduct three audits. One has been published already and there is another one due in September.

Senator FAWCETT: I will take that as an answer to the question. Thank you, Chair.

CHAIR: Senator Tillem and Senator Ruston, on behalf of the committee, both travelled to Western Australia to be there prior to the vote on the rerun, and the rest of us joined them to have a look at the operations at the counting centre in the days immediately following. You will appreciate that we wanted to investigate this as thoroughly as possible but not in a way that interfered with the election, so we did not have a public hearing over there at that time. I want to devote quite a bit of the time we have got to Senator Tillem and Senator Ruston to deal with some of their observations and then the rest of us will chime in when we get to the counting centre. So, we might start with Senator Tillem and Senator Ruston.

Senator TILLEM: Staff turnover—I will get to a certain point and you will understand line of questioning—is about 50 per cent. Of that turnover, what percentage of them are the OICs?

Ms Mitchell : I am sorry, Senator, I would have to take that on notice. My understanding is that it is not as great. The 50 per cent is an average across all categories of staff. My understanding is that it is not as great for OICs, but if I gave you a number I would not be confident that I was accurate.

Senator TILLEM: I ask because the issue of culture was raised in the Keelty report and it is something we observed whilst there in the lead-up and on the day. Culture comes from the people, and the biggest contributor to that are those who are involved or employed at the OIC level. They are not permanent employees of the AEC; they are recruited for elections because they are the ones who have experience and the ones that run the booths. The day-to-day staff take the lead from them. The conduct at pre-poll in particular and on election day of polling officials feeds off the OIC.

My observations during pre-poll, whilst I was there, was that there was very little interaction between the officer in charge and the temporary polling staff that were employed. The expectation was that they had had their training and they ought to know what they do. Questions were only ever asked when there was absolute confusion amongst the polling day staff and this whole pre-poll as well. The OIC would then go back and go through a manual and give an explicit instruction. The problem occurred when the polling day officials did not consult, and this happened, I observed, quite regularly.

In terms of pre-poll and polling day there was a disconnect between the polling day staff and the officer in charge. Subsequent to what has happened in September, the rerun, and where you guys are now before us, what level of engagement has there been with those that are at the OIC level? What are the plans for engaging with those at that level? What has been put in place to improve how those that are employed at that level are trained?

Ms Mitchell : This is an active body of work that we are still engaged in. We have actually engaged a consultant to work with us to improve the training that we deliver both to our ongoing and non-going staff. We are working through that process.

Senator TILLEM: Who was the consultant?

Ms Mitchell : Sprout Labs.

Mr Kitson : This is one of the consultants we use.

Senator TILLEM: Their speciality is in?

Mr Kitson : Learning and development systems and approaches. We are taking a holistic approach to understanding the different layers of training, whether it is face to face, in person, online—whatever the training mode might be—looking to find a different and improved way to deliver training, particularly to some of those critical positions like OICs.

Senator TILLEM: That will be ongoing, obviously, until?

Mr Kitson : It is the highest priority within a range of priorities for our training schedule. The work is active now. We would hope to have it in place with sufficient lead time to allow us to use the systems and the revised approaches before the next federal election.

Senator TILLEM: How long before an election does the AEC start training OICs?

Mr Kitson : Generally it is really quite close to the event. As you would understand, without a fixed date we are always making an informed estimate of the likely date. We are probably looking at a period that is around three months out from the likely polling period but with an increase or acceleration in the pace of that training delivery as we get closer to the likely issue of writs period.

Over the last two election cycles we have maintained what we internally refer to as a soft contact policy—a process of maintaining an ongoing dialogue with those people who have worked for us over a number of years, to keep them abreast of changes in electoral legislation and, essentially, to maintain a relationship with them so that we are simply not having a stop-start cycle once every three years. Part of our process, not only that which is involved in the learning and development strategy but that which is about improving the culture of the AEC, is looking at how we can—and perhaps I should use this term with caution—professionalise that critically important temporary employment workforce.

Senator TILLEM: This goes back to my original point about how many of the staff turnover are at the OIC level. Clearly you are cognisant of the fact that a lot of these OICs do stay within the system, you have what you call soft contact, so these are not people who require to be trained from scratch most of the time.

Mr Kitson : We would still provide them with training. We do not assume that simply because they have done it before they are competent to do it again.

Senator TILLEM: Just on that point, what I observed was: 'I have done it before, therefore I know what I am doing.' That was a constant theme for a lot of OICs, with little understanding of the bits that go together to make a good polling official. The culture was: 'I know what I am doing, I have done this before, so leave me to do my thing.' The classic example was on the day before, at a pre-poll centre in Perth, when we observed that, at the close, that ballot papers that had not been used were being repackaged, materials were being repackaged and the polling officials had issues labelling packages. When it was pointed out to the officer in charge, her response was, 'I've done this before, I know what I'm doing,' despite the fact that different sorts of materials were being packaged together. Only after the point was made again was there a reassessment of how things were packaged.

I am just going through my observations and there are questions there throughout them. That was why we spent time there, so we could observe what was going on. The point I would like to make is that there clearly needs to be a higher level of training to get beyond the 'I know what I'm doing mentality'. I am not sure if Senator Ruston will concur on this.

CHAIR: Senator Ruston has to leave at 3, so if you are okay with this we might go to her now and come back to you later.

Senator RUSTON: I asked some questions this morning of the South Australian manager and I would be keen to know what the situation on this is in Western Australia now. One of the concerns that Senator Tillem and I found on the night was a lack of what I would have considered basic standard operating procedures about how the scrutiny venue was set up. An example is the one that I described this morning: when they were counting the declaration votes that had come in from the airport—and I think some had come in from Hasluck; they had been flown in and they were actually counting them—they had a table like this and they were going around and looking at the top of the envelope, in handwriting, so that varied considerably from ballot paper to ballot paper. Then they were putting them in a pile, and there was nothing to differentiate between one pile and the next, so there was no barrier to stop them from bleeding from one pile into the next. There was no sign that said, 'This is where you put Hasluck'. There wasn't even any attempt to do them in alphabetical order.

Our concern was that this must have taken three times as long for them to be sorted as it would have if there had been a whopping great sign for Swan and Hasluck, or whatever the rest of your divisions were, because every time they had to look at the envelope and look at the tiny bit of handwritten writing on the top of it, and then they had to look for which pile it had to go into, and that seemed terribly inefficient. And there was the fact that, when they went to collect the piles of votes and put them together, some of them had bled into others. I think Senator Tillem had some photos of it on his iPad. There was nothing to have prevented some of the ones from this pile ending up in that pile, and it struck me as really odd that something as absolutely fundamentally basic as keeping them separated and putting a sign on it had not been done.

Ms Mitchell : Just to clarify: you are actually talking about envelopes that had votes inside them, so not the ballot papers but the declaration votes?

Senator RUSTON: I have got an issue about the ballot papers as well, but in this instance I am talking about the envelopes.

Ms Mitchell : So what you are asking about is how the declaration vote exchange proceeds and how they sort the envelopes?

Senator RUSTON: No. I am asking you if there is a standard operating procedure that you would issue to your people in charge of this particular function that occurs at the scrutiny centres to say, 'You need to set it up so that it is an efficient and effective process by which these ballot papers are counted.' What we saw was so unbelievably unprepared and inefficient. We could not believe it, especially given that we had had this election that we had the problem with back in September. We were expecting to turn up and see the absolute slickest sort of operation that you could ever possibly imagine, and we were absolutely astounded to find this kindergarten-type set-up in terms of sorting out the papers into their divisions.

Ms Mitchell : There are procedures that are issued to staff for conducting the declaration vote exchange. You have a range of declaration votes that are coming in from different polling places that then need to be sorted to the division that they belong to so they can be dispatched. So there are a range of procedures. To some degree, those procedures have to be localised, depending on the venue you have got available to you. In relation to if you think that our procedures could be improved further, I am happy to accept that people would see that there are greater efficiencies to be achieved. Not having seen what you have seen, it is difficult, though, for me to comment on whether it was the best way to do it. I did not get around to see every process that was undertaken during the election time, because I just could not be in all of the places at the one time. Do I think there are certain procedures that they could adopt to make things easier for themselves? Quite probably.

Senator RUSTON: We have an election ever three years, regardless, and they have been going on for a very, very long time. It was just—

Ms Mitchell : An initial sort is done, and then a cross-check is done of the sorting before a dispatch happens. Then, of course, when the dispatch is received at the other end, there is a further process of checking to make sure that they have received what they should have received. So there are checks and balances in the process that would then identify if there have been errors made. Certainly, it is a very manual process. I think that sometimes the reality is that manual processes can look untidy.

Senator RUSTON: No, it was not looking untidy. If it is appropriate, Chair, I would suggest that Senator Tillem provides you with the photographic evidence that was the basis of our concern.

Ms Mitchell : Yes.

Senator RUSTON: This is not looking messy: this is—

CHAIR: I think that is a very good suggestion. Without unfairly drawing the parallel at this point, the Keelty report had some fairly graphic photos in it, and Senator Tillem took some. I have not looked at them in great length—I just saw some now. He has described them to me and, to be very up-front about it, we do not rule out having some of those in our final report. So I think in the first instance it would be better if they were labelled and the secretariat forwarded those to you

Taking Senator Ruston's point, you might say on one or two instances, 'That's right. That's not the way I would want it.' On others, you may say, 'You may think that looks bad but you have not taken account of A, B and C.'

Senator RUSTON: And I understand they are being used in this particular position, so we are talking about something that was probably before your control. But similarly, when they were initially counting the ordinary papers: when they were counting them out and dividing them up into the various parties there was no signage on any of the tables—no upright sign that said, 'This is where the Labor Party ballot papers go, this is where the Liberal ones go.' So when they were counting them out of the ballot boxes and putting them in their piles, when they took a pile over they actually had to check which pile they needed to put their pile on by reading what was on the top of the ticket on the pile that they were putting it on.

Once again, I suppose there was a lack of preparation for the ease of operation, movement, sorting and transfer of papers just within the sorting space. Halfway through the night I noticed that one of the people—one of the overseers within the space—had gone and got some post-it notes. They wrote on the post-it notes and stuck them on the various tables that they were distributing to after they had been put in their order so that they actually had written on there the name of the party that they were distributing to.

I suppose the point I am making is that I was very surprised that after a concern about papers not adding up and what have you, there still do not seem to be what I would have considered to be a great deal of professionalism about the way the actual ballot counting was conducted.

Ms Mitchell : There are sort cards that they can use for that process. I would be happy to see the photos. If there is material that we are providing to staff to facilitate them carrying out these processes and they are not using that, then I would like those sorts of things raised with me because then I can go back to staff and query them as to why they are not using the material that is provided to them to make it easier for them.

Senator TILLEM: The issue with the sort cards is that the big label on the sort cards was the electorate name and not the name of the party or the candidate.

Ms Mitchell : No. When you are counting ballot papers there are sort cards that you can write the candidate or the party name on.

Senator TILLEM: The biggest label on those cards was the district name, which is why the officials—the staff—had problems in a sorting each ballot paper. It was just a simple thing of switching the big label with the big name to the candidate or party name and the district where they were standing in at the time to the smaller one. It is a little thing—

Ms Mitchell : Then perhaps I am recalling the wrong thing, but I do not remember it looking like that.

Senator TILLEM: It was a card of about this size here, it was either green or yellow and the big part of it was a district name. I am sure you have heaps of them that you can have a look at.

Ms Mitchell : Yes, okay.

Senator RUSTON: It was just a general comment. Maybe they have the materials and they have not used them—that could possibly explain it. Given the amount of materials that you issue, I would be surprised if you did not. One of the comments that we had from the lady from South Australia this morning was that they actually colour-coded their districts. Now, that is totally impossible in New South Wales—they would not have enough different colours to be able to do it. But in states like South Australia and Western Australia, where the number of electorates is quite small, just with the visualisation of different colours, so that each of your electorates had a different colour right the way through everything that they did, at least you would have that immediate visual identification that, 'If it is red, it is Swan.' But nothing like that appeared to be in place.

The other issue that came up on the fresh scrutiny was that when they put the ballot papers through the machine to open the envelopes it had actually cut through the fold of the ballot paper. And so when they were extracted they were only extracting half of the ballot paper and the other half was remaining in the envelope, which was discarded. When we were there, they were hurriedly going through the rubbish bin, trying to find the other halves of these ballot papers, and they were hoping, by having a look at where the cut went on each of the individual papers, that they might be able to match them up with the ones they had the half ballot paper for. When we left, they were still looking for them. What actually happened with that and was it resolved?

Ms Mitchell : That is disappointing to hear, because particular effort was gone into purchasing letter opening machines that could be set so that they did not cut the ballot papers, and also in training ongoing staff so that they could then train the temporary staff in how to appropriately put the envelopes through the letter opening machine. I understand that there was an instance when a number of envelopes were put through by some inexperienced staff who did not pay a sufficient degree of attention, and that was corrected fairly quickly. Those envelopes were gone through and the ballot papers were found and matched up, and then included in the count.

Senator RUSTON: At Belmont, they had a drive-through section in the middle as they were coming in from their various booths.

Ms Mitchell : The returned materials, yes.

Senator RUSTON: We got there just before 6pm, just before the count started. Everyone was in place and all the stations were manned, and they were ready to go, but we did not see a car until quarter part nine. So we had a massive amount of staff standing around in that particular half of the building doing nothing for well in excess of three hours.

Ms Mitchell : This is the first election in which we had the new packaging procedures for polling place staff to apply, and what was an unknown factor at that point in time was how long it was actually going to take people to apply the new packaging and parcelling rules and then get their materials back. The fact that they did not come in until 9 o'clock was a factor of the new packaging, as was the fact that people were inexperienced in doing this. You would normally expect to see people much earlier than that, so obviously we have to have the staff there ready to go. There is also some training that they need to be provided with about what they have to do and that sort of thing. As much as it may have been unfortunate that staff were standing around for a while, it is better to have them there ready to go than to get them in too late when people are already starting to return their materials.

Senator RUSTON: When they were bringing them in and handing the materials over—so they came out and they had their boxes with all their various labels on them, 1, 2, 3 or whatever—and the person receiving them had to sign off and somebody had to sign off with a second signature. They were just grabbing these kids and saying 'sign there'. The kids had no idea what they were signing. They were just being told to sign and so they signed it—'Do you know what you just signed? How many boxes? What have you signed? Is there a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 ,8, or whatever?' They had no idea. They just signed it. There was some procedural stuff there, obviously with the best of intentions to have the right procedures in place, but they were not being followed.

Ms Mitchell : Thank you for that feedback. As I said, we are going through evaluation at the moment, and it is important that we understand what it is that we can improve further.

Senator TILLEM: I pointed out to the manager of the centre that the staff were signing paperwork before receiving materials. The note was made, because I pointed it out. Like Senator Ruston's point, they were given a bit of paper and told 'sign this', before the car doors essentially had been opened. So the driver had gotten out, the reconciliation had to be signed and he signed it, and then they started loading them onto the trollies. That was a major flaw. It was pointed out on the night, and reports were taken, so it is probably something that you might have a look at, in terms of the process for that evening.

Mr Kitson : That is disturbing news, and it goes to the very issue of the integrity of the process that we are trying to adopt here. I thank you for that information, as disappointing as it is, and we will endeavour to pick that and the other points up.

Senator TILLEM: We were there to observe, and we observed and we made people aware.

Ms Mitchell : Senator, if I may ask, were you satisfied that the matter was corrected after you raised it?

Senator TILLEM: It was immediately corrected. His immediate line manager came and said, 'This is not how it's done' and went through and replaced the staffer immediately—in order to have a word to him, I think.

Ms Mitchell : That is good; I am happy that they were responsive to your concerns.

Mr Kitson : Perhaps I could add one clarification to a detail of an answer I gave to a question asked by Senator Tillem earlier, and that is to emphasise that the majority of our training is done only after the writs are issued and only after offers of employment are made. So we are in to that incredibly compressed 35-day period. That is when the vast majority of the training takes place—inevitably, close to the time.

Senator KROGER: I was wondering what your observations were on some reflections that a number of people have made throughout the hearings that there is culture within the AEC and, on the basis of the suggestion that there is a culture, that various elements need to be looked at accordingly. Do you have any observations firstly on the suggestion that there is a culture?

Mr Kitson : The issue of culture obviously stems directly from the Keelty report. Mr Keelty expressed reference to the AEC culture. It is an interesting concept, because 'culture' means many things to many people. For us the culture of the AEC has been one of dedication, commitment and perhaps a can-do attitude, as Ms Mitchell described earlier on regarding the Merriwa polling place. The endeavour there was I think an entirely honourable one of trying to ensure that we delivered the votes and caused the least inconvenience. That it was not consistent with policy, practice or indeed legislation is where I think our culture needs the most attention. There is a line where I think you might reasonably expect that this is a reasonable thing to do. But in fact if it is not described by the legislation or if it causes doubt to be cast on the integrity of any part of the process then it is a culture that needs to shift. And I think we do accept that a large part of the heritage, the culture, the traditions of the AEC need to be challenged, need to be refreshed, need to be revisited. If that is part of the culture that needs to shift then we would accept that entirely.

Senator KROGER: Do you think it would be a reasonable comment that the culture varies between the states or territories, so that it becomes very much driven by the individuals who are assigned the leadership responsibility in those particular states?

Mr Kitson : I am not sure that I would characterise it as an issue of culture. As I think we pointed out early on in our submission to this committee, we go from an organisation of barely 1,000 people to one of 70,000 people in almost the blink of an eye. It is inevitable that we are therefore dependent on 70,000 human beings to do the right thing in the right way, and any one of us I think can interpret a reasonably straightforward set of instructions in any number of ways without in any way seeking to think that we know better. You will find, I think, differences in approach across states, and you will probably find differences of approach across polling places. I would characterise that as being more about human nature than about organisational culture. It may be possible to discern some differences in practice that occur between the states, but I must admit that I do not think I could agree with the proposition that it is necessarily a cultural issue. But none of that for a moment makes me resile from agreeing that we need to improve the way in which we approach some of the most basic tasks that are before the AEC. We are asking for your confidence and for the community's confidence. We know that a number of things have to change. If 'culture' is the best label to apply to that then we accept that.

Senator KROGER: I have participated in all the hearings except WA, and in all of those what has come through is that there seems to be a different approach to the practice, if you like, which is largely driven by the individuals themselves. From a recipient's perspective on the ground, I have seen entrenched practices that are not necessarily in the best interests of running an effective polling booth but that continue to be rolled out because, to quote someone I dealt with on election day, that is the way it is always done. So, it is not consistent but it seems to be very much, as you have just identified, driven by individuals. And it is how you roll out an effective practice, taking into account that at the end of the day we are all humans and fallible.

Mr Kitson : Our greatest endeavour and greatest challenge is to make sure that the differences that occur are minimised and that they have the least impact. We write policies across the organisation with a view that they will always be adopted as we have written them. We have thought very carefully about what we intend to happen. We have thought very carefully about its compliance with the legislation. And we endeavour in our training to make sure that we understand how people interpret it differently. But in the end, yes, we do need to send people out to conduct the polling, and at that point our capacity to control, to understand and to moderate those moments when somebody thinks that they know it all already—to use the term Senator Tillem, I think, used earlier. We deliberately train, consciously train, actively train those people who have done it before, because—with the greatest respect to them and with the greatest respect to their knowledge and experience—we need them to follow our current practices and procedures. And we all continue to fight that particular fight.

Senator KROGER: For the last election, was your most challenging task ensuring that everything was rolled out as it should be in the city, or in the more remote areas of, say, northern South Australia—Coober Pedy or somewhere like that? Was that more challenging for you than in the city areas?

Mr Kitson : I am not sure that I can answer that question accurately. I think you need to take as a basic principle that we would wish that the voters, whether they are in Albany in Western Australia or in Cairns or in Mount Isa or down in Hobart or wherever, have the same experience. That is always going to be conditioned by geographic factors, by the physical locations that we are obliged to use. But, broadly speaking, the voter who casts a vote in any one of those locations should have a highly comparable experience.

Senator KROGER: And for none of it was were more challenging for you to ensure that that was the case?

Mr Kitson : I do not think it is possible to say that it is more challenging in Coober Pedy than in Coburn. They are all challenging. Making sure that we deliver that service consistently, compliantly and with integrity is our challenge. And I do not think that within the AEC we seek to make comparisons. The state managers—those you have heard from this morning and those you heard from in previous hearings—know better than I do their particular challenges. For example, in the context of Western Australia, delivering voter services in Durack and O'Connor is enormously challenging. There are great geographic distances, as you are well aware. There will be factors there that will make it more difficult. There will be characteristics there that simply would not be present in the Melbourne town hall or the Sydney city town hall. But those locations have their own challenges. Maybe they are about volume rather than geography. So I would be reluctant to make a distinction, but I think I would like to leave the message that we strive for that consistency of approach.

Senator KROGER: Do they vote underground or above ground in Coober Pedy?

Mr Kitson : I would have to take that on notice!

Senator KROGER: I have stumped you!

CHAIR: Thank you for appearing today. There are a number of issues that we will follow up. The secretariat will be in touch; no doubt you will be in touch with the secretariat. We have our next public hearing in the last week of July—31 July—where we will hear again from the AEC. So, if there are issues to feed into that, please do so. On behalf of the committee, I thank you again. I ask that Senator Kroger move that we authorise the evidence for publication.

Senator KROGER: It is so moved.

CHAIR: Just before closing, given that this is the last public hearing before 30 June and the end of the Senate terms of Senators Kroger and Tillem, I want to place on record the appreciation of the committee members and my appreciation as chair for the hard work you have both put in over what has been a very busy period through the course of this year in producing what we think is a critical report on Senate voting. Normally committees of this nature, as people would be aware, inquire for a significant period of time and report on all issues at the one time. It has meant a very heavy workload for both of you, but on a particular personal level I want to say to Senator Kroger that I very much appreciate the work you have done. It meant that we were able to report in good time, just a few days before the budget, on what was one of the standout issues of the 2013 election. So, on behalf of committee members, and the deputy chair wanted me to add his name to it, thank you very much. I just wanted to say that at our last public hearing before we go back to Canberra.

Senator KROGER: Thanks, Chair. This is not going to be a love-in, so don't be concerned—it is not going to go for hours! But I also want to record my thanks, in particular for two things. One is the way in which you have driven this committee. It has been a particularly active one, and that is not accidental; it is because of the way in which you have really energetically driven the whole process. So I want to commend you, Chair. Secondly, I want to thank you for accommodating our interests in bringing down an interim report before we finish up on 30 June. It meant a lot—I know it did to my colleague Senator Tillem over there, and it certainly did to me. So I just want to put on the record my thanks to the committee for accommodating our interest in that regard, to make that interim report possible.

Senator TILLEM: Chair, I would also like to put on the record my appreciation for the hard work of the committee and yourself and congratulate the committee on handing down a unanimous interim report, which is a rare thing these days. And my appreciation goes to the secretariat. As Arnie would say, 'I'll be back'! And we have not quite let the AEC off the hook yet. I will see you guys at some point in the near future, hopefully. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.

Committee adjourned at 15 : 19