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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters - 26/08/2015 - Campaigning at polling places

McARTHUR, Mr Stephen, Private capacity


ACTING CHAIR: I now call Stephen McArthur to give evidence. Do you have any additional comments to make on the capacity in which you appear today.

Mr McArthur : Although I was a campaign worker for the Liberal Party at the last state election and have been for many years, I am not representing the Liberal Party.

ACTING CHAIR: Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I remind witnesses that this hearing is a legal proceeding of parliament and warrants the same respect as proceedings in the House. 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 will attract parliamentary privilege. Do you have any brief introductory remarks you would like to make?

Mr McArthur : I am sure that members of the committee have had a chance to have a look at the submission I made, so I do not intend to go through all of that again. But I would simply make the point that I take the democratic process seriously. I think it is a good process and I think that for it to work effectively you need it to be—I think I said this at the end of my submission—open to all, fair to all candidates, free of subterfuge and deception. It is about that subterfuge and deception that I am most concerned about. In 25 years I had not seen such a blatant example before.

There have been examples of deception in polling places. Probably one of the most famous was in 1985, in the Victorian upper house election. It was a scandal where some how-to-vote cards were faked in an attempt to influence preference flows. That was particularly important at the time. It gained wide notoriety.

This is the only case that I have actually witnessed firsthand and it is a case where people dressed up, in my view, deliberately in a planned, organised and considered manner to pretend to the voter that they represented one group when in fact they were representing somebody entirely different. From what I saw on the day it was effective. It did deceive the people who were turning up to vote and it did influence—I think I can show this—the flow of those votes.

ACTING CHAIR: If I can start with that point and I note some figures in your submission with respect to some of the polling places and the nature of the variation in the swing there. I think as you and I both know, because we have both been around a long time, booths do vary quite a bit, even within electorates. So what the basis and the reason for that is, I guess, a judgement and in my view an opinion.

If I were playing this line out I would look at the circumstances around Monbulk versus some of the other seats like Frankston, Carrum, Bentleigh and Mordialloc where the same sort of behaviour has been raised where the swings were wildly different. In fact, in several of those seats there was a state-wide swing in excess of two per cent plus to Labor, but I think in three or four of those seats the swing was actually significantly under the state average. In terms of pointing to whether there was an effect there it would, frankly, point to a reverse effect.

Mr McArthur : My submission is based on what I saw on the day and my experience in a seat that I have been involved in closely for over 20 years and my assessment of the polling booth figures, both from the VEC site and from our own scrutineers. As you say, it is a judgement, but it is based on some level of experience. I am not Antony Green, but I do know how to add up numbers and judge flows and, to my mind, I am convinced that the swing against the Liberal Party was greater in those booths where these fake firefighters appeared—

ACTING CHAIR: I think the term 'fake firefighters' is a bit emotive. The tenet of your submission is that they were UFU members rather than CFA volunteers. That is the basic point?

Mr McArthur : Some of them were firefighters and some were union organisers. They were dressed in an apparel that was designed to appear like CFA firefighting kit—overalls, braces, boots, blue T-shirt et cetera. And it worked because I asked voters. Once I realised what was happening I asked some voters, coming out of booths, who they believe they had been given the cards by, and they said, 'Local brigade guys.' So, from that perspective, it was effective. It did not pass muster. If you showed that uniform or a photo of that uniform to a CFA volunteer they would pick it straightaway. But to Mr and Mrs Brown, from mainstream Monbulk, they were effectively CFA volunteers.

ACTING CHAIR: The union's position is that they were actually wearing what was effectively a variation of firefighter apparel but it was not actually an official uniform and they made that very clear. Directions were given to their booth workers, whom they maintain were all firefighters, not to wear their actual work gear when they were actually handing out cards.

Mr McArthur : I understand that, and I am sure they were not wearing official MFB gear, and they certainly were not wearing official CFA gear, because the CFA has very strong rules. If any of them were actually paid CFA firefighters and UFU members—that I cannot tell you. But CFA have very strong rules about wearing CFA equipment or apparel when involved in electioneering, and they enforce them strongly. They did on that day actually, in another electorate, as I understand it. There is a strong prohibition about wearing official CFA gear. The MFB I cannot answer for. I do not know. But, from the perspective of what actually occurred on the day, this looked like a firefighter's uniform. It was taken as such by voters and, in effect, in my view, it altered the way some of those people behaved at the polling booth, and I think that is regrettable.

ACTING CHAIR: You believe that some of these people were not firefighters?

Mr McArthur : I believe some of them were actually just union organisers, yes. I had some discussions with quite a few of them. One admitted immediately, when I asked him if he was a local brigade guy. He said, 'No; I'm here from the UFU.' Most of them said, yes, they were volunteers, they were local. It was only after persistent prodding that people admitted—in some cases, they did not admit at all—where they were from. There was a small UFU on the T-shirt, but it was often obscured by the braces.

ACTING CHAIR: So they were wearing UFU T-shirts?

Mr McArthur : They were wearing a UFU T-shirt, yes, but it was often obscured by the braces. In the context of an election, where you walk into a polling booth, you and I would take a bit more care about this—

ACTING CHAIR: I never take anyone's card. I just walk through.

Mr McArthur : but the ordinary person walking in is there to get a card, have their vote and, in a large number of cases, get out as quickly as they can and get to the footy or the cricket or whatever happens to be on that day.

ACTING CHAIR: Absolutely, but I would also argue that, for people in those circumstances, what they tend to do is put their head down, grab whatever is handed out to them and keep walking in order to then exercise their democratic duty once they get inside the booth.

Mr McArthur : We can agree on that!

ACTING CHAIR: Indeed. From what I think you said—and I do not want to put words in your mouth but I am going to try!—I did not get that you actually established anyone who was not a firefighter. You think you established at least one person who was not from the area, who said he was from the UFU. A number of them were not prepared to give you personal details with respect to any involvement that they had with the CFA locally, which brigade cetera, but no-one actually said they were not a firefighter.

Mr McArthur : Some of them may well have been firefighters with the MFB or paid firefighters for the CFA.

ACTING CHAIR: But, to be blunt, you do not know of any that were not.

Mr McArthur : No. I cannot definitively say, 'This person here was definitely not a firefighter and was pretending to be.' But I can say that they were pretending to be local brigade volunteers when they were not.

ACTING CHAIR: But one was, and others were not prepared to provide you with the details of which brigade they worked for. Again, it is a bit different for you and me, given our involvements over the years, but, in my experience, booth workers, you hope, always will be pleasant to each other and polite and engage in the democratic process without getting too heavy, but, other than exchanging pleasantries, it is not usual to actually provide personal details to those who question you.

Mr McArthur : You have never stood on a booth with my wife, have you! She is on the Christmas card list of half the people she stands there with.

ACTING CHAIR: I have never been that well known. That is the truth of it.

Mr McArthur : I will give you an example. At one booth, at Kallista, which is a small village in the middle of the Dandenongs, there is a school on one side of the road and a CFA station on the other. The car park is alongside the CFA station. People park there and walk across the road to the school to vote. The CFA volunteers were holding a sausage sizzle-cum-whatever booth in their car park to raise a few dollars on election day, and they could see the guys in the firefighting gear handing out how-to-vote cards on the other side. I know those guys who were doing the volunteering, because I have been in the area for a long time, and they were absolutely furious with what they saw, because they knew they were not local brigade members. They knew, because of the people they talked to coming in and out of the booth, that the guys in the firefighting kit were pretending to be CFA volunteers. They were saying to me, 'What the hell are you going to do about it?' There was nothing I could do about it other than what I did, which was to go and see the DRO—I call them DROs still; I am sure they have got a new title now—at the returning office, which covered both Monbulk and Evelyn, and raise the issue with him. He advised me that the how-to-vote card was authorised and therefore available and able to be distributed, but there was nothing he could do. He looked at the uniform said, 'Yes, it looks deceptive but there's nothing I can do about that because it is not a breach of the existing act in Victoria at the moment.'

ACTING CHAIR: In previous elections I have seen occasions where volunteers associated with the Liberal Party have worn green T-shirts that espoused views about the importance of forests while handing out a how-to-vote card which in fact was not a Greens party how-to-vote card. Have you any comment on that sort of behaviour?

Mr McArthur : No, I have not got any comment on that because I think the Liberal Party has a proud record of protecting forests and the native environment, including being very good at creating and maintaining national parks right across the country.

ACTING CHAIR: I will take that one as it came.

Mr GOODENOUGH: In your submission, you referred to the presence of other union volunteers. Could you please elaborate for the record.

Mr McArthur : Four public sector unions were heavily involved in campaigning in a number of key seats in the state election. I think I made the point in my submission that the amount and the level of that campaigning was new to me, and it was often fairly assertive but not—in my view—illegal or breaching the rules that have been in place in Victoria for the last 25 years. It was an unusual level of activity, both prior to polling day and on polling day, but probably allowable. After all, people are entitled to campaign.

ACTING CHAIR: Is there any closing comment you would like to make?

Mr McArthur : If the committee is interested, I actually have some photos.

ACTING CHAIR: Didn't we get some in the submission? Or was that not yours?

Mr McArthur : It was not mine.

ACTING CHAIR: Sorry, no. It was another.

Mr McArthur : Some of them include faces so that people would be identifiable. I have the CFA Brigade magazine, which shows how closely resembling this gear was.

ACTING CHAIR: Before you go, how many local brigades would there be in the Dandenongs?

Mr McArthur : Region 13—in Monbulk or in the Dandenongs?

ACTING CHAIR: In the Dandenongs.

Mr McArthur : Region 13 is probably the best way to cover this. It covers that area and down towards Dandenong itself. That area has a large number of brigades. In the area that I am familiar with—

ACTING CHAIR: I had cause to call one of them to my house many years ago after I set fire to it.

Mr McArthur : You set fire to it?

ACTING CHAIR: I did. It was very clever.

Mr McArthur : An overzealous barbecue?

ACTING CHAIR: No, a harsh attempt at renovations by a man incapable of achieving the outcome. You had to be there.

Mr McArthur : In my patch of the Dandenongs there are probably eight or 10.

ACTING CHAIR: And if we go to the question of the whole Dandenongs, which would take another three or four seats, I suppose, in terms of—

Mr McArthur : One more seat, really.

ACTING CHAIR: I would take Gembrook, Monbulk, Evelyn—

Mr McArthur : Evelyn does not really cover Dandenong; it is more in the Yarra Valley.

ACTING CHAIR: So you are probably talking somewhere in the region of 20 to 30 local brigades. The brigades would vary in size in terms of the numbers of engines that they have at their disposal—some would only have one and some would have more than one, I suspect.

Mr McArthur : Yes, most have got two trucks.

ACTING CHAIR: Most have two trucks. What is the number of volunteers in a typical brigade?

Mr McArthur : It floats a bit, but some of them would have 20 or 30.

ACTING CHAIR: So you could be dealing with something in the region of 400 to 600 volunteers just across that local area, which varies at times.

Mr McArthur : And it is a floating population there.

ACTING CHAIR: So, you have made my point. If you have some additional material you would like the committee to receive we would need to receive it as a supplementary submission. We could do that. If you believe there is an issue around identification, that would make it a bit more problematic because we would have to consider the question of whether we make it a confidential submission. If it is public material it is all right.

Mr McArthur : That is the CFA stuff, but the photos I have—the photos I took on the day—are not, and they would identify people because in a couple of cases their faces are visible. Is that an issue for the committee?

ACTING CHAIR: We are happy to take submissions of additional material. What we then face is a choice as to whether we make it public, and that goes to the question of whether the material identifies people or does not in a situation where they have not actually given their approval.

Mr McArthur : What I could do is give you a couple which are not identifiable.

ACTING CHAIR: That would be fine.

Senator CAROL BROWN: The person who made a complaint to the returning officer at a particular booth—

Mr McArthur : No, not at the booth, at the district returning office.

Senator CAROL BROWN: So not on the day?

Mr McArthur : Yes, on the day. I drove there and raised the matter with him. I first up inquired whether or not the how-to-vote card they were assuring have been authorised, and it had. Then I raised the issue of the uniforms. As I said, I had photos. I could show those photos. He said, 'It may be deceptive, but there is nothing in the act or in the rules that has been breached.' There is a provision in the Victorian act against issuing deceptive or misleading material but not about deceptive or misleading behaviour.

Senator CAROL BROWN: So, in his view, they had not breached?

Mr McArthur : Yes.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Did you make a complaint at the individual polling booth?

Mr McArthur : No. I went to see the DRO because, as the AEC mentioned before, the advice you get from the people managing a booth varies from booth to booth and election to election, but the DROs are generally more consistent.

ACTING CHAIR: I will accept that as additional material rather than as a submission, as such. I have only one more question. Did you have any issues which related to ambulance employees with respect to the booths—

Mr McArthur : No. They appeared at various times. They were a bit out of it. They were fairly definite in their views at times, but—

ACTING CHAIR: No issues beyond that?

Mr McArthur : No. People knew they were ambulance employees.

Senator CAROL BROWN: I am new to the committee and I am from Tasmania. Who won that seat?

Mr McArthur : The Labor Party.

ACTING CHAIR: It is actually the seat of the Deputy Premier. The broader point I would make about that is that, when you look at some of the seat movements at the last election, although I take on board Mr McArthur's comments about the nature of some of those particular booths, there were several seats that had sitting Labor members in them—including Bellarine with Lisa Neville down in Geelong, James Merlino in this seat and Sharon Nye in the Ballarat area—which were nominally Liberal held seats as a result of redistribution but which had significantly larger swings to Labor than the average. The conventional wisdom from Antony Green, I believe, and others is that that has usually been about the value of incumbency with respect to them as local members in the area. But other factors may well have played a role.

Mr McArthur : They may well, indeed.

ACTING CHAIR: Thanks very much for appearing. I do not think you have been asked for extra material but, if anything else comes to mind, please forward it to the secretariat. Thanks for your attendance today.