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Conduct of the 2004 federal election and matters related thereto

CHAIR —Welcome, Mr Lewin. We have received your submission, which has been numbered 29, and which has been authorised for publication. Is there anything you wish to correct, amend or add to in any way?

Mr Lewin —No, there is nothing to amend. I just got the feeling that the way the electoral office was operating was to say, ‘We don’t really care whether you vote or not,’ and I have been getting the brush-off. That was my concern.

CHAIR —We have read your submission. We have had a number of hearings already, some of which, naturally, relate to the conduct of the election with respect to the Electoral Commission. We have had hearings in regional Queensland where there were well-known problems with postal voting generally; that is, with ballots not getting to people, or applications not being completed, where there was a problem with their distribution. In the course of those discussions throughout our inquiry, the very issue you raise has come up from time to time. Given that you were the first to put in a submission on that issue, we wanted to hear directly from you here in Melbourne. Could you take us through some of that?

Mr MELHAM —Mr Chairman, I do not know whether the secretariat has a copy of one of the postal vote applications, but it might help if we give a copy of one of those to the witness so that he could talk us through it.

CHAIR —That is a great suggestion. Could Mr Lewin be provided with a copy of one of those.

Mr MELHAM —Is that similar to the one that you complained about?

Mr Lewin —That is the one I was given.

CHAIR —Asked to complete, yes.

Mr Lewin —I have to say that for 40 years I have been involved as a returning officer for federal and state elections, and for the last 30 years I have had a staff of 12, so I am familiar with the postal vote routine within the polling booth. It is only since I have come to Melbourne that I have not been involved with federal or state elections in that capacity. As soon as the elections were announced, I contacted the divisional officer at Kooyong, and he told me he would send out the form, which I received. On the Saturday prior to the elections I was due to go overseas. On the Monday I telephoned the office to find out what had happened to my application for a postal vote, and the receptionist virtually tried to talk me out of casting a vote, saying, ‘You’ll be out of the country on the day of the elections, there’s no need for you to do it, it’s going to involve a lot of time.’

Mr DANBY —Was this the Monday before you were leaving on the Saturday?

Mr Lewin —Yes.

Mr DANBY —You were speaking to the divisional office of the AEC?

Mr Lewin —I was talking to a receptionist; I cannot remember whether she put me through to an office staff member, but it was in the Kooyong office on the Monday prior to the election. So she virtually gave me the brush-off and I objected to that. Then she told me the ballot papers that I had to fill in had to be printed and I should receive them on the Wednesday, which I did. It was like this one that is in front of me. I filled it in and posted it, but from the time I dropped it in the mailbox to the time it was received in the electoral office, every Tom, Dick and Harry knew that I was going to be out of Australia on that particular weekend, knew where I lived, and everything else about me—

CHAIR —And knew that you were voting by postal ballot?

Mr Lewin —Yes.

Mr MELHAM —There is a second point I would like to raise at this point, as well. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think in previous elections there was also a second envelope that you could put your ballot paper in, whereas in this election I think you only had the one envelope, didn’t you?

Mr Lewin —I think so, but as I said, I was a returning officer, and if my memory serves me right, when they delivered their postal votes to me at the booth, it was in a plain envelope, and I then passed it on in the package of absentee votes in the bundling process to the electoral office concerned.

Mr MELHAM —As I said, my recollection is that in previous elections people had an envelope to put their ballot paper in, and then put it inside the postal ballot, but this time there was only—

Mr Lewin —Just this.

Mr MELHAM —this particular document and no other. I had complaints in my office about the privacy of the actual ballot. I was just interested; your particular complaint is not necessarily that you were missing another envelope to put the—

Mr Lewin —It is the privacy.

Mr MELHAM —It is the privacy aspect of that. So what do you suggest—that they revert to the previous position where that sort of material was—

Mr Lewin —Yes, I would say that a plain envelope be attached in the package when I receive my ballot papers and everything else, so that there is privacy, and it is just posted in an ordinary way. As I said, anyone could ransack the house while I was overseas; they knew I would be away.

Mr MELHAM —I do know that when I was scrutineering in the federal seat of Parramatta, there was an instance where the officials had to be pulled up because of the way they were unfolding the ballot papers and the name was in view. Again, it was just a procedural mistake that only occurred for about 30 seconds. But your preference is to go back to the old system; is that the situation?

Mr Lewin —Yes. This is just a slap in the face to our privacy laws. There should be a plain envelope also provided so that either I deliver it to the voting booth, to the officer in charge, or I put it in the mailbox for it to be posted.

Mr MELHAM —Are you saying that that is a cost that the Australian Electoral Commission should be prepared to bear in view of the privacy aspects? With respect to an argument from the Electoral Commission that they are doing this to save cost, I do not want to verbal you, but your view would be that in this instance the privacy of the vote outweighs the cost of an extra envelope?

Mr Lewin —Yes, I agree with you in that respect. The privacy factor is more important than the postage stamp.

Mr MELHAM —The postage stamp would not be any different. What you have is—

Mr Lewin —But I am talking about the extra envelope.

Mr MELHAM —But you would not have your details revealed on the envelope through the mail?

Mr Lewin —That is right, yes.

Senator MURRAY —I always like submissions which agree with my point of view! Just to explain, I am a silent elector, and I also have a silent phone number. In this case, I had exactly the same problem: not only was it exposing details which I regarded as personal on a publicly available document, but also it was detailing a phone number which is silent. I can imagine many people—you, single women and others—being offended by this. I agree with you: the only solution is a second envelope. I put it into a second envelope and posted it off, and marked on the outside of the second envelope that there was a ballot paper inside. You did not do that? Why did you not do that?

Mr Lewin —The thought that occurred to me on privacy did not come until I had dropped it in the mailbox. It was probably on the Thursday that I mailed it, and I was leaving the country on Saturday. I run a business, so I had to get everything tied up with that. You are right in what you say: I should have provided another envelope but, as I said, the thought did not occur to me until I had dropped it in the mailbox.

Mr MELHAM —Did you get a reply to your letter of 1 October addressed to the divisional returning officer?

Mr Lewin —No.

Mr MELHAM —So you have never had a formal response?

Mr Lewin —I wrote a letter to the returning officer, and to the member of parliament—

Mr MELHAM —Yes, I saw that, dated 1 October. So you have not had an acknowledgment or a reply from the electoral officer to your letter?

Mr Lewin —No, none whatsoever.

Mr MELHAM —Okay, that is something we can follow up.

CHAIR —It was forwarded to us by Mr Georgiou as well, who knew that you wanted it to be passed on to us. That is why you were asked here today.

Mr Lewin —That is right.

Senator FORSHAW —Thanks for drawing this matter to our attention. I fully appreciate what you have put. Your concern about this information becoming publicly available when the form could be easily put in an envelope and sent back is certainly a legitimate one. I want to be the devil’s advocate for a moment and put a proposition or two to you to test that out. I note one of the concerns in your correspondence was that people could find out that you were away from home.

Mr Lewin —Yes.

Senator FORSHAW —What I would put to you then is: what would be your response to the argument that, even though that is the case, there are many other ways they can find out through a process anyway? For instance, you have to make arrangements at the post office if you are going away for an extended time, or with someone else to collect your mail. At other points in the chain, people can become aware, even if they received your postal vote application in an undisclosed form, in an envelope, and that could be quite a number of people. It is not just the person who opens the mail; it might be—

Mr Lewin —The person who delivers it or sorts it.

Senator FORSHAW —Yes, and the person who registers it and so on. You understand the point I am putting to you: your concern seems to be a legitimate one but it may also be said that that is something that can occur throughout the process in any event?

Mr Lewin —If you look at the breaking and entering point of view that could have happened while I was away, that could happen while I am here now, because there is no-one in attendance at my home. That is a risk you run. But when it is publicly made known that you are away, there is a greater risk. If the insurance company were to find this type of thing, they might jib about paying because of the fact that everyone knew I was away. With respect to the post office and getting the mail redirected, I get it redirected to another address, so whether I have changed it or not—

Senator FORSHAW —Yes, but with returns of applications for postal votes, they can come in in bulk through the postal system, so it will alert a thief or whoever in the postal system. They could work out—

Mr Lewin —They could do that, yes.

Senator FORSHAW —I am not trying to dismiss your argument; I am just looking at those other aspects that could be argued in order to say that there is a risk in any of this at some point in time. Why should we worry about going to a lot of expense if that is the case?

Mr Lewin —Yes, I suppose you could look at it like that. As I said, I was a returning officer in a polling booth, so we would handle all these postal votes. I could ring up people right, left and centre and say, ‘So and so is away, there’s a job to do tonight or this weekend, get it over and done with.’ But if it came back to me, I would be held responsible. I feel that a greater need for privacy has to be observed in the light of all these privacy laws we have now. Whether it was the fault of the clerk for forgetting to include the envelope, or whether it was an administrative process that was adopted for the elections, I feel that something should be rectified so it does not happen next time.

Senator FORSHAW —In any event, we know there is a way it can be dealt with, and at least it removes that one avenue of concern.

CHAIR —Are there any further questions?

Mr Lewin —I would like to make the comment that no-one took me up on the fact that I got fobbed off by the office staff at the returning office.

Mr MELHAM —No, we are going to take it up with the Electoral Commission.

CHAIR —That is right. Mr Melham pointed out that we will take up the fact that they have not replied to your correspondence, and implicit in that were these other issues. I should have mentioned at the start that we certainly will be taking that up. There is a range of issues that we want to raise with the Electoral Commission; this is one of them. We had some hearings with them initially, but we are having a full one-day hearing with them in Canberra on Friday, 5 August, and this issue, along with a number of others to do with postal voting, will certainly be taken up. Have no doubt about that; the issue has been raised anecdotally and we wanted to hear from one witness, and that is you, so you are the witness, and it will be taken up in Canberra with them.

Mr MELHAM —That is why we hear from them at the end of the process as well. They have officers who monitor the transcripts and the submissions to the committee, and generally they come to us and we question them in that wrap-up procedure to try to get responses to the issues raised.

CHAIR —They will certainly be aware of your submission because they follow all of the submissions very closely, and they are publicly available as well, as you probably appreciate.

Mr Lewin —Very good.

CHAIR —So that is where it is at. I did not want you to think that we were not going to follow it up; far from it. You have articulated these matters with great clarity, and they are quite straightforward. I will summarise them in case we have missed anything: there is a lack of privacy; they should have the proper envelope; and when you complained about it, you did not receive satisfactory service.

Mr Lewin —That is right.

CHAIR —Okay. Nothing further?

Mr Lewin —As a side issue, we were in London and Edinburgh on the day of the elections, and everyone who found out we were Australians were interested in knowing the results and were keen to know what would happen. So there was great interest in what was happening in our elections on that day.

CHAIR —I have one further question before you depart: was your letter to the Electoral Commission in a single envelope, or was it enclosed?

Mr Lewin —A single envelope.

CHAIR —So it was a separate letter; you did not enclose a letter with your postal vote?

Mr Lewin —No.

CHAIR —You wrote a letter similar to what we have here as your submission, being your—

Mr Lewin —I did the three letters at the same time.

CHAIR —Okay, so the letter we are looking at is the letter, and that did not go in that envelope? Sorry, we have a copy of your letter to the divisional returning officer.

Mr Lewin —That was posted separately, on a separate day; that was posted in time for the mail to be cleared at 4.30. I then went home and—

CHAIR —Just in a normal envelope—

Mr Lewin —wrote the letter after I posted this.

Mr MELHAM —That is what I took to be the case.

CHAIR —You have not received anything back at all?

Mr Lewin —No.

Mr MELHAM —Even though you say ‘attached to the postal votes for myself and for my wife’—that is what your letter says. We might show you the letter we are talking about.

CHAIR —We just want to clarify how they received the letter.

Mr Lewin —In that case, I must have posted the letter at the—

CHAIR —In that—

Mr Lewin —Put it in with the ballot papers. So it was quite possible, then, that that came through the system that way. An office staff member may have just filed it aside and it ended up in the shredder.

Mr MELHAM —Well, that is what we will need to—

Mr Lewin —That is what could have happened.

Mr MELHAM —check out, because it may well be that, as a result, if you have attached that with your postal ballot, it might be one of the reasons you have not had a reply.

CHAIR —It might be an automatic—

Mr Lewin —It probably went through the shredder.

Mr MELHAM —We just need to check that.

CHAIR —Okay, we will follow that up, but notwithstanding that, there is the other issue when you telephoned them as well.

Mr Lewin —I did indicate in this letter, ‘I have not used the facility of a reply paid envelope as provided by the post office’—I have ‘office’ there, which should read ‘post office’. So there was that comment regarding another envelope.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. As I said, we will be hearing from the Electoral Commission on Friday, 5 August, and obviously when our report comes out, as a matter of course, the secretariat staff will make sure you receive a copy of that report. Anyone who makes a submission will receive a copy.

Mr Lewin —Very good. Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity.

Proceedings suspended from 3.37 pm to 3.47 pm