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Conduct of the 2004 federal election and matters related thereto

CHAIR —I welcome Ms Alison Cousland to today’s hearing. The committee has received your submission, which has been numbered 30 and has been authorised for publication. Are there any corrections, amendments or additions you would like to make to the submission?

Ms Cousland —No, thank you.

CHAIR —We have read the submission. I invite you to make a brief opening statement and then we will move to questions.

Ms Cousland —I lived overseas for a long time and I came back to Australia to find a new layer of bureaucracy in the form of different identification, earning 100 points for different things like Medicare and bank accounts et cetera, and when I went to vote I did not have to show anything. All I was asked is, ‘Do you live at this address?’ On the day of voting, I could have been anybody. I was stunned. That is why I wrote to you.

CHAIR —I will just flesh through some of the issues first. We have received nearly 170 submissions, and we do not hear from everyone, but you were chosen because you had made a submission on an issue to do with voting in which we are interested. You would be aware also that the lack of requirement for identification really applies at enrolment level. Just so that I am aware of your position, are you advocating that there be a simple identification requirement along the lines that is required in everyday life—even when hiring a video—when you re-enrol to vote and on election day?

Ms Cousland —I did not think about it when I was re-enrolling because that was in the first couple of months of returning to Australia. However, I did ring my local electoral office last week just to check, and I realised then that all I really had to do was state that I was eligible to be put on the roll, and have that declared in front of somebody else who was on the roll—all of whom could be made up. So I was a bit stunned to find that. But the point of my email related to voting day. In the various primary schools, I guess there are lots and lots of electoral lists, and it is just a matter of saying, ‘Yes, I live there.’

CHAIR —Just as a further point of clarification—not that you would do this—your point is that you could say you are anybody whom you know, or vice versa, in the electorate in which you live, which would be—

Ms Cousland —Good question!

CHAIR —Isaacs?

Ms Cousland —Maybe; I have only voted once, but, yes, I think it is Isaacs.

CHAIR —It would be a suburban seat, and like in my electorate, there would probably be 35 or 40 polling booths. Your point is that someone who knew you and knew where you voted could conceivably go and vote at all the other polling booths, and that would not be discovered until after election day. You would then get a letter from the Electoral Commission asking why you had voted 35 or 40 times, to which you would attest that you had not, and that someone else must have. That would probably be the beginning and the end of it, but the one thing that would not alter would be that all of those 35 or 40 votes would count.

Ms Cousland —Yes, and I am not convinced that, if there is not an identity check, that dead people are still not voting. I would think, if I had bothered to go down to Somerville on voting day where my mother used to live before she died, I probably could have voted in her place too. If the only question is, ‘Do you live at this address?’ I could have said ‘yes’.

CHAIR —It is good that you arrived here a little bit early because you will find that, without wanting to predict my colleagues’ viewpoints, there will probably be a range of robust opinion on this topic. Just on a side issue, the Electoral Commission carries out checks on enrolment by way of letter. If somebody does not respond to a letter or does not confirm their enrolment, after a certain period of time, they would be taken off the electoral roll. It is good that they do that, because that is a check. Would you concede that, in a period very close to an election or even when the election is called, the ability to enrol remains open at present for a further seven days. In that time, if somebody falsely enrolled, it would be very difficult to detect that in the period of time that the Electoral Commission requires to do checks. Does that make sense to you?

Ms Cousland —Yes, but that is only a small window of opportunity. All of this information is digital. It just stuns me that it appears, even around the rest of the Western world, that it is still done on pieces of paper as in the subcontinent, for example. I do not understand why voting is not done on touch screen computers.

CHAIR —In the last election, my understanding is that, as a pilot program in one electorate, the Electoral Commission did operate a computer-based system so when names were crossed off, the computer was updated. That would have prevented people from voting in their name in other polling booths. What you are saying is that you would like to see that pilot program extended into a full program?

Ms Cousland —Yes, and then results could come in real time.

Mr DANBY —Thank you for coming in and making your presentation. In response to what you have already said, I agree with you about the use of modern technology in polling booths. It would seem ideal to have computers and touch screens, and the Electoral Commission working off databases where they are able to cross people off the roll when they attended to vote. Having said all of that, I suppose you are aware that, while they have all of these kinds of things in various parts of the United States, you would have to say that our election was conducted in a much more efficient way as far as reflecting the views of the vast bulk of people concerned. There were no hanging chads or tens of thousands of people disfranchised in the manner in which they were in the United States.

Further to what the chair said, you are aware that, if you had attempted to vote several times in your name, the electoral office would have made attempts—as it is obliged to under the act—to contact you and, if necessary, pursue fraudulent behaviour against you. Interestingly, you should be aware that in the period between 1990 and 2001 there were six opportunities for all 12 million Australians to vote, and on those occasions, the Electoral Commission only came across 72 proven cases of electoral fraud. So 12 million Australians voted at six different elections—

Senator BRANDIS —There is the question of the word ‘proven’.

Mr DANBY —Senator Brandis, you can fight with a lawyer over the words, but my point is the commonsense one about there being 72 proven cases in 12 million occasions of voting. I am mindful of what you say, and the incredibly expensive change to that new technology is something we should certainly consider, but in the context of elections I think we are doing a lot better than other countries.

Ms Cousland —Perhaps 72 might have been proven, but how many people are still out there who voted who may not have been caught? How many dead people continue to vote? And, under the Australian system, how many people do not vote?

Mr MELHAM —Are you aware that the Electoral Commission has an enrolment process where someone who is notified as being deceased has a mark put against their name, and in the interim election period, from the time nominations are called to voting day, there is a process that would identify—

Ms Cousland —So the Electoral Commission is in contact with the Births, Deaths and Marriages for that?

Mr MELHAM —As I understand it, there is a process whereby divisional returning officers in the Electoral Commission monitor and record death notices—

CHAIR —We might come back to you. Senator Brandis?

Senator BRANDIS —Ms Cousland, I was just going to make the observation that if it is good enough for dead people to vote in Labor Party plebiscites, why can’t they vote in general elections?

Ms Cousland —Well, yes, and why can we not all get lots of mobile phones and Medicare cards by not providing ID?

Senator BRANDIS —I am just struggling to think of any transaction in contemporary society, short of a cash purchase, which does not require some form of identification; renting a video usually requires identification, does it not?

Ms Cousland —Yes.

Senator BRANDIS —Going to the doctor?

Ms Cousland —Yes, and that is my point: why don’t we need it for voting?

Senator BRANDIS —Going to the bank?

Ms Cousland —Yes, going to the bank, going to Medicare.

Senator BRANDIS —Travelling overseas?

Ms Cousland —Yes, of course.

Senator BRANDIS —Making any transaction involving the use of a credit card?

Ms Cousland —Yes.

Senator BRANDIS —Getting money out of an ATM requires the ATM card?

Ms Cousland —That is the ATM card; I am not sure whether that is actually recognisable identification, but yes.

Senator BRANDIS —Well, it is sufficiently specific to the individual because it is only operable by reference to a four-digit code that that person knows and is assigned to that person. Then there is getting a book out of the library?

Senator FORSHAW —Joining the Wentworth branch of the Liberal Party?

Senator BRANDIS —That is a very good point, Senator Forshaw—joining a political party. Let us pursue the point that Senator Forshaw so sensibly makes. If it is necessary to produce identification to join a political party—

Mr DANBY —I am not sure that it was in those days.

Senator BRANDIS —would you not say that exercising a vote at a general election is a more central act in a democratic system than the act of joining a political party?

Ms Cousland —Yes, but I am missing your point, because I am advocating ID for voting.

Senator BRANDIS —To be honest, I just want to put these instances on the record, and I am sure I am saying things to you with which you agree. Perhaps you have already told us, but what do you think of a system of a democracy in which exercising your sacred right to vote is regarded with less significance than renting a video or using an ATM?

Ms Cousland —Well, I get back to why I wrote the email. I came out of a country which is basically more or less a police state with an ID card. For 18 years I am used to carrying an ID card—

Senator MASON —Which country was that?

Ms Cousland —Singapore and Hong Kong. I came down here, and we have these point-making forms of identification—passport, full birth certificate, drivers licence, Medicare card or credit card, which might make up 100 points for various organisations. I thought at the time what a lot of nonsense it was, after having one ID card for everything for 18 years. And obviously that has become topical here in the last couple of weeks. When I went to vote, I was just very surprised that, having played games with Telstra and Medicare et cetera, to get my points to be able to qualify as an Australian citizen to be able to get a Medicare card, I then get to go and vote by just saying, ‘Yes, I live there.’

Senator BRANDIS —This committee has the capacity to make a recommendation to the parliament along the lines you suggest. Given the discussion we have had, do you think it would be absurd and preposterous for us not to make a recommendation to that effect?

Ms Cousland —To what effect, sorry?

Senator BRANDIS —The effect that you suggest?

Ms Cousland —About providing identification?

Senator BRANDIS —Yes. Do you think it would be absurd and preposterous for us not to make that recommendation?

Ms Cousland —It would be to not make the recommendation, yes.

Senator BRANDIS —Yes, I thought you would. Thank you.

CHAIR —I have a couple of generic questions which I will leave to the end. Mr Melham?

Mr MELHAM —I think you have said already that the substance of your submission is that you believe you should be required to provide identification when voting to verify you are who you are; is that correct?

Ms Cousland —Yes, that is correct.

Mr MELHAM —I take it that you were not in Australia at the time of the 1990 federal election?

Ms Cousland —No, I was not.

Mr MELHAM —That was a time where the Electoral Commission internally changed the people working within the polling booth, and it resulted in long queues at the 1990 election, for which there were many complaints, both to members of parliament and to the Electoral Commission. I take it that you do not object that, as a result of your suggestion, one of the consequences is that there will be queuing on election day for you to be able to register your vote, unless, of course, the Electoral Commission massively increases the number of people assisting on polling day?

Ms Cousland —Or unless the Electoral Commission garners the technology that is actually available so that we do not have this nonsense, year after year.

Mr MELHAM —Okay, that is another matter.

Senator BRANDIS —Why would there have to be massive queuing if a person just had to—

CHAIR —We might come back to that.

Mr MELHAM —The Electoral Commission’s supplementary submission shows in table 15 that the votes cast at the 2004 federal election indicated a voter turnout of 12,420,019. There was an enrolment of 13,098,461, so there was 94.82 per cent turnout. My understanding is that about 20 per cent of those people would have voted prior to the election day by way of postal or pre-poll voting. So, as a result of your suggestion, what I am saying to you is that 80 per cent of 12.4 million on the day would have had to produce some form of identification. That is why I would assert that it would result in queuing on the day. It would take some time to administer on the day. So, for every action there is a reaction. I am not dismissing what you are saying. What you are saying is that that way you would have a better integrity of the roll and people voting.

Ms Cousland —That is correct.

Mr MELHAM —What I am saying to you is that one of the consequences of that could be queuing and a whole series of other things: people who do not have identification with them might be refused a right to vote.

Ms Cousland —It is exactly the same as when you leave the country and you are required to show a passport; you queue at Medicare and you have to show your Medicare card. At other places you have to show your licence; of course, it takes time to get something out of your wallet and put it on the bench.

Mr MELHAM —What I am asserting is that we have a system that has been in operation for some time, and I would like to pick up some of the figures that Mr Danby has asserted: in a 15-year period, there have been but 72 prosecutions for people who have fraudulently voted, who should not have voted. On the face of it, I would assert to you that, despite the cynicism from some people in the community, the system actually works reasonably well and that there are some checks and balances that the public are not aware of in terms of computer generated rolls and checking systems to monitor as best they can who is actually voting. What I am suggesting to you is that, whilst no system can be perfect, what we have is, on balance, a system that is working reasonably well. If we go to the stage that you suggest, that is fine, but the consequences will be that, on election day and in terms of processing of votes prior to election day, it will involve a lot of red tape and extra delays.

Ms Cousland —I am sorry to say that I think that sounds to me like sticking with a system and not changing it just because it is perceived as not having any problems. If you take it to the next level—for example, if we all had our own ID number—we should technically be able to log on to the Electoral Commission, vote with our little number and we would get through this log jam that you are suggesting—

Mr MELHAM —I do not dispute that if we had an ID system. I am not an agent against change, but what I am asserting is that, before you engage in change, those proposing change come up with more than just anecdotal evidence or fears or prejudices about how bad the system is and come to the committee and show a demonstrable number of cases of fraud or abuse, where people have been demonstrated, in a numerical way, to be rorting the system in a way that demands change.

I do not believe that any system is perfect, with the greatest of respect, and I understand where you are coming from. I am not dismissing that what you are saying would not provide better security in terms of the vote on the day. What I am asserting to you is that there could be consequences that flow that some might say are unacceptable, given the small level of abuse that is occurring.

Ms Cousland —That you know about, yes.

Mr MELHAM —All I am saying is, if you can demonstrate to us, if there are people out there in the community—

Senator BRANDIS —Let her answer the question, Mr Melham.

Mr MELHAM —Sorry, I am following on from what Ms Cousland said. I did not think I cut her off. This is the sixth election that I have reviewed. I have been on this committee for some time, with some small exceptions. This argument has come up time and time again. Governments of either political persuasion, and indeed the Electoral Commission, have not embraced what you have said because, whilst it has been asserted, my retort is that the committee and the commission and governments and oppositions have not been given sufficient evidence to accept the widespread practices that are asserted—that’s all.

Ms Cousland —Or perhaps it is not politically expedient to make any changes. That might be another option.

Mr MELHAM —No, no—

Ms Cousland —Look, if I go along to my local primary school and I am asked, ‘How do you spell your name? Do you live at this address?’ then usually the name is misunderstood, so part of the delay would be minimised by actually providing my drivers licence so that the person has the written name there that they can then find on the roll. I do not agree with your argument that there will be longer queues because a form of ID is required.

Mr MELHAM —Thank you. I have taken it as far as I want to.

Senator FORSHAW —I understand the submission you are putting, and I cannot argue with the proposition that, in a large range of other activities, proof of identity is required. One of the problems that does arise with proof of identity is that it does not necessarily guarantee a foolproof system.

Ms Cousland —No.

Senator BRANDIS —As opposed to the current system, which has no safeguards.

Senator FORSHAW —Well, Senator Brandis, that is actually where you are wrong. This is what I wanted to run through. The process at the moment is that people who wish to place themselves on the roll for the first time, like you did, or change their enrolment, go along and enrol. Those things are then subject to a process of checking by the Australian Electoral Commission, because this is generally for an election and, other than that short period of time before the election when there is an increase in enrolment, there is sufficient time available to have it all checked. One of the factors that militate against people seeking to fraudulently enrol in general is that it can be picked up and it will be picked up fairly quickly. We know that there are heaps of people out there who have Medicare cards who should not necessarily have them, or they have false passports and so on. You have referred to your overseas experience. I see this argument as somewhat linked to the argument about voluntary voting, although you have not put in a submission on that. You have real opportunities for fraudulent voting where you have voluntary voting, because people just have to be clever enough—and not too clever—to work out that, if only 30, 40 or 50 per cent of people are going to vote, the scope for going along and voting in another person’s name is easy. I thought you may like to comment upon that. I assume your experience been associated with systems overseas?

Ms Cousland —No—

Senator FORSHAW —Compulsory voting does largely prevent—and I think the stats prove it—fraudulent voting or what is called ‘double voting’, because it will be picked up; whereas it will never be picked up, really, in voluntary voting.

Ms Cousland —I suppose that when voting is not compulsory, it is obviously open to corruption as well, because you can buy votes quite easily, although I am sure in this system you can too. But you were talking about when people enrol; you are only talking there about the integrity of the electoral rolls. You are not actually talking about people who have been on the roll and who may have gone overseas, disappeared or died. So it would seem to me that you have electoral rolls full of people who have been there since they enrolled, you have new people who have enrolled—

Senator FORSHAW —No, but that is the point, they are not. That is an assertion that is made that is increasingly being demonstrated to be untrue. Over the years the Electoral Commission has been developing its means to more periodically and more regularly check accuracy of the roll. There are people on databases, intergovernmental linkages. It is the same with the tax system and Centrelink, where they can crosscheck. No system is foolproof. That is the point I am making—that is all available. The point I am putting to you is that, for instance, in the UK, where proof of identity may be required, it is not going to stop fraudulent voting. If I know, from looking at the figures from the last four or five elections, that only 20 per cent of people on the roll have voted, it is not hard to take a punt and have people voting for a whole lot of other people who may be legitimately on the roll, because the chances of that getting picked up are almost impossible, even with ID.

Ms Cousland —I suppose it depends on how they run their voting system. If they run their voting system with identification, and 20 per cent of the voting population bother to vote, then you still have to go to the polling booth and show your ID.

Senator FORSHAW —Show an ID.

Ms Cousland —Well, your ID card, your licence or whatever that country actually requires. I think it is a bit of a quantum leap to say that because only X per cent of the population will bother to vote, they might go around and vote at other places.

Senator FORSHAW —But that is my point. Isn’t that largely the reason why ID is required in that system, otherwise you could have the potential for substantial fraud, as distinct from a compulsory system of voting?

Ms Cousland —I am not sure. Are you able to tell me that the people on the electoral roll here tally with the Bureau of Statistics number of people over 18? Are you able to tell me that that is exactly the same?

Mr DANBY —Basically, yes, we are. All these databases—the Transport Accident Commission, Medicare—are measured against practically every three months. That is what we pay them for.

Senator FORSHAW —I have no further questions. I just wanted to explain the point I was trying to make. As I said at the outset, I am not necessarily disagreeing with the philosophical position. I was trying to point out that using overseas examples is using situations where there is voluntary voting.

Senator BRANDIS —You are not expressing a philosophical position; you are expressing a thinly disguised opportunist position.

Senator FORSHAW —I am not. You may be surprised to know what my view on this issue is.

CHAIR —I just want to ask some wrap-up questions. I want to reiterate that Ms Cousland has come here of her own free will to give evidence, and a number of members, including the deputy chair, made the point earlier that witnesses should be able to answer questions and do so freely. I just reaffirm that to him, given that he raised it earlier in the day.

Could I take up with you the propositions put by the deputy chair and Mr Melham and put to you an alternative proposition. Their proposition was that, in 10 or 15 years, there had been only 72 proven cases of fraud; therefore their response to you is that there is no need to fear. Leaving aside your very good point and Senator Brandis’ point that they are only proven cases of fraud—they do not attempt to quantify those about which we do not know—if we accepted in theory the point made by Mr Danby and Mr Melham that there have been only 72—

0Mr Danby interjecting

CHAIR —Mr Danby, I know it is late in the day, but I did not interrupt you, and as I said—

Mr DANBY —I will show you the statistics.

CHAIR —You can give me the statistics when we are on the plane to Adelaide, tomorrow morning or in the tea break, but Ms Cousland has come here and I think she deserves to be asked questions and be able to answer them. I think constant interjections, with all respect, give the false impression that you are agitated about something to do with this, and that would be wrong. I will go back to the start, Ms Cousland. There were seventy-two cases over that period, but, to you, isn’t the test not how many cases there have been but what the capacity is for fraud? There is a gaping hole that in a close electorate, and some are decided by 100 votes, would enable five or six people to vote 30 or 40 times and for those votes to be counted—in fact, for it not to be known whose they were—thus affecting the result. Would you agree with the proposition that, if there is a gaping hole, it is better to fix it before and not after there is a major case of fraud in Australian politics?

Ms Cousland —Yes, I agree.

CHAIR —Do you think the proposition that because there has not been a problem demonstrated and therefore we should not worry about the capacity for fraud is a bit like the major banks in Australia saying, ‘We will leave the safe and the front door open every night, and only when the money is stolen will we begin to lock them’?

Ms Cousland —Yes, there is a propensity for people not to do anything until something major goes wrong.

CHAIR —Would you also agree that providing ID on election day ought to be easy to consider in a technologically advanced world? As the AEC moves as it should from pure paper rolls, which you would have seen when you came back and voted, to something more sophisticated, would that allay many of the concerns about people queuing?

Ms Cousland —Yes.

CHAIR —Even if in the near future you did not have a full system of ID on election day but rather a system where the Electoral Commission could randomly ask for somebody’s ID—and therefore anyone seeking to perpetrate fraud would know that they could be asked for ID—would you agree that that would have a good effect in at least raising the risk bar on them perpetrating fraud?

Ms Cousland —I suppose it might. It is like a random search at the airport, isn’t it.

CHAIR —That is right. It is not as good as a system of full searches, but it is better than none.

Ms Cousland —Yes, but it seems to me it would be a half-baked system when at every other place we need to show something to prove our identity. Why wouldn’t the Electoral Commission require that we need to provide ID when we vote? Why have something random, particularly when the voting in primary schools et cetera is assisted by volunteers?

CHAIR —I do not have any further questions. I think Senator Brandis has one follow-up question.

Senator BRANDIS —To draw the threads together, are you generally of the view that the seriousness with which we take the protection of the integrity of voting is a reflection of the seriousness with which we respect our democratic system?

Ms Cousland —Yes, and that is why I was surprised there was no ID required.

CHAIR —Thank you for making your submission and for taking the time to be here today. There is a very live debate around electoral reform, and it is for that reason that the questioning was vigorous, not because people wanted to vigorously question you personally. I hope you appreciate that.

Ms Cousland —Not a problem.

CHAIR —We will conduct further hearings and a report will come out this year. You will notice that these sorts of issues are very much at the forefront of debate, and that is why we called you along.

Ms Cousland —I just wish more people would write and complain about things and make suggestions rather than talking about it among themselves. We never get change unless people are prepared to stand up.

CHAIR —And that is why these committees exist, so thank you very much.

[4.24 pm]