Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
28/02/2017
Estimates
FINANCE PORTFOLIO
Australian Electoral Commission

Australian Electoral Commission

CHAIR: I welcome the Electoral Commissioner, Mr Tom Rogers, and officers from the Australian Electoral Commission. Mr Rogers, do you have an opening statement.

Mr Rogers : No, thank you.

Senator FARRELL: Welcome, Mr Rogers. Can you tell us whether the AEC has conducted a review into the increase in the informal Senate vote in the last election?

Mr Rogers : As you know, we review all aspects of the election at the conclusion of each election. That includes looking at issues like informality. As you are aware, informality is one of those sticky metrics. It is hard to understand all the reasons for informality. You might be aware that from time to time we have said that there are a number of factors that seem to be contributing. There are factors to informality more generally where there are a large number of candidates on the ballot paper, where English is predominantly a second language and where the election is close to a state electoral event where there is a different voting system. They seem to be key factors. There also seem to be a number of areas that consistently return the highest informality rates. We look at that and see how we can impact on those informality rates at each election. We then also try to tailor and target our messages to voters at election time to enable them to make a clear choice.

I am looking at some stats about informality. There was an increase in Senate informality at the last election. As you are aware, there was a change to the Senate voting system, which may also have impacted on Senate informality. At this stage we are beginning to do our preparation for the next electoral event, and we will use the information from that to help us better target our messages.

Senator FARRELL: Have you actually conducted a review and, in particular, has the review encompassed the informality issue?

Mr Rogers : We do a review and ballot paper survey after every election. I have that information. If I look at informal votes by category, by way of example, the total informality around Australia in the Senate was 567,806 informal votes.

Senator FARRELL: What was that as a percentage of the total vote? Do you have that figure?

Mr Rogers : I do. The informality was 3.94 per cent. That is the national rate. It varies by state. As I said before, one of the factors that influences informality is the number of candidates on the ballot paper. As the ballot paper becomes larger, informality tends to rise. As we go through the states, we see that the smaller states tend to have the lower level of informality in the Senate and the larger states have a higher level of informality. For example, the Northern Territory had the lowest level of informality, at 3.33 per cent, and New South Wales had the highest level of informality, at 4.53 per cent.

Senator FARRELL: So you have looked at some of the reasons for informality. You mentioned a couple of them just a moment ago. Do you publish the results of your review of the election?

Mr Rogers : We do. We provide information in our annual report, but I might also say that we have provided this information to the joint standing committee in detail. I think our submissions are public in any case. So that material is publicly available and I presume will be included in the joint standing committee process. To go further on this, there are ballot papers that are clearly deliberately informal—for example, when the ballot paper is entirely blank or blank with a message. Clearly that is a deliberately informal vote. Then there are votes where the elector has clearly tried to cast a formal vote and has failed to do so.

Senator FARRELL: Do you distinguish between those in your review?

Mr Rogers : Yes, we do, and we have provided that information previously.

Senator FARRELL: You obviously have an idea of where they informality is likely to be highest. Before the last election did you look at those areas and say, 'We are going to put more resources into trying to reduce the informality in those areas'?

Mr Rogers : Yes, we did. If I talk about House of Representatives informality from moment, there have been a number of seats clustered in Western Sydney that, with the sticky metric, are at the higher end of informality. From memory it is about 10 seats that are clustered around Western Sydney. I think it speaks to the language difficulties. We are aware of that and what we have done at the last few elections is try to target booths in those elections with voting assistance officers who have language skills and also develop other materials that can assist people in the polling booth to cast a formal vote. We also work with a number of media outlets that also traditionally do not speak English. We translate many of our election materials into something like 28 languages, or maybe it is 26 or thereabouts from memory. So we have gone a long way in trying to address the level of informality. It is always a concern, and we are aware that there are some particular areas where it remains an issue.

Senator FARRELL: Will you be able to measure whether those steps that you took to potentially reduce informality actually worked? Do you have any information or anecdotal information on whether those measures were successful or not?

Mr Rogers : It is always easy to talk about the anecdotal information. Of course we think that the efforts we make in those areas are successful. I do not know whether they have sandbagged the informality rate, if you like, to stop it from getting any worse, but we are very conscious of it and we have been doing it for quite a while. We will continue to do it. I think it has been successful and I think it is worthwhile continuing with it. But as I mentioned right at the start, it is a sticky metric, so it is difficult for us to shift it for a whole range of other reasons.

Senator FARRELL: It has not been successful in the sense that informality increased at the last election. I suppose the question is, did you minimise that increase by the actions that you took? Is that a fair summary of what you are saying?

Mr Rogers : Yes, it is. I would also point out that we undertook an advertising campaign as well. We think that was very successful in raising awareness of the changes to the Senate voting system and of the requirements to cast a formal vote. We think that had a significant impact and significant reach as well. Much of that campaign was also translated into other languages, and we also think that had an impact. But we do evaluate the effectiveness of the advertising campaign after the event. I am fairly sure we have done that. We have probably got that information.

Senator FARRELL: Is that publicly released?

Mr Rogers : Again, I stand to be corrected, but I think we have given that to the joint standing committee. If we have done so, it would be on the website. Yes, we have provided that information.

Senator FARRELL: Can you tell us how many polling booths you closed for the 2016 election?

Mr Rogers : I probably can. I can probably refer back over a couple of years. If I look at the number of polling locations in total in 2013, it was 8,953, and in 2016 it was 8,127.

Senator FARRELL: That is about 10 per cent, isn't it?

Mr Rogers : That is a fair number, yes.

Senator FARRELL: Was there any link between the increased informal voting and where the polling booths were closed?

Mr Rogers : We have not done that analysis at all, but I would just place on record that I would be highly doubtful that that had any impact. I think you and I had one of these discussions last time.

Senator FARRELL: Yes

Mr Rogers : We undertook a pretty comprehensive process with the closure of those booths. I think the vast majority of the booths were closed in urban areas rather than rural areas. We wrote to local members and senators before we did so. We took on board feedback that we received from local members and senators, and where local members and senators urged us not to close polling booths we did not do so. And I would also point out that the process of closing the polling booths was sparked by an ANAO recommendation, which we agreed with. They said they thought we had not used our data effectively and we had not taken account of the rise of prepoll voting in our allocation of polling booths. I would also say that we will do the same thing again during this electoral cycle. We will review again the allocation of those polling booths, where they were, what worked and what did not, before coming up with the mix for the next election.

Senator FARRELL: Just remind me of what the increase in prepoll voting was.

Mr Rogers : If I look at 2013, prepoll ordinary votes were 1,982,859. So that is 2013. In 2016 prepoll ordinary votes were 2,722,701. As you are aware, Senator, we have had not just in Australia but in other places as well, such as New Zealand and some of the states, an ongoing increase in people accessing prepoll voting.

Senator FARRELL: And in America, too, I think. People are keen to get out there and vote early.

Mr Rogers : And exercise their democratic right.

Senator FARRELL: And often—perhaps not often. In your post-election study, was there any relationship at all between the closure and a higher incidence of informality? Is there any link there?

Mr Rogers : Not that I am aware of.

Senator FARRELL: I guess we do not have any way of knowing whether the higher incidence of early prepoll voting has reduced informality because we do not count them. Do we count them differently, or are they recorded differently on election night?

Mr Rogers : Senator, don't forget we are talking about different categories of votes here, because there are prepoll votes and there are postal votes. In many cases, we have to wait quite a while after the election day before we receive all of those. We have to return those votes to their home divisions—

Senator FARRELL: These 2,000,700, they are not the postals?

Mr Rogers : That is right, but I am just talking about how difficult it is for us to get a handle. In fact, in terms of postals there were 1,217,528 postals as well.

Senator FARRELL: In addition to the 2,000,700?

Mr Rogers : That is correct.

Senator FARRELL: The point I am trying to get at is when somebody goes to pre-poll, you think that instinctively they are probably less likely to vote informal because they have actually taken the trouble to vote early, and there are now more of those voters. Do you get my drift?

Mr Rogers : I do not know if we have done a study on that. When we get postal votes back, they are occasionally accompanied on the ballot paper by the most elaborate pictures, works of art, because people take their time.

Senator FARRELL: Really? Do you ever publish those?

Mr Rogers : No, and some of them we would not publish—they are not works of art where we would want to do so—but it indicates that people are taking their time over those ballot papers. Again, this is anecdotal: I would presume that with something like a postal vote, where people are taking their time over it, they do not feel rushed like in a polling place; they may have less likelihood of casting an informal vote. I am just building on what you have said, but it is anecdotal.

Senator FARRELL: I suppose the conclusion I am asking you to give an opinion about is: if it is true that more people are voting earlier, then that suggests, to me anyway, that perhaps they are less likely to vote informal. And given that the informality rate has in fact gone up, particularly in respect of the Senate, perhaps the informality rate for people voting on the day is higher than the figures lead us to believe.

Mr Rogers : I am not aware of a causal link between those two things, and I am not sure we have done that study. But I am happy to take it on notice to see whether we have got any extra information that might shed light on that for you.

Senator FARRELL: You are as aware as anybody of the complaints about the long delays on the day, and I think we have had some conversations about that before. Are you able to tell us whether there is any link between the increased level of informality and the longer delays on election day?

Mr Rogers : I will make a couple of general comments about the queues. Some of the queues were clearly unacceptable; we prefer people do not have to wait that long in line. As I think I mentioned last time, mercifully they were in a relatively small number of places. Interestingly, in a normal election, or another election, the queues are at one point; they are at the issuing point. When people go up to get the vote, there is normally a queue that snakes out. When you go into the polling place, the actual screens—there will be a large number of screens empty and people go in and fill in the vote. What we noticed this time was that the queue was at both points: where people were waiting to be issued with the ballot and where people were waiting for one of the voting screens. This indicated to us that people were taking far longer to complete their ballot paper. We think that was a heavy contributing factor as to why there were queues. Whether that had any other impact, I am not sure; I would be absolutely speculating. But clearly where people were waiting for an extended period—

Senator FARRELL: You would be able to tell that from your data, wouldn't you, whether or not there is—you presumably keep a record of where the complaints about the long delays were worse, and you would be able to check whether informality was high at those particular polling booths?

Mr Rogers : Off the top of my head, we may have that data. I am not sure we have done that check just yet. Allow me to question our experts on that to see whether that is something that we do. I am not sure there will be a causal link. I think the increase in the informality rate will be mostly linked to a new voting system despite the ad campaign that we did and the other factors that we have just mentioned before: English is a second language, the large number of candidates on the polling paper and some confusion about the process.

Senator FARRELL: I would appreciate if you could at least spend a little bit of time thinking about that issue. If there is a link that you discover, you may wish to provide us with some information about it. In the same vein: you talk about assistance given to people at particular polling booths. Where you provided that assistance to voters, was there a noticeable decrease in informality?

Mr Rogers : I think I might look at that data for you. We should be able to work out whether, in those areas where we provided voter assistance officers, that had an impact on the informality in those polling booths. We may have already done that work, but let me examine that. I will come back to you in that process.

Senator FARRELL: I would appreciate that.

Mr Rogers : I should just say we are actually quite proud of voter assistance officer program and take some time in preparing materials, so we are pretty sure it does have an impact.

Senator FARRELL: Tell us about them. What training do you give them?

Mr Rogers : First of all, we try and select language-appropriate voter assistance officers where we can. We provide them with training about the process, what the rights and responsibility of the voter are and what their rights and responsibilities are. We provide them with a range of materials. We make sure that they are dressed in a way that people understand that that is what their role is. We work with the OICs at the polling booths where they have been allocated to ensure that people understand the role of those individuals. Again, it is a direct response to this sticky metric we have had of informality, particularly in a few seats, particularly in places like Sydney.

Senator FARRELL: Is this typically just one extra person on the polling booth, or is it more than that?

Mr Rogers : Typically that is one extra person in a polling booth, yes.

Senator FARRELL: Obviously language is one of the things you give consideration to.

Mr Rogers : Absolutely.

Senator FARRELL: What were the other criteria that you mentioned?

Mr Rogers : Particularly language.

Senator FARRELL: Where you know based on history that you have got a higher informal vote, do you employ perhaps your more experienced staff? Is there any link between informality and the level of experience that your polling staff have got?

Mr Rogers : Our polling such as, particularly, the OICs are selected largely by our divisional returning officers, and they will use a range of factors in determining their employment considerations. I would use the overall word of 'difficulty'. You would put your most experienced OICs, if you could, in those very large polling booths, complex polling booths or booths where there may have been issues at the previous election. I am fortunate to have Mr Pope here, who was at the last election the state manager for Victoria. He might have something to add in that regard.

Mr Pope : There are a number of factors that come into play when you are selecting officers in charge for particular polling booths. Experience is certainly one of them along with their knowledge of that particular location, whether they have worked in that particular booth before, their broader skills and the team that you would put around them. But certainly the divisional returning officers do try and take a risk based approach, as the commissioner was outlining, as best they possibly can, but that is based on a range of factors.

Mr Rogers : In some areas, as you might know, as you get more remote, the number of candidates available for a particular task shrinks remarkably, so you are starting to pick from a smaller pool of people. If you are in the CBD there are a lot of people as you get further out, so you also have to balance that against who is available on the spot.

Senator FARRELL: Do you have a high return rate? Given that elections are only every three years—

Mr Rogers : We have done some work on that. I am going to use a statistic. We have about a 50 per cent return rate overall. Before I got that I thought it would be significantly higher, but it is 50 per cent. The thing to bear in mind about that is that each election we have to spend quite a bit of time skilling people in being electoral officials. If you are getting a 50 per cent turnover there is not a huge amount of returning knowledge, so you really have to take your time in ensuring people understand the process.

Senator FARRELL: Thank you for that explanation.

Senator RHIANNON: I would like to ask some questions about scrutineering and the count. Is it reasonable that the number of scrutineers that candidates can appoint remains linked only to AEC officials and not to the amount of data entry staff?

Mr Pirani : It is actually a requirement in the act. Section 264 sets out the number of scrutineers that a candidate is able to engage. Section 264 says:

(2) A candidate is not entitled to be represented at the scrutiny at a particular counting centre by a number of scrutineers that is greater than the number of officers who are engaged in a scrutiny or counting of ballot papers at that centre.

It is specifically tied to officer service, which is a defined term in the act, which means it is the AEC staff. That is a requirement of the act.

Senator RHIANNON: What about section 265? Does that make it—

Mr Pirani : That is just how it is conducted; this is the number who can be appointed.

Senator RHIANNON: That would have been written before Senate voting reform came in and before the new way of counting. Is that correct?

Mr Pirani : Remember that the electronic counting of Senate votes has been around since the early 1990s, so—

Senator RHIANNON: I thought the method of counting had changed and was much more automated with the latest count.

Mr Pirani : As a matter of fact, yes, you are right in relation to the fact that this is the first election where we have scanned every single Senate ballot paper. That was one of the requirements with the change of the Senate voting laws. Before, the majority of ballot papers were actually counted out in the divisions and at the polling places, but as soon as we had both numbers above the line, optional preferential, as well as below the line, that all had to be changed. But the act is still clear.

Mr Rogers : Senator, you are probably aware that after that change to the act we always took Senate ballot papers to a central Senate scrutiny point in each state, where the double-blind data was entered electronically, and scrutineers were welcome at that process as well. That part of it, using some form of electronic counting mechanism, Mr Pirani is indicating has been around for a while.

Senator RHIANNON: I will come back to that to get a bit more information. Are the verification reports by IV&V and IBM publicly available?

Mr Courtney : I am not sure if the IV&V reports have been released. I will have to take that on notice. The IBM reports have not because they were not directly related to the count of the votes.

Senator RHIANNON: The IBM, you know, has not been released and the IV&V you will take on notice.

Mr Courtney : I will.

Senator RHIANNON: The IBM has not been released. Are you saying that it is commercial in confidence?

Mr Courtney : No, I am just saying it is not relevant to the actual count mechanism. It is just a report that we had done internally.

Senator RHIANNON: What was it about?

Mr Courtney : It was about the process had been put together in terms of the way we design it.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Rogers, I think you would agree that we have entered a new system and this is the first time of its use. Often when this information is publicly available we are able to understand it more, but I will just keep going with my questions.

Mr Rogers : I might just perhaps, to be abundantly helpful, say that I agree with you in the broad that it is a new system and we did try to be as transparent as we possibly could. We worked with parties and candidates. We were very transparent with scrutineers. We went through a process of working with a range of partners including the ones that you have just mentioned. We also invited the Australian Signals Directorate to assist us with that process, and they were involved in, not doing a review, but examining parts of the process that we had asked them to do. All of the data is publicly available on our website so that, frankly, someone could build their own entire system and check the data that we have produced. In fact some people do just that. We have tried to be as transparent as we possibly can. I am conscious that we managed to produce that solution in a very short period of time and we are very confident with the result and we are confident with the process that we put in place.

Senator RHIANNON: So what about releasing the reports then?

Mr Pirani : Senator, can I also add that the act itself sets out what information we are required to give to scrutineers. Section 273A subsection (6) sets out that we are required to provide scrutineers with access to:

(a)      a record of the preferences on the ballot papers that have been received by the Australian Electoral Officer and whose details have been stored in the computer (including informal ballot papers, and formal ballot papers that are not sequentially numbered); and

(b)      a record of the ballot papers that are notionally transferred, or exhausted, at each count; and

(c)      a record of the progress of the count of the votes, at each count.

That is the count that appears on our website that is extracted from the easy-count system, that is the information that scrutineers are legally entitled to be provided and that is the information that is provided.

Mr Rogers : Senator, you and I have had discussions previously about the easy-count system and where we are with that code and other issues related to that.

Senator RHIANNON: It is the same with this issue about scrutineering, so I am learning a lot here. This is what some of our scrutineers have raised: 'In the same way that physical ballot boxes are marked with unique numbers and tamper-proofed, I understand that the software system used by the AEC made use of cryptographic hashes, a way to identify a dataset using a short string of a few dozen characters, such that any change to the dataset would cause that string of characters to change so that it would be impractical for a tamperer to make a change in which the string of characters does not change.' So I hope that is an accurate description because I wanted to say that what was queried with our office was that this process of electronic tamper-proofing was not made visible to the scrutineers. While it was possible for the scrutineers to verify that the numbers upon ballot boxes, the hard copy, matched and that the seals were not broken, it was not possible to independently verify that the data transmitted periodically from the data entry system to the counting system matched the data actually counted at the conclusion of the data entry. Is that accurate? Do we have an inconsistency there with the old fashioned way of counting and the new way? I notice that there is some head shaking. Have I been advised wrongly or is there an inconsistency?

Mr Rogers : I might start off before I hand to Mr Courtney to say that there are a number of security measures that were put in place to assist the security of that process. I mentioned before that we worked with the Australian Signals Directorate and got their views on where particular vulnerabilities were that we needed to work on. I might just ask Mr Courtney to talk about the actual technical detail that you are talking about.

Senator RHIANNON: Can I just draw your attention to the fact that I am actually talking about the scrutineering. We have people—all our parties—checking. They can do it for the boxes—what you can touch—but not for the soft versions.

Mr Courtney : Yes. Let me say that the process you have described is, in essence, correct. There is some cryptographic, if you like, technology which is used to secure the data files which hold the information, which is extracted from the ballot papers and then passed through to EasyCount. That tells us if something has changed, and we are able to track that. I would have to refer to Mr Pirani as to what exactly scrutineers are allowed to see, but I am very conscious of the fact that we have moved forward with the technology here. Perhaps the act is still looking at the paper based side of things.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

Mr Pirani : Again, my comments are that the act is very clear as to what a scrutineer is able to examine and what information from the computer system we are required to provide. That is the information that is provided in those reports that come out of EasyCount.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Mr Rogers, would you be able to take on notice if the act—and I have not been querying that—that is being followed is keeping up to date with the change in technology?

Mr Rogers : I am happy to consider that and to provide a response on that.

Senator RHIANNON: Basically, I am just trying to work out if every effort is being made by the commission to develop a form of cryptographic hash that will be publicly available to scrutineers.

Mr Rogers : I will take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I just want to describe how the counting system has been described and then ask a question about it. I understand that the Fuji Xerox data-entry staff were responsible for the following queues: the data entry 2 queue and the informal/non-standard queue. Is that correct?

Mr Rogers : Again, I might just ask Mr Courtney to discuss that.

Mr Courtney : Yes, they were used on those queues to manage the entry of the preferences from the ballot papers.

Senator RHIANNON: That is what I am trying to follow. Does that mean that a large number of ballots followed the procedure of going to optical computer recognition, then perfect capture, then data entry 2 and were then admitted or excluded for the count? Is that a fair description?

Mr Courtney : That is a fair description, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Does that mean that such a ballot would have only been seen by one member of the data-entry personnel during the count?

Mr Courtney : If there is perfect capture from the scanning solution, followed then by a second data entry operator—where they are matched together and bearing in mind that those are two separate processes—they then proceed and are admitted, assuming that they are formal, yes.

Mr Rogers : Senator, I have one amendment—something to correct. Being in the presence of the scrutineer is the third agent in that process.

Mr Courtney : Yes, sorry.

Mr Rogers : I just wanted to put that on the table.

Mr Courtney : Perhaps just to embellish on what Mr Rogers is saying, this is all done in the presence of scrutineers so that they can raise an objection if they wish to do so.

Senator RHIANNON: That takes me to my next question, because I understand that restrictions are placed upon the maximum number of scrutineers. Is that correct at that point?

Mr Courtney : Yes. As per your earlier question to Mr Pirani: yes, there are restrictions on a number of scrutineers.

Senator RHIANNON: Does that mean that it is impossible for a candidate scrutineer to watch the large numbers of workstations processing the data entry to queue?

Mr Courtney : My comment to that is that the central managers were very conscious of working with scrutineers to make sure that they felt that they had enough access to the data-entry operators and, indeed, the entire scanning and counting process.

Mr Rogers : I might go further on that, because it is an important point. Mr Courtney will correct me if I am wrong, but we received very few complaints from scrutineers about access or the speed of processing. In fact, when we did, we worked with those scrutineers to adjust the processes we had in place so that they were satisfied that they had the level of access that they needed. There is a practical bit at the end of this. We cannot have 20 people standing around every ballot paper, because there are 15 million ballot papers and we have actually got to get through the count within a reasonable period, but we were very conscious of the need to work very closely with the scrutineers. They were a critical part of that process. Mr Courtney, you might correct me if I am wrong, but there were very few complaints by scrutineers that were not resolved successfully on the spot.

Mr Courtney : That is my understanding, having spoken to all of the managers at the central scrutiny sites across Australia. We were very conscious that this was a new process and were mindful of the limits placed on us by the act. We were very keen to ensure that the scrutineers felt comfortable with what was occurring.

Senator RHIANNON: Is it correct that ballots which pass through the queues without a challenge from a scrutineer or a request from a data entry operator for further assistance would receive no further scrutiny?

Mr Courtney : If they were formal, they matched both the scan and the data entry and there was no objection, they would be admitted.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for helping me understand that. Mr Rogers, I am not disputing what you say about scrutineers, but, from the many comments I have received, people were fairly overwhelmed by it. My guess is that, apart from Mr Courtney and probably some of your other officials, a whole lot of us do not actually understand how all this works. I think it would be good to come back at JSCEM or May estimates to go through this in more detail, but my final question is: you spoke a lot about transparency, and I do think that is incredibly important to ensure that there is public confidence and we do not have some disaster down the track. Can you supply a full breakdown of what ballots were in which queues for the Central Senate Scrutiny for the last election?

Mr Rogers : I will take on notice what information I can provide you. I want to come back at you about one thing. Particularly given issues of time and space, we probably could not have been more transparent. We spoke to the joint standing committee. I think we put a submission in to the joint standing committee about the way we are running the process. It included flow charts, spreadsheets and an explanation of how it is to run. We worked with briefings with the scrutineers that turned up. We provided media briefings. So I absolutely endorse your overall comment about transparency, but I put on the table that I think we met that level of transparency to the extent that we could. I have already said at the JSCEM that we are looking to be even more transparent given more time for the next election. Mr Courtney might correct me again, but there was no point at which in any of the states, as far as I am aware, a scrutineer said: 'Oh, for heaven's sake, stop. The whole thing is not working,' or, 'We're not aware of what's going on.' In fact, we received many compliments from the scrutineers for the way that we designed that process and worked with them in a very efficient way.

Senator Ryan: To add to that: I did go out to the New South Wales centre as I was not allowed to go to the Victorian centre. I can understand that it is very different, but I think that is partly because the process is more transparent since it is actually being done centrally. I think people might compare the data entry under the previous Senate voting system—roughly 1.8 to two per cent of the votes in New South Wales or Victoria. Apart from a few divisional offices where there might be scrutineers, there is actually a lot more scrutiny and a lot more checking, including electronic and, I would argue, if scrutineers are present. In this system, every ballot paper is being centrally counted. Under the old arrangements, most ballot papers were not looked at again by scrutineers or were not seen again.

Mr Rogers : In fact, I was the state manager in New South Wales for the 2007 election. I went to Central Senate Scrutiny, which we ran. There was not one scrutineer present during the entire process. There is now a level of scrutiny beyond any we have had before. I am absolutely endorsing your point, but I am also trying to put on record that we have come a long way with that transparency in any case.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Pope, did you want to say something?

Mr Pope : I can speak authoritatively from a Victorian Central Senate Scrutiny perspective from the last election. I think we went to great lengths to inform our key stakeholders of the changes. Every state manager had a suite of documents that we send out to all of the candidates, all of the party secretaries, to explain the process. We offered party secretaries inspections of the premises before Central Senate Scrutiny started. We offered them tours of the Central Senate Scrutiny process, we offered the scrutineers briefings, particularly those who turned up on the first few days. In Victoria we had a number of people who turned up on day one and day two. They had a briefing, they had a walk around, and after that most of them decided to leave Central Senate Scrutiny and we only had a couple of parties that had a continual presence. With those scrutineers that remained there constantly, we did go out of our way on a regular basis to ask whether there was anything else they wanted to see and that they should feel free to get up and look at other parts of the process. We know it was new, we know it was different, but in the time that we had available I think we went to great lengths to inform all of the key stakeholders as best as we possibly could.

Senator KITCHING: Personally, I really like scrutineering! I have been doing it for many years and I have always found the AEC to be excellent to deal with. I will just put that on the record. I would like to ask some questions about a report in The Australian on 11 February, which said the AEC had threatened to refer the New South Wales Greens to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions over funding discrepancies. I will read a relevant part of the article:

The Australian Electoral Commission and the NSW Electoral Commission have both identified discrepancies in past Greens NSW election returns, dating back several years.

As a result, the Greens NSW are currently subject to investigations and there have been delays in the provision of electoral funding to the Greens, including the 2015 state return.

Mr Rogers, has the AEC investigated or is it currently investigating funding discrepancies in relation to the New South Wales Greens?

Mr Rogers : Let me put it on the record that I have not threatened any particular party with any particular action in such blunt language—

Senator KITCHING: I think that might have been the hyperbole of the journalist.

Mr Rogers : And I am pretty sure that none of my staff would have, either. As you are probably aware, we work with all parties, associated entities, party units and third parties to ensure that disclosure obligations are met. It is an important point to make that when we work with those issues and party groups our overwhelming experience is that the vast majority really want to comply. Sometimes it is the submission of documents—we uncover where there may have been an error; we work with the party to ensure that that matter is recovered, we do a series of compliance reviews, and when we do a compliance review, again, if we find information that we think should have been disclosed and has not been we urge the party to do so. A statistic: 99.9 per cent of the time the party or party unit then complies with our request to disclose, and an amended disclosure return appears on the register. It is in a very, very small number of cases that we then refer those matters to the Director of Public Prosecutions for further action.

My understanding is that we were involved with the Greens—a compliance review found some matters and the Greens have since lodged the necessary amendment. Again, I am happy to correct that but that is my understanding. That is the outcome that normally occurs. The amendment will be put on our website, if it is not already, so people will be aware of that amendment. Given that we think the main purpose of the act is disclosure, if disclosure has been achieved that will be the end of the matter from our perspective.

Senator KITCHING: Does the document that will be placed on the website disclose the matters that were found to be noncompliant?

Mr Rogers : It will be an amended return to pick up those items that we have uncovered.

Senator KITCHING: So you will be able to compare with the previous—

Mr Rogers : You will be able to go onto the website and compare the original return with the amended return. Again, I am so cautious with this, but my understanding of that report was that it was a report about a memo of one member of the Greens saying that the AEC had done something to another member of the Greens rather than a report about the AEC itself. So I just want to be very clear about that.

Senator KITCHING: Is that complaint about that member of the Greens also disclosed?

Mr Rogers : No, that will not be, because all we are talking about is the amended returns. I just wanted to make very clear that that was an alleged report.

Senator KITCHING: Turning to another branch of another party, in the Herald Sun on 24 February, Michael Kroger, the Victorian President of the Liberal Party, accused the Cormack Foundation of attempting to influence the Liberal Party through the withholding of political donations. Have you received any reports or complaints in relation to that matter?

Mr Rogers : No, I have not.

Senator KITCHING: Thank you.

Senator FARRELL: I would like to ask some questions regarding electoral harmonisation. Some concerns have been raised that harmonisation of the federal electoral roll with certain state electoral rolls is not going terribly well. Can you tell us which states have not harmonised their electoral roll with the federal electoral roll?

Mr Rogers : Yes, I can. It is a really important topic but also a very sensitive one because it involves our relationship with our colleagues, particularly in the New South Wales and Victorian electoral commissions. Previously there had also been an issue with the Western Australian electoral legislation; it was particularly difficult for the Commonwealth. That issue has been solved and there is a legislative amendment in Western Australia which means that the divergence is now no longer an issue in Western Australia. For a whole range of historical reasons, both New South Wales and Victoria made a number of decisions that meant, in effect, they were also managing almost like a phantom roll in a way on their own behalf. I also want to put on the record that we work collaboratively, cooperatively and collegiately with our colleagues in Victoria and in New South Wales.

There are whole range of reasons that they decided to do what they are doing. There are some very significant outcomes from that though. It might well be that on a particular day you get a letter from the Victorian Electoral Commission telling you that you are not enrolled for state purposes, and a day later you get a letter from the Australian Electoral Commission saying that you are. Of course, up until that point as an elector you may not have even been aware that there were two electoral commissions, and what does that mean? It meant that an elector may have been enrolled for state purposes but not for federal purposes or vice versa.

At its worst, at the end of 2015 there were 785,000 electors where there was this divergent enrolment entitlement. We have been doing a huge amount of work in this area, and again I met with my colleague from the New South Wales Electoral Commission earlier this week. As at 31 December 2016, it was down to 342,000. I have acknowledged very clearly the right of both those electoral commissions to do whatever they feel they need to do. They have their own legislation they need to monitor. But there are some aspects of what they are doing that I find to be unhelpful. For example, the Victorian Electoral Commission have their own enrolment portal. The AEC has had an online enrolment portal for quite some time. The VEC are now running a separate electoral enrolment portal. Mr Gately, you might just talk about that for a moment.

Mr Gately : As Mr Rogers talked about, there is a range of reasons for the divergence between the federal roll and the respective state rolls. Currently, the Victorian Electoral Commission does run a parallel online service, for example, where electors can enrol for state purposes but not for federal purposes, as things currently stand, and there is a range of other dimensions, differences, in respect of practices that do contribute, as well as differences in law, as it currently stands, between the respective federal and state legislation.

Mr Rogers : This is such a sensitive area, and so my Victorian colleague, who may well be watching this, with his blood pressure going through the roof, because he feels I am doing him in the neck—

Senator FARRELL: If he is a Victorian he has probably long since gone to bed!

Mr Rogers : He may well have gone to bed. However, we have a great relationship with them and we are working as best as we can to minimise where that divergence occurs. I want to place on record that we have said to our colleagues in Victoria—and I maintain the position—that we would prefer that they did not have a separate enrolment portal. In fact, we have also said that we would prefer that we were maintaining the old saying of 'one roll and many elections', where the Commonwealth managed the roll on behalf of everybody else.

Senator FARRELL: That requires the states to hand over some powers to you, I take it?

Mr Rogers : I would not describe it as handing over powers. There is probably another euphemism there—to work even more collaboratively with the Commonwealth.

Senator FARRELL: Obviously something is working, because you have halved—

Mr Rogers : It is because of the relationship. We are working as closely as we can with them, and there are other strategies we have in place to try to minimise that. But because they are separate processes there will always be some sort of lag in that process, which concerns us. We would prefer to see the one enrolment system, as we used to have it.

Senator FARRELL: Would more funding in this area help you completely harmonise—

Mr Rogers : I am not sure there has ever been a commissioner who appeared at Senate estimates who has knocked back more funding, but what people may not know is that we receive funding from each of the states every year to process enrolments, to close the rolls and do a whole range of enrolment related activities. Over the last few years, the amount of money we receive from New South Wales and Victoria has been going down, because they are doing more and more of their own work. I believe that additional funding would assist the process with the states. I should point out that we all see it as part of a group called the Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand. It is a very friendly group and we do a lot of work together. Our enrolment relationship with the non-Victoria and New South Wales states is very strong and continues to be strong. But I think additional funding would assist us to get back to the situation we were in previously, with a more harmonised roll, without the divergent figure.

CHAIR: I thank the AEC, officers from the department and the minister.

Committee adjourned at 22:23