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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
16/11/2016
Conduct of the 2016 federal election and matters related thereto

QUIGLEY, Mr Nathan Timothy, State Director, New South Wales, National Party of Australia

[11:36]

CHAIR: I now welcome a representative of the National Party of Australia to give evidence here today. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. 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 attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement and then I will open the discussion with questions from the committee members.

Mr Quigley : This is the first federal committee I have appeared in front of and the second time that I have directly followed Antony Green, so I am becoming quite a disappointment in these circles. He is a hard act to follow. My understanding is that this time the committee is primarily focused on item 1(a) in the terms of reference, which is:

The application of provisions requiring authorisation of electoral material to all forms of communication to voters—

with the report for this item being due by the start of December. With the committee's indulgence, I would appreciate the opportunity to limit my evidence to this item today and appear before the committee at another date when you have turned your focus to the rest of the terms of reference.

CHAIR: That is fine.

Mr Quigley : Having authorised a great many pieces of advertising myself over the past 18 months in accordance with section 328 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, I understand the significance of the provisions in question. The requirement to authorise material is important for a number of reasons: it enables the Electoral Commission to identify the person responsible for advertising in their duty to enforce compliance with other parts of the act, it allows the members of the public some idea of who is promoting the messages they see during an election campaign contained within election material, and it acts as a restraint on the authoriser themselves. In our case, I make a point of personally authorising all material that could even possibly be seen to attack an opponent under the principle that if you are prepared to say it then you should be prepared to put your name to it.

If only the people responsible for the text message that has brought us all here today held such principles. The 'Mediscare' messages during the last federal election were completely deplorable, not just for their complete disregard for the truth but for their deliberate attempt to conceal the identity of the publisher and pass off the message as having been sent from a government department. It is very clear to me that the spirit of the authorisation requirements contained in section 328 should apply to this sort of communication and that the legislation should be updated to reflect that. In a world where it is becoming ever easier to conceal one's identity in communication, whether it be via Facebook, Twitter or a text message, our legislation needs to keep pace with technology. As the National Party, we already authorise all our online material in New South Wales, and we think that this should be mandatory. We therefore recommend that the provisions of the act requiring authorisation of electoral material be extended to the following forms of communication to voters: all online communications, including social media; message services, being both SMS and other messaging services; and automated phone calls, with the appropriate exemptions for legitimate market research. We also contend that the current exemptions for paraphernalia, such as T-shirts and balloons, should remain in place.

Just briefly, while we are dealing with the subject of authorisations, I would like to put on record our party's support for the provision—which is section 328 part (1)(b)—that requires the name and address of the printer to appear as part of the authorisation. From a compliance point of view, this acts as another important link back to the producers of any material, where the person authorising it might otherwise prove to be somewhat elusive. From a practical point of view, it encourages the use of local printers, which the Nationals, obviously, as the party of regional Australia, endorse wholeheartedly. We produce the vast majority of our election material with regional printers, who are significant employers in many country towns. I fear that, if this provision of the act did not exist, much of the economic stimulus associated with elections would be lost to bigger printers in the city and, possibly, even from overseas.

This concludes my evidence for this part of the inquiry, and I welcome any questions the committee has.

Mr DICK: Mr Quigley, in your submission regarding this item and regarding text messages you said there was concern of angst and worry in the community. And you are the New South Wales the director.

Mr Quigley : Yes.

Mr DICK: How many complaints did you receive about text messages during the campaign?

Mr Quigley : Many from our volunteers in Queensland. I am not aware of any text messages being sent of this nature in New South Wales.

Mr DICK: But from concerned residents—you said angst and worry. So, in the community of New South Wales, did you—

Mr Quigley : We talk a lot with people interstate and we pick up what they are hearing, and we—

Mr DICK: No, no. I am talking about voters in New South Wales.

Mr Quigley : Nothing from voters in New South Wales—no.

Mr DICK: And in the campaign you authorised all of the material?

Mr Quigley : I authorised material coming centrally out of our office.

Mr DICK: How-to-vote cards?

Mr Quigley : Yes.

Mr DICK: And during the campaign was a complaint made by residents in Page regarding information that you sent them?

Mr Quigley : Off the top of my head I am not aware of that, but I might have to take that on notice.

Mr DICK: I am specifically referring to the complaints to your state office, which have been published, about the how-to-vote card that you sent to voters in the electorate of Page who were unaware of from where you got their authorised addresses and email addresses.

Mr Quigley : I am going to have to take that on notice, I am sorry.

Mr DICK: So you are not aware of that issue at all?

Mr Quigley : No, I am not.

Mr DICK: You are not aware of an issue of an officer from the New South Wales National Party writing to apologise to voters?

Mr Quigley : I think I am going to have to take that on notice, Mr Dick.

Mr DICK: And the reason given of why that information was sent?

Mr Quigley : I am going to need to take it on notice.

Mr DICK: Okay. It is an issue regarding emails that were sent from you to voters, who then questioned where you got their data from and why you were sending them how-to-vote cards which you had authorised.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You might have heard it from the Labor Party, did you?

Mr Quigley : I am going to need to take it on notice. Communications authorised by me are sent out across every seat in New South Wales. In the lead-up to an election there are many such pieces. Especially if it is an email, as you say, we receive a lot of communication in response to that, not all of which I see.

Mr DICK: I refer to an email sent by you on 25 June 2016 which quotes:

In one week Australians will vote in one of the most important elections in a generation.

We'll have a choice between staying on course with an experienced government under Malcolm Turnbull …

That's why it's important for every single voter to go to their polling location informed.

So please download the "How to Vote" flyer below and take it with you when you vote

It was authorised by yourself. Are you aware of that email?

Mr Quigley : I would have been aware of it at the time, yes.

Mr DICK: Are you aware of it now?

Mr Quigley : I am not aware of it enough to know exactly when it was sent or who it was sent to, but that is typical for communications of that time and of that kind that we were sending.

Mr DICK: Sure. Chair, if you are able to ask the witness to provide some—

CHAIR: Yes. I must confess, Mr Quigley, I am a little surprised at your answers, so could you take on notice this question? I would just like to ask a question for clarification. You did send out emails to electors in New South Wales centrally from the state secretariat?

Mr Quigley : Yes.

CHAIR: Did you send them with how-to-vote cards?

Mr Quigley : Yes.

CHAIR: Okay, so we can at least establish that they did go out. Mr Dick, the information you are now seeking—just so we can be very clear about what has been taken on notice—

Mr DICK: If there were any complaints about such information; specific inquiries from voters to Mr Quigley and the New South Wales National Party regarding authorised material about where they were able to obtain addresses; if any apologies were issued; or any subsequent follow-up regarding the authorisation issue.

CHAIR: Mr Quigley has confirmed that they did send out emails and that some of the communications did have how-to-vote cards on them. The question is not whether they were authorised—because, clearly, they were from the state secretariat. So your question, Mr Dick, is in relation to—

Mr DICK: Any complaints made about that authorised material.

CHAIR: Is that clear, Mr Quigley?

Mr Quigley : It is, and I apologise that we took some time to actually work out what Mr Dick was referring to. As I said, a lot of communication went around at that time. And, obviously, for something like an email there is always the potential for replies back. So asking me, without having time to seek this information out, to, off the top of my head, refer to any replies that—

CHAIR: Mr Quigley, I am very happy for you to take that on notice. But I just want to be very clear because I was not very clear in terms of your response, particularly as up-front you had said that you do authorise all the material coming out of the state secretariat—anyway, please continue, Mr Dick.

Mr DICK: I am happy for you to take that question on notice and reply back.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: With reference to the Queensland Medicare, or 'Mediscare', texting campaign, have you as the National Party given any thought as to who you, as a body, could falsely represent and then replicate a similar campaign in New South Wales?

Mr Quigley : We have not. We have limits on that kind of activity, and I would not consider doing that.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Why not?

Mr Quigley : I do not think it is appropriate to represent ourselves as a government department in our communication with voters.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: It is not in breach of the act?

Mr Quigley : We pull up well short of the act in number of areas if we consider that it violates our own principles.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: So you do not have any comment or feel like you were beaten politically in that space? How would you arm yourself against an attack domestically in New South Wales?

Mr Quigley : We explore every avenue we can to a certain point and we like to think that we can prosecute our arguments well enough without having to resort to measures such as that.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Thanks.

Mr GILES: Thank you, Mr Quigley. I would just like to follow up a couple of the questions that Mr Buchholz just put to you. You just said that you have limits in respect of your campaigning. Are they set out anywhere?

Mr Quigley : No.

Mr GILES: It is the vibe of it, is it?

Mr MORTON: Morals.

Mr Quigley : Yes, morals.

Mr GILES: Also, in your opening statement, you characterised the SMS campaign as a 'deliberate attempt'. How do you know that?

Mr Quigley : My understanding is that the texts were from an author called 'Medicare'.

Mr GILES: But you have no particular basis to make that assertion, though, do you?

Mr Quigley : If I was to compose a text from an author named 'Medicare' with an election message inside and no other indication as to who had sent it—which is my understanding of what the texts were—I think it is pretty obvious that I was deliberately attempting to pass off myself as being Medicare.

Mr GILES: I am asking you about your state of knowledge. You made an allegation in your opening statement. Is it an allegation that you can speak to directly or are you doing so on the basis of supposition?

CHAIR: Can we just be a bit clearer in terms of allegations—

Mr GILES: When you describe something as a 'deliberate attempt' are you referring to any knowledge you have

Mr Quigley : That the people who—

Mr GILES: about the state of mind of whoever it was who authored or caused to be authored that communication? Do you have any knowledge of that?

Mr Quigley : No. That is fair. It is a supposition as to their intention.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: We are going to deal with the provision of administrative funding and fundraising generally in much more length at a later time. Is it the intention of the National Party of New South Wales to make further submissions to this committee and make themselves available for us to examine what the party views are on this?

Mr Quigley : Absolutely. Having worked in the New South Wales space for the last five years or so we have broad experience with this kind of legislation and the actual impacts of it on parties, campaigning and the day-to-day administration of the parties. We would be very happy to share our experiences with this committee.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: I will reserve my questions in that area until then. I want to touch on the Medicare example. If you, as an ordinary person, received a communication that indicated that it was from Medicare, prima facie, would you be entitled to draw any inference that it was from anybody else, if it is declared to be from Medicare?

Mr Quigley : No. As an ordinary person, even knowing what I know about messaging services, I would still be inclined to, at first glance, believe that it was from who it said it was from.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: During the election campaign and indeed post the election campaign have you had conversations with ordinary electors who have reflected upon this and shared their views with you their prima facie view of what they thought when they received this communication?

Mr Quigley : I have not actually spoken with anyone who has received this communication. I rely on media reports and, as we have discussed, it was primarily a Queensland case. But it is of a lot of interest to us because everything that happens along these lines we could potentially see popping up in our own backyard at any point and I would hate to see the proliferation of this type of campaign.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Putting aside the moral test in relation to the Medicare campaign, as a campaigner have you considered how effective a campaign like that might be? As I said, putting aside the moral question, what would the strengths of being able to do that be, if there were no rules?

Mr Quigley : Are we talking, in particular, about the text message?

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Sure. I am talking about a world free of any rules. Let me put it to you another way. This can be a blindingly effective method of campaigning. If you cause someone to take confidence in a communication that they have received as to the source or the content of the declarations, if they accept, prima facie, that it is what it appears to be—res ipsa, as they use in legal terms—would you agree that it can be a very effective method of campaigning and will have an impact?

Mr Quigley : I think it can, because we live in a world where mainstream sources of media are trusted less and less. People are drawing their information from a variety of sources and if people are targeting a number of those sources, whether they be text messages or Facebook pages, at the right demographic with the right messages, even if they are untrue, the propensity of people to weigh that up against what they are hearing from traditional media is becoming less and less and less. I think the effectiveness of lines of communication like that is only increasing and if people are not using them responsibly then we leave ourselves open to a lot of trouble.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Did you, as a campaign director in your own right in that contest, monitor the expressions of the Australian Labor Party on the very same subject?

Did you see a consistency between public statements of members of the Labor Party, including their leader, supporting this perceived position about effective changes to Medicare that were expressed in the Medicare email or text?

Mr Quigley : In the text? Yes. We saw that coming not only from the leadership of the Labor Party; we saw it in terms of local communications, in particular, reinforcing the message that was put out on booths on polling day. There were corflutes in, for example, the seat of Page, reinforcing that message. But, also, this has been widely discussed in a number of process stories about the Labor campaign and how the message came to be developed. So it is entirely consistent with that.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Let's assume, just for a moment—and I am on the record as not assuming this—for the purposes of my question, that what we had was a break-out, an unauthorised campaign manoeuvred by an element within a political movement. Let's pretend that what happened was within the scope of your authority and control. Would you, as a political party or as a leader of a political party, set out to correct and distance yourself from that activity there and then in real time?

Mr Quigley : I think I would. Obviously, we like to think the best of ourselves in these types of situations. But, particularly when it reflects on our integrity as an organisation and the integrity of the individuals involved in leading the organisation, I like to think that I would take quite an active role in trying to at least remedy in some way the actions that have taken place.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: During the course of the election campaign or subsequent to it, as you monitor this space, did you or have you seen any evidence that anybody in the Australian Labor Party has endeavoured to correct the record or to condemn the activities of an element within their organisation for having engaged in what is clearly a campaign of misrepresentation?

Mr Quigley : I have not seen any evidence of that.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Senator Macdonald, did you have a question?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes, I do. Were you involved with robocalls in New South Wales?

Mr Quigley : Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Okay. Are you aware that either the unions or the Labor Party—I do not know who, but someone obviously not supporting the current government—were also doing lots of robocalls in Queensland and, I assume, in New South Wales. Where did they and you get the phone numbers from?

Mr Quigley : The phone numbers are taken from publicly available lists, generally—I believe, primarily from White Pages types of directories. The providers provide the phone numbers. We do not provide them with lists, as far as I understand.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Who are the providers?

Mr Quigley : The people who provide the robocalls.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I see. I obviously did not get anything from you in New South Wales, because I am a Queensland resident, but I had on my mobile phone a couple of calls that seemed to be union backed. Where would they get my private phone number from?

Mr Quigley : Without knowing the details of where your number is listed, I probably could not answer that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It is not even on my calling card. Anyway, I was just curious about that.

Senator LEYONHJELM: They do have random calling methodologies as well.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: But how do they know to—

CHAIR: This as an aside in our conversation, so maybe you two senators could take that offline till lunch.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Sorry—that is all I had.

CHAIR: Mr Morton?

Mr MORTON: I presume you send text messages—we know you send emails; we have heard about that. When you do so, is it a normal, common practice for someone in your position as a campaigner to send a communication to a small test group in your office to see how that communication will appear to the bigger group of people you are about to send it to?

Mr Quigley : That is normal practice; yes.

Mr MORTON: So, it would be unusual for a mass communication to go out, and then for someone to claim that, where the line would usually say the name of the person but instead says Medicare: 'It was unintended for it to appear like that'? That would be unusual, if you go through the testing arrangements that you have just said that you would go through as a campaigner?

Mr Quigley : Yes. I just want to clarify on this point that I have not actually been involved in sending out a text message. This applies to email and to robocalls, but with a robocall, for example, we actually receive a call. So before it goes out to everyone, I will receive a call and listen to it exactly as it comes across. If I were a campaign director organising something like that, I would expect to see a sample before it went out.

Mr MORTON: Yes. I would be very surprised if any campaigner never saw a sample of anything and were able to make unintended mistakes like the Queensland Labor Party have claimed they may have made in that text message. Thank you.

Mr DICK: How many seats did the coalition lose in New South Wales at the last federal election?

Mr Quigley : I cannot answer that off the top of my head. I can take that on notice, if you like.

Mr DICK: You do not know?

Mr Quigley : No.

Mr DICK: You ran the campaign and you do not know how many seats—

Mr Quigley : I ran the campaign for the Nationals.

Mr DICK: Do you think a text message in another state would have an impact on millions of people in a state who did not receive that text about an issue?

Mr Quigley : I think the text would have an impact on people who received the text.

Mr DICK: But not anywhere else?

Mr Quigley : I think it is very unlikely. There is obviously—

Mr MORTON: Point of order, Chair. I think it is very clear from the witness's evidence earlier that when he talked about concern in the community he was not concerned about receiving that text. It was concern about how that text could be used by political parties in future campaigns.

CHAIR: Thank you for that intervention, but that is actually a debating point rather than a point of order.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: And well debated it was.

CHAIR: It may well have been, but it was nonetheless a debate. Mr Dick, would you like to finish your—

Mr DICK: Sure. We have just asked the witness a lot of questions about his views on text messages, so I am just following what the other members of the committee have done. We have had pretty free-ranging discussion about a general issue, and we really appreciate your time, Mr Quigley, hot off the back of a by-election, and I know how draining that can be. In your opinion, do you think a text message going out to another state on issue would have an impact on voters in an election?

Mr Quigley : So you are asking if a text message going out in Queensland would affect—

Mr DICK: Or any other state to a voter on an issue would somehow impact the vote patterns of anyone voting in another state.

Mr Quigley : The answer to that is it would be minimal, in my opinion. There is an echo chamber effect, obviously, that people strive for in politics where the communications that you are sending out via one platform mirror communications that are received on another platform, and obviously that then becomes part of second-hand public discourse—you receive a text and you say to a friend, 'I have received this text that matches up with what I saw here,' and to some extent it would permeate. But whether that would have an impact from state to state is questionable.

Mr DICK: You do not think a text message from another state would have any impact on, say, the result in New South Wales, where the coalition lost half a dozen seats?

Mr Quigley : No.

Mr DICK: Thank you.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: I think it is fair to make the statement that there is a general view held that it did have a significant impact as part of a broader campaign.

CHAIR: Senator O'Sullivan, are you making a statement or is that a statement preceding a question?

Senator O'SULLIVAN: You have just caught me on the edge of asking the question.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: So on its impact on promoting the issue more nationally, when it occurred, surely we could consider that it had an impact outside of the state of Queensland?

Mr Quigley : Yes. If you want to take an example in terms of a direct parallel with our activities, there was an ad that we aired in New England that was broadcast only in New England and to my knowledge and even later on was not promoted with any money in terms of online advertising outside of that. That was the 'Not this time Tony' commercial. It gained a significant amount of free media, and I think there would be a vast number of people across the country who would have seen that ad based on the free media. In this particular case, because the text message was seized upon by the media, I think it then does become a larger part of the public discourse.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: An amplification, if you like?

Mr Quigley : Yes.

Mr MORTON: And while Labor had not claimed responsibility for it that day.

CHAIR: Mr Morton, Senator O'Sullivan still has the call.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Thank you. My point was made.

Mr GILES: Senator O'Sullivan put to you a series of propositions around your campaigning, or the campaigning effects which went to the text message. I thought you agreed with his proposition—and the Hansard may prove me wrong on this—that the text message reinforced messages otherwise communicated. I just want to clarify that the text message we have been discussing was not disseminated in New South Wales, was it, so it was very difficult for it to have reinforced any messages.

Mr Quigley : I have never claimed that. The primary impact of this text message was on the people it was sent to; it is a very powerful medium. As part of the broader Labor campaign across the country, and in particular in Queensland, it had an amplified effect on the people who received it, and that obviously extended to people who did not receive it insofar as that it is firstly disseminated to the people who have received it and then by the fact that it was discussed in the media.

Mr GILES: I have to say I am very confused by your evidence, Mr Quigley. I think it—

Senator O'SULLIVAN: It is crystal clear to me.

Mr GILES: You have given entirely contradictory accounts on the effect of it on this campaign.

Senator O'Sullivan interjecting

CHAIR: Excuse me, senators and members! The deputy chair has the call. Have you concluded your questions?

Mr GILES: I have; I am confused by the witness's evidence.

CHAIR: Mr Quigley, thank you very much for your participation here today and for your written submission. The committee is grateful for the time you have taken to do both. You have taken questions on notice, and we would be grateful if you could get those back to the committee by Friday, 2 December. You will also be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have the opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors.

Proceedings suspended from 12 : 06 to 13 : 00