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Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
04/04/2019
Estimates
FINANCE PORTFOLIO
Australian Electoral Commission

Australian Electoral Commission

CHAIR: The committee will now resume. I welcome Mr Tom Rogers, Australian Electoral Commissioner, and officers from the Australian Electoral Commission. Mr Rogers, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Rogers : I do not, Chair.

CHAIR: Okay. Senator Abetz.

Senator ABETZ: Thanks, Chair. Mr Rogers, at the committee hearing in October last year, you advised that the AEC had written to GetUp! and provided a preliminary view of the AEC's investigations. I'm wondering whether you are now at liberty to tell us what that preliminary view was?

Mr Rogers : Thank you for the question. I might talk about the GetUp! process in total as well.

Senator ABETZ: I think, with respect, given the time, if you can just answer the specific question, and if we need to get into the detail then by all means do so.

Mr Rogers : I'm just trying to remember back to October of last year. I think at that stage we had written to GetUp!. In fact, we might even have that information here. We'd written to GetUp! and told them that there was a—and if I don't have the accurate words, because I don't have them in front of me—

Senator ABETZ: I hope I didn't misquote you when I said 'preliminary view'. In fact, in the Hansard of 23 October 2018—please trust me—on page 184, I regrettably interrupted you to say, 'So the AEC has come to a preliminary conclusion,' and you corrected me by saying 'a preliminary view.' That is what I'm now putting to you, as the term 'preliminary view'. What was that preliminary view?

Mr Rogers : Again, if I'm wrong I'll correct the record later, because I don't have that in front of me, but what we had said was that we had written to GetUp!—

Senator ABETZ: That's right.

Mr Rogers : and, as I understand it, I think our preliminary view was that they may have had a reporting obligation as an associated entity for, I think, two reporting periods, two financial years.

Senator ABETZ: Right. So you had come to a preliminary view that they be—

Mr Rogers : They may have had an obligation—

Senator ABETZ: as an associated entity.

Mr Rogers : to report as an associated entity.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, to report as an associated entity. Right.

Mr Rogers : If I'm wrong about that, I'll correct the record later. But I'm fairly sure that that's what we wrote.

Senator ABETZ: That's fine. Then I understand the AEC ultimately concluded that there was—and I hope I'm not misquoting you—'insufficient evidence' that GetUp! was an associated entity at the relevant time.

Mr Rogers : For the two financial years in question, Again, I'm pretty sure that would be a correct characterisation of what we said.

Mr Pirani : Yes, that's correct. The main financial year we were looking at was 2016-17, which included the 2 July 2016 election.

Senator ABETZ: So your preliminary view was that there may well have been an obligation as an associated entity to report. You then received other advice as well, from other sources, that caused you to modify that preliminary view. Is that correct?

Mr Rogers : I'm being very careful with my language here, because this is an important area.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, of course.

Mr Rogers : I'm not sure we modified our preliminary view but rather, when we finished the process, the final conclusion was different from where we were at that point in time.

Senator ABETZ: I accept that.

Mr Rogers : I am trying to be very deliberate with my language.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, of course.

Mr Rogers : You mentioned that we sought information from other sources, which we did. First of all, GetUp! provided information to our offices, and, secondly, we sought legal advice from both the CDPP and the Australian Government Solicitor as part of that process.

Senator ABETZ: In that process, did you ever declare GetUp! independent?

Mr Rogers : It's not within my power to declare GetUp! as either independent or dependent on another party, nor is it within my power to do that for any entity.

Senator ABETZ: And, therefore, it would be dishonest of any organisation to assert that?

Mr Rogers : I wouldn't comment on any other organisations, but I can tell you that the AEC has no power to declare anyone independent or otherwise.

Senator ABETZ: Therefore, given that you don't have that power, I assume you don't do that?

Mr Rogers : That is correct.

Senator ABETZ: Therefore, it is in fact false for anybody to assert that the AEC has declared them independent, because you don't have the power to do it and you don't do it.

Mr Rogers : That's correct.

Senator ABETZ: Therefore, anybody that makes such an assertion must be making that assertion based on a falsehood.

Mr Rogers : If we're talking generically—

Senator ABETZ: Yes.

Mr Rogers : absolutely. I have no evidence that anybody said that at any time—not just GetUp!, by the way, but any other organisation. But, because I have no power to do so, it would certainly be a false piece of information.

Senator ABETZ: Because GetUp! told their so-called membership base:

BREAKING NEWS: AEC declares GetUp independent!

Clearly, yet again, it's another false assertion by GetUp! as to their behaviour, and it's just part and parcel of what they do. Thank you for clearing that up for us.

It's not usual for me to be critical of the AEC, but can I quickly take you to the question you took on notice for me at the estimates hearing on 19 February 2019. F058 is the number. I asked a specific question about the letters that you wrote to the electors of Clark, about them being in a newly named electorate. I asked: 'If nothing was hindering such an explanation, why were constituents not advised in plain English?' With respect, the answer provided does not provide an answer to that and, dare I say, does not assist us in plain English either. I was just wondering why I got that answer? To try and truncate this, if I might quickly editorialise and, with respect to you, Mr Rogers, the AEC could have said, 'We understand the issue. We will try to do better next time.' People like me and a lot of electors in Clark, including the federal member for Clark, whose bidding I do not do, shared concerns about the correspondence that was sent out. I would flag with you the ongoing frustration and, hopefully, next time an electorate changes its name and nothing else we will be able to provide that to them in plain English. I will leave it at that, and thanks to the committee for its indulgence.

Senator McALLISTER: Mr Rogers, there has been, obviously, quite some amount of media speculation around election dates, and I don't expect you to comment on the probability of any of them but I do want to ask you logistically about what dates are now available as potential poll days and any differences or challenges that specifically present in relation to each of those options. As I understand it, discussion now really centres around 11 May, 18 May and 25 May, and I wondered if you could talk us through the issues that present for each of those dates.

Mr Rogers : Sure. I might talk in general terms. Mr Pirani may care to talk about specific dates, but I might just talk generically. I am always nervous talking about dates so close to an event because I do not want to in any way presume what his Excellency the Governor-General or the Prime Minister may do. The points I have made to this committee previously were that the later we go, the more complex it becomes for the AEC but that does not mean it is impossible. What I have pointed out previously is there are things that I cannot control with the delivery of the election. One of those things is recounts in the House of Representatives for close seats. We have had examples previously where those recounts can take a period of time. If I think back to 2007, where there was a recount in the seat of McEwen, the number of challenged votes in that recount were about 600 or thereabouts. That is relatively easy for us to deal with. At the 2013 election, in the seat of Fairfax, where there was a close seat, there were over 50,000 challenged votes. As a result of that, all of those votes had to be ruled on by one person under the legislation of the state manager, so that takes an extraordinary period of time. There is always a risk in any election that it will be difficult for us to return the writ.

This particular election has other issues at play. They are the public holidays that exist during the election period for those dates. Again, I am not talking about what the Prime Minister and the Governor-General may or may not do but I am talking generically. Obviously, we have Anzac Day, the Easter weekend—Good Friday and Easter Monday—so, depending on which way the election plays out, there are some potential complications with some of those dates. None of that is insoluble but there are some potential complications.

Senator McALLISTER: And the significance of returning the writ in a timely way, could you step that out for us?

Mr Rogers : Yes, and I might hand over to Mr Pirani, just to make sure I don't make an error in this regard.

Senator McALLISTER: He can be very precise.

Mr Rogers : Yes.

Mr Pirani : The issue is the three-year terms of senators expire on 30 June. Friday 28 June is the date that, if we were trying to return writs to meet that timetable, we would be trying to make sure that we return the last writ. That is because when we return the last writ, that starts the period for the Court of Disputed Returns. So the challenge for the AEC is to try and ensure that the six writs for the Senate that get returned to state governors are done in time and the remaining writs are returned to the Governor-General in time, if we are going to have the Senate with a full complement of senators by 1 July.

Mr Rogers : Just to then perhaps tail that answer with Mr Pirani, whatever his Excellency the Governor-General tells us to do in that writ, we will do. You asked the question about the circumstances that would exist during that period. They are the issues as I see them, that just exist at that point.

Mr Pirani : I do note that section 11 of the Constitution states:

The Senate may proceed to the despatch of business, notwithstanding the failure of any State to provide for its representation in the Senate.

So there is a provision in the Constitution that should the Senate need to sit at a particular time and should not all the senators have been returned, that technically the Senate would be still able to sit.

Senator DEAN SMITH: There could be a ceremonial opening but no business conducted constitutionally.

Mr Rogers : What Mr Pirani may be indicating is an opening and half the Senate that exists could actually conduct the business of the Senate at that point.

CHAIR: There would have to be a quorum though for a—

Mr Rogers : If that's all, that's where we are with it.

Senator McALLISTER: What are the relevant time lines and deadlines once the clock starts ticking on the Court of Disputed Returns?

Mr Pirani : There's nothing after that, as far as the AEC is concerned under the Commonwealth Electoral Act. Our role is finished after the 40 days of the Court of Disputed Returns period has expired, depending on whether or not a petition has been lodged.

Mr Rogers : And depending on what court orders we receive, potentially during that period, from the High Court to tell us to do various things.

Senator McALLISTER: But I guess the point you are making is that, from 28 June, a 40-day time line pushes well in to sort of July-August.

Mr Pirani : But, again, we would have returned the writs and technically finished the election when we return the writs. The Court of Disputed Returns period starts where people are able to petition the court to set aside one of the elections for which we've already returned the writ. If I go back to 2013, we had to complete the WA Senate election, despite the issue of the missing ballot papers, so that we could petition the Court of Disputed Returns. The process is very clear. We have to make sure that all the writs are returned so the period for the Court of Disputed Returns can commence and then if anybody believes they've got facts that disclose there was some illegal practice or something that would invalidate the election result, it would enable them to go to the Court of Disputed Returns to challenge the election.

Mr Rogers : I hate talking about 2013 because it brings back memories but, just for the record, we petitioned the court ourselves. The AEC did that in that particular circumstance and it is conceivable we would do something similar if such a circumstance were to arise.

Senator McALLISTER: I guess the point being that if one is trying to be in a position to have all of the parliamentary organs functioning in July, 25 May is leaving it quite late but, nonetheless, you will do as you are requested.

Mr Pirani : Absolutely.

Senator FARRELL: I apologise for being late. I was just listening to the next PM give his address in reply.

Senator DEAN SMITH: Day dreaming?

Senator FARRELL: You wish.

Senator DEAN SMITH: Night dreaming?

Senator FARRELL: Mr Rogers, I think I got the gist of your answers. Can we just focus a little bit more on that 25 May date? I think you've given us some answers in respect of all the potential dates that the current Prime Minister has mentioned for the purposes of the election. If the election is on the last of those dates—25 May—are there any problems presented to the commission in the event that there are disputes regarding the results of that election? If so, can you give us—

Mr Rogers : I mentioned before that it's a bit difficult to predict exactly what would occur, but if there was a very close House of Representatives seat and there was a request for a recount during that period, then we did the recount and it went the way that the recount in the seat of Fairfax did in 2013—where there were 50,000-odd challenged votes—that would slow us down quite significantly, as indeed it did in 2013. But, again, we can't predict. That might be an issue that would cause some delays. But what we would do, again—as we always do—is try to put sufficient resources against that to resolve any issues that came about.

Senator FARRELL: The candidate who made the challenge to that vote has indicated that he's nominating in this election, has he not?

Mr Rogers : Well, there's certainly been a lot of—

Senator FARRELL: He's certainly spending a lot of money.

Mr Rogers : I don't know about how much money is being spent. There's certainly a lot of information publicly available, but there are a number of—

Senator FARRELL: I think it would be fair to say that he's spending more money than you're spending on the election at the moment!

CHAIR: Probably you or us too, Senator Farrell!

Mr Rogers : It's a comprehensive campaign that's being run, and certainly it's been indicated that there'll be a number of candidates in a number of seats.

Senator FARRELL: Yes, including a full-page advertisement in The Australian—two full-page advertisements—today. But can you take us through: let's say the election is on the 25th and it's a close election, as it was in Fairfax in 2013, and there's a challenge to 50,000 votes. What time frame did it take in 2013?

Mr Rogers : The technical difficulty—and again, Mr Pirani might join me here—is that, under the legislation, those challenged votes eventually needed to be ruled on by our state manager. That means one person had to examine those votes and make a ruling. If I think back to that particular election, I think the state manager was based in Brisbane and was actually trying to run other aspects of the election, so the votes were transported from the Gold Coast, I think, down to Brisbane on a daily basis—

Mr Pope : Townsville.

Mr Rogers : Townsville, I should say—and that has to be looked at with scrutineers present. It's a complex operation, and there are many arguments involved as well.

Mr Pirani : It took just over four weeks for that recount and the challenging process to be completed. If I can contrast that with Herbert, that took just over six days, at the 2016 election.

Senator FARRELL: What's the difference between—

Mr Pirani : The numbers of challenged ballot papers was the main difference.

Mr Rogers : But just to be clear, we can't prevent challenges to the ballot papers. There's no power to say, 'Look, that's an unreasonable challenge.' That's why it occurred that way in Fairfax. I forget how many scrutineers were present.

Mr Pirani : There were 25 to 30 scrutineers there at the time on behalf of one of the candidates, and at least half of those were legal practitioners, and it was a rather intense process. I was there for the first few days of that, and I ended up leaving—one of my lawyers was up there in Fairfax and then down in Brisbane for the remainder of the challenges.

Senator FARRELL: And that result was a 37-vote victory?

Mr Pirani : I think it was about 37, yes.

Senator FARRELL: To Mr Palmer?

Mr Pirani : That's correct.

Senator FARRELL: That four-week process that you're talking about: how long after election day did that process start?

Mr Pirani : It would have been a few days after, because we would have had to go through all the scrutiny processes. So, we had the initial scrutiny on the night, and then we had the fresh scrutiny, and then we had the final scrutiny and the allocation of preferences. So, it occurred after that; that was when the ballot papers could be reserved. All the decisions up to that time were being made by the divisional returning officer under section 274 of the act. But soon after the divisional returning officer made those decisions we had kicked in the reserve ballot paper process, which is a separate provision of the act, which meant that that had to be determined by the Australian Electoral Officer, and the divisional returning officer no longer had a role.

Senator FARRELL: If we got a repeat of that type of event at this election, how close to 1 July would we end up? Would we be over 1 July or just before 1 July?

Mr Rogers : It's very difficult for us to speculate on that. But if we had a similar situation with a large number of challenged ballot papers we would be doing everything in our power to streamline that process as much as possible to ensure that we meet the time lines in the writ. We're very conscious of that. We would also move resources from other areas to ensure that that occurred, to move as swiftly as possible.

Senator FARRELL: If an election is called on 25 May when would you expect the writs to be required to be returned?

Mr Rogers : Returned? It would be on 28 June I would think.

Mr Pirani : No. The normal process in the Electoral Act is 100 days after the issue of the writ. So a period sometime in July would be what would expect would be in the actual the writ document itself. However, the AEC is aware of the issue of the three-year terms et cetera, so we would be aiming, as a matter of practice, to ensure that the writs were returned in time for those with three-year terms to be replaced by 1 July.

Senator FARRELL: But it would seem that it's a more difficult process the later that you leave it. To put it in the vernacular, you'll be up against the wall if the election is held on 25 May?

Mr Rogers : I'm very nervous about even talking about writs in any case, for a whole range of reasons, but I guess what I've said both here, and to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, previously is the more time we have the happier we are, the less time the more difficult it is. But whatever is in that writ from His Excellency the Governor-General we will produce a result.

Senator MOORE: Mr Rogers, I'm interested to know with the experience in Fairfax, and then subsequently Herbert—though that was a lesser number of challenged votes—has the AEC changed practice?

Mr Rogers : Actually, our practice in Fairfax was good. In fact, I would almost call it—

Senator MOORE: It reinforced the way you operated. There was nothing that happened in Fairfax that has indicated that you needed to change your practices into the future?

Mr Rogers : In fact, the state manager at the time, who has since left us, had a very good system in place to be able to deal with those challenged votes.

Senator MOORE: He did indeed. I just wanted to check. Thank you.

Senator FARRELL: Has the government sought any advice regarding the election date from the Australian Electoral Commission or you as commissioner?

Mr Rogers : Yes, they have.

Senator FARRELL: Has that advice been provided? And, if so, what was the advice?

Mr Rogers : I might talk generically if that's okay?

Senator FARRELL: Sure.

Mr Rogers : The advice was purely about the operation of the Electoral Act, including things like minimum number of days for close of roles and how that plays out in accordance with the Electoral Act. What it was not was any advice about what date it could or could not be, but rather how the Electoral Act played out in that process, which is advice we would provide to any government during that period.

Senator FARRELL: I'd like to ask a few questions about the AEC's preparations for the election period. Firstly, how are preparations progressing?

Mr Rogers : I think I said to this committee, or a different committee, previously that we were ready to be ready rather than ready, because of the expense involved in being ready the whole time. Given the amount of training in particular that we've done during the cycle, which is probably more than we've done ever in our history, we are more ready for an election in our history than we've ever been. We have got better training, better processes and better doctrine. We're very comfortable with where we are right now. If you ask any electoral official, 'Are you fully ready?' the answer is always no. But we are more prepared than we've ever been and confident of where we are.

Senator FARRELL: Are there any particular issues that stand out as potential problems for the poll?

Mr Rogers : No. There are opportunities though, and—

Senator FARRELL: What are they?

Mr Rogers : I'm glad you asked. We're seizing some of those opportunities. In particular, there were some perceptions at the last election about queuing.

Senator FARRELL: Tell us about that.

Mr Rogers : There were a couple of places where queues were longer than we'd like. Out of interest, about 75 per cent of Australians, in our research, got through the polling place in under 15 minutes. So they were in and eating their democracy sausage at the other end within a 15-minute window. I think on the day of polling, when we've got, at the last election, over 11 million Australians walking through our door on that one day, it's a modern miracle we were able to achieve that level of throughput. However, to deal with the perception of queuing, we've done a lot of research over the last electoral cycle with a Victorian university, Deakin University, and we're introducing some better techniques to manage queues to make sure citizens have a good experience on the day. I can tell you, though, that there will be queues, particularly if people turn up at eight o'clock in the morning. There are going to be queues.

But we are putting in place better metrics and better measures to try to assist with that. We're using more electronic certified lists than we've ever used before—I think we're using something like 4½ thousand—and that will help speed up things, particularly at prepoll voting. Our training is better. We're providing our polling staff with a range of video based training that we are very proud of and that I think is very innovative. We'll have more issuing officers at this election than we've had previously, which should make the day go more smoothly as well. And we've refined our practices and processes. I'm actually very comfortable with what we've done with that process.

Senator FARRELL: What are your current enrolment figures, and what work has been undertaken to improve those figures?

Mr Rogers : I've mentioned to this committee previously that we are very proud of the electoral roll. I mentioned to this committee previously that we were at 96.3 per cent completeness, which is the best roll result we've had since Federation. I am happy to tell estimates this evening that that figure has actually increased, and it's at 96.5 per cent, which is an extraordinary boost to the roll. About three weeks ago, I think, we wrote to over 400,000 Australians—in fact, every Australian who wasn't on the roll for whom we had contact details. We either wrote to them, emailed, or SMSed, and urged them to get on the electoral roll. We are still processing a large number of enrolment transactions from the New South Wales state elections, which will further add to that. While we are on that, of the over 400,000 Australians we wrote to the other week, I think about 72,000 or 77,000 were self-declared Indigenous Australians as well. So we are really trying to drive up roll completeness before the election. I'm really proud of those numbers. If we look at the March numbers, 16,323,823 Australians are on the roll. We think that will be better again because, as you know, the close of rolls period during the election is the biggest spur for enrolment. So we are very, very happy with what we've done with that.

Senator FARRELL: I just noticed Mr Pope hand you that document. Just for completeness, what was the figure at the 2016 election?

Mr Rogers : I think I can give you that, Senator.

Mr Pope : It was 15,676,659.

Mr Rogers : Just for the record, back when I first joined the commission in 2007, the completeness rate of enrolment was at about 89 per cent. We were struggling to get to even 90 per cent, let alone a target we had of 95 per cent, and now we are at 96.5 per cent. So it's a success story for Australia.

Senator FARRELL: That's excellent, but there is one dark spot. Would you like to tell us about that?

Mr Rogers : There are probably a couple, actually, if I might. Around the Western world youth enrolment remains a complex issue. We do as much as we can with youth enrolment; it's something we have to work on continuously. The figure I have here is actually for December, which is perhaps not as useful, but the enrolment rate for youth voters aged 18 to 24 was 85.8 per cent in December of last year. There is a big difference between youth enrolment and the overall rate of the roll. The same-sex marriage survey seemed to act as a spur for youth enrolment, which was interesting. I think we processed over a million transactions during that period. Of that, there were over 100,000 new enrolments, and most of those new enrolments were in the age group of 18 to 24, so that remains an issue for us. And then Indigenous Australians remain under-represented on the roll, and that's been the case, as you know, Senator Farrell, for many, many years. We are trialling different activities at the moment, but it's something we need to focus on, again, after the election in a very large way. We work with our partner agencies, including the Northern Territory Electoral Commission, who focus on this issue, but we've got a lot more work to do in that regard as well.

Senator FARRELL: As you're aware, Townsville has been hit with significant flooding. What preparations are underway to ensure an electoral process can be rolled out in that area given the damage and the large number of absentee voters?

Mr Rogers : We're very aware of that, and our staff up there have been doing some great work in looking at the impact on polling places in particular and whether we need to find new polling places. We also look at estimates of ballot papers to make sure there are going to be sufficient ballot papers in other polling places. Our staff have also contacted housing services in Townsville to work out how many families have been affected, so we are aware of that. I might praise my staff, not only there in Townsville. When these things happen in other areas, it's the same process that our staff go through at a state level and divisional level to make sure that we can provide services to individuals. I'm answering a question you haven't asked here, but it's useful for people to understand that, if something like that happened during the event, we do have the ability to suspend polling and then start that again a week later if there is flooding, and we have done that previously in Queensland. I can't remember when, Mr Pirani, but that was—

Mr Pirani : I think it was in 2007 in Maranoa.

Mr Rogers : That's a facility we have as well.

Senator DEAN SMITH: Just before I come to the specific budget measure that's identified at page 90 of Budget Paper No, 2, where there is a federal election held in close proximity to but after a state election, and where the voting method at the state election is different to the voting method at the Commonwealth election, do you see a rise in informality that might be attributed to the fact that the voter is confused about the two different voting methods because of their close proximity?

Mr Rogers : That's absolutely the case. There are three factors that our research shows impact on informal voting. One is where English is spoken as a second language in that electorate. In fact, traditionally, up until the last election, the top 10 seats for informality were all in Western Sydney. The second factor is simply the number of candidates on the ballot paper—the more candidates there are, the higher the level of informality. The third thing is, absolutely, the proximity of it to after a state election where there is a different voting system used. They're the three really sticky metrics.

Senator DEAN SMITH: So specifically then, in the context of New South Wales and the recent state election, what initiatives is the AEC taking to reduce the possible incidence of informality given that the Commonwealth election is being held in close proximity to the recent state election?

Mr Rogers : We are very conscious of that, and our staff in New South Wales will be doing additional work—media work as well as public affairs work—to try and alert people to how to cast a formal vote. We are also pointing people to our practice ballot papers on our website to make sure that they understand how to cast a formal vote. People can get on there now—there's a practice voting tool. We will be doing everything we can to try and point that out to people, and the key point is when citizens actually walk into the polling place and are issued the ballot paper with the instructions on how to fill out a vote. We are conscious that at the last election our assessment was—if I get this right—that the level of deliberate informal voting overtook the level of accidental informal voting, we think for the first time.

Senator DEAN SMITH: So consciously casting a vote in an informal manner?

Mr Rogers : That's correct. It's easy to determine that. If the ballot paper is blank or blank and contains a message for either parliament or for us, or pictures—

CHAIR: They're probably more for us than you, Mr Rogers. It's kind of you to—

Mr Rogers : You would be surprised! Or if there are particular drawings—

Senator STOKER: 'A single vote for Batman', or 'Batman gets my vote.'

Mr Rogers : Yes. So there are interesting things. The research at the last one showed that that's the first time that it's overtaken. We're very conscious of that. We try to talk to people about the value of the vote, and we'll be running heavy on the campaign about that.

Senator DEAN SMITH: Have you ever been asked to provide advice on optional preferential voting as an alternative Commonwealth electoral voting method?

Mr Rogers : No, I haven't. I'm just looking at Mr Pirani.

Senator DEAN SMITH: No? Okay.

Mr Rogers : I'm just wondering whether it was canvassed in the green paper back in—it was in the green paper?

Mr Pirani : In 2008, which was the first of the green papers.

Mr Rogers : But I haven't been asked to provide—

Mr Pirani : There were two green papers that were produced, one in relation to general elections and referring to things about harmonisation of electoral systems and voting et cetera, and then there was another one dealing with campaign financing, donations and disclosure. But it was in the first of those reports.

Senator DEAN SMITH: But not in recent times. Turning specifically to the budget measure that's identified at page 80 in Budget Paper No. 2, there is $10.8 million over two years—I want to be sure I'm reading this correctly—for two initiatives, even though it's one measure: new polling place technology and upgrades to AEC's ageing core ICT infrastructure. Of the $10.8 million, what can be attributed to initiative 1, new polling place technology, and what can be attributed to initiative 2, upgrades to AEC's ageing core ICT infrastructure, or are they the same thing?

Mr Rogers : No. They're very different things.

Senator DEAN SMITH: That's what I thought.

Mr Rogers : On the ageing ICT infrastructure, I've mentioned to this committee previously, and also to the joint standing committee, that our two big systems—

Senator DEAN SMITH: To be fair, Mr Rogers, I'm probably less interested in that and more interested in the new polling place technology, because I don't remember seeing any technology at a polling place. There's a pencil and a piece of paper.

Senator STOKER: You're missing the action. There's so much more than that!

Senator DEAN SMITH: So I'm just curious to know what sort of revolution Australian electors are going to witness.

Mr Rogers : Just to be clear, the Australian voting machine remains a pencil, but the polling place technology is the electronic certified lists.

Senator DEAN SMITH: Which you mentioned.

Mr Rogers : Which I mentioned. Just to be clear, this election, 4,400 and something, we've paid for out of our hide, but they are really good technology and will assist in a whole range of ways. We would like to deploy that in a much broader way. This money is actually to assist us to work out how we could do that in the long term in a cost-effective way. It might also allow us to explore something radical, even sharing some of these devices with the states and using some of the devices that the states are using as electronic certified lists. So that tranche of money will actually assist us to investigate how to do this in a cost-effective way across Australia. The vision would be that, at every polling place, there is an electronic certified list and no more paper based rolls. One of the great things about these—Senator, you and I have discussed the issues of people turning up to the polling place and being confused—is that, because they're linked back to a central database, they provide all sorts of connectivity and it enables us to monitor exactly what's going on, levels of ballot papers, how things are occurring in the polling place, whether someone might be attempting to vote twice, all of those sorts of issues. So we want to try and roll that out around Australia.

Senator DEAN SMITH: So a scrutineer would be able to go round to a polling place and get a real-time answer to the question of how many voters have voted at this particular polling place?

Mr Rogers : That is absolutely possible.

Mr Pope : Can I just add—

Senator MOORE: I'm interested in the division of the money.

Mr Pope : I'm sorry; I just wanted to make sure we are all clear: this is actually about business cases for these further investments.

Mr Rogers : Yes. It's not actually the machines, because to equip every Australian polling place with electronic certified lists is going to be more than $6 million.

Senator DEAN SMITH: It is a modest amount, $10.8 million, I would have thought. But Senator Moore is correct: I'm keen to know how the $10.8 million is divided between the ICT infrastructure upgrade and the new polling place technology.

Mr Rogers : Around $6 million will be for the investigation of the polling place technology, and around—sorry; is it the other way round?

Senator DEAN SMITH: I would have guessed that the urgency would be around the AEC's ageing ICT—

Mr Rogers : Replacement of the ICT infrastructure. Yes, that's correct. I'm just going to get my chief financial officer to hand me a small—I think I was right actually.

Mr Pope : I'm sorry.

Mr Rogers : That's all right. I'll talk to the deputy later!

Senator DEAN SMITH: That's why you're the commissioner.

Mr Rogers : $2.2 million is for the business case for the upgrade of our ageing IT systems, and the rest is about the polling place technology.

Senator MOORE: They're both business cases.

Mr Rogers : I just point out that, even though it looks like $2.2 million is a small amount for ageing IT systems, the actual cost for the replacement of those systems is likely to be a significant amount of money.

Senator DEAN SMITH: That $2.2 million is for a business case.

Mr Rogers : Yes.

Senator DEAN SMITH: Am I correct in reading this as saying that that money has been brought forward?

Mr Rogers : Some of that money has been brought forward. I just point out that all of that money is ultimately offset, as well, through efficiencies that we are hoping to make.

Senator DEAN SMITH: If the chair will just indulge me, I have one last bean.

CHAIR: Only because you asked nicely.

Senator DEAN SMITH: Thank you. At the last estimates we talked about prepolling and had a discussion about whether it was a policy decision of government that you were implementing or a decision or a preference that the AEC was implementing. Can you give us an update in terms of numbers of prepoll places, the duration of the prepoll and whether or not we can expect to see more people places into the future. The point that I made at our previous estimates was that this changes the campaign focus of political parties and their candidates and it changes the voters' experience, or the opportunity to participate as well. I'm always curious to know whether these decisions have been imported because they've been conscious decisions of government policy—governments' policies—or it is a preference of the AEC that has led to the proliferation of prepolling. 'Proliferation' is my word. You talked previously about the large numbers of people who utilise prepolling, but I have always been curious to know whether they were utilising it because it's available. Have you got an update for the committee?

Mr Rogers : I think it's a very reasonable question. As I understand it, the chair and the deputy chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters have both written to the current SMOS asking for this matter to be examined in the life of the next parliament. I think you're right—it is on the increase—and I think we've discussed it previously. For the record, if I don't look at postal votes, just at prepoll, in 2007 prepoll as a percentage of the total was about 8.22 per cent and in 2016 it was 22.67 per cent, so there's been a rapid increase.

Senator DEAN SMITH: But, as I said before, the missing part of that discussion is how many prepoll places existed—

Mr Rogers : Before that event.

Senator DEAN SMITH: That's right.

Mr Rogers : The first thing is that we are simply administering the legislation. It's not a policy piece for the AEC. We are very, very conscious that this is a piece of voter demand. Just out of interest, in 2016, based on legal advice, we reintroduced for the first time the requirement for citizens to self-identify about whether they are entitled to a prepoll vote. When they go into the prepoll centre there is a sign on the door where we point out that they need to qualify—qualify is a bad—

Senator DEAN SMITH: There a criteria that need to be met.

Mr Rogers : Criteria they have to meet, yes. Then when they go to the desk they're given another sheet of paper and told again they self-identify. We don't check what they tell us, but I can tell you that, magically, over the years, 22.67 per cent of citizens clearly are entitled to a prepoll vote against those criteria. We are finding that the numbers are ramping up rapidly and very large queues are forming at these prepoll centres. What we're trying to do is match that queuing with centres of our own.

Senator DEAN SMITH: Sometimes these prepoll centres are not optimum in terms of the facilities that you've identified to be used, so you've got long lines of voters lining up and impacting shoppers who might be conducting their normal day-to-day activities. I'm conscious of our time, but the point is that this is going to be consciously examined in the next parliament through the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

Mr Rogers : I think it's a reasonable thing for that to occur, because I'm not sure that the original intent of parliament in passing that legislation was just to allow pretty much everyone to come and vote, which is what appears to be occurring by default.

Senator DEAN SMITH: That's effectively my fundamental point, as well.

Mr Pirani : The period of prepoll is determined by the legislation. We have no discretion there.

Mr Rogers : Although, interestingly, this election there will be one less day of prepoll because the legislation has changed. So it'll be one less day.

Senator MOORE: I have one supplementary question on your comments. You gave evidence earlier that you're looking at ways to facilitate queuing for the actual election day. Can any of those methods that you're looking at be used then in prepoll? One of the huge issues is the massive queues for prepolling.

Mr Rogers : All of what I mentioned before—

Senator MOORE: Will translate to prepoll?

Mr Rogers : will be used at prepoll as well, yes.

Senator MOORE: Thank you.

Senator WATERS: Thank you for being with us again this evening. I don't have very many questions for you, but I am interested in this. There's been some commentary that the publication of the annual financial disclosure forms is perhaps not quite as transparent or easily analysed as it ideally could and perhaps should be. I understand the website has images of the original returns and some analysis and then there's a data export function. Are there any plans to make that data displayed in a way that makes analysis more ready?

Mr Rogers : First of all, let me acknowledge that it is difficult because, effectively—I'm using my non-technical language here—we're talking about PDFs, which are not particularly useful for people or searchable. We do our best. But we do have a project in place at the moment. I might get Mr Pope to just briefly talk about that. It will be designed to provide better information and more searchable information for people to be able to use.

Mr Pope : When the legislation was updated in December last year, we also received some additional funding for us to develop what we're calling a political party portal. That is effectively an online tool for political parties and stakeholders to upload, access and analyse data. We are developing that tool throughout this calendar year.

Senator WATERS: When's that likely to be finished and up and functional?

Mr Pope : I'd say later this year.

Senator WATERS: Okay. Can you tell me just a bit more about the searchability and the other transparency features of that and how it differs, as you say, from the current sketchy PDFs? Well, you didn't say 'sketchy'.

Mr Pope : It's currently being built as an IT build that we're working our way through. So it's probably a little early for me to be committing too much to exactly what it's going to look like, but these sorts of requirements are certainly at the forefront of our minds.

Mr Rogers : One of the principles that we put on the table for the joint standing committee is that the process centre should be as transparent and timely as possible within the confines of the legislation. Part of this system will be designed to do just that. By the way, our staff have done a great job over many years with a small amount of funding for this. So I'm not criticising anything that we've done previously, but we hope to provide everybody with more functionality as we move forward.

Senator WATERS: Okay. If the time frame is hopefully later this calendar year, does that mean you're hoping for it to be operational before 1 February, the disclosure date next year?

Mr Pope : That's something we would certainly be aiming for, yes.

Senator WATERS: Great. There's just one other question. We have done whole inquiries into this, but I'm going to ask you anyway, so tell me as much as you can. I'm just noting that the ABC was reporting that Facebook hadn't dealt properly with unauthorised election ads on their social media platforms. So what steps is the AEC going to be taking with social media companies like Facebook to ensure that there's better compliance with the laws around authorising election ads?

Mr Rogers : There a couple of things. We're already working with Facebook and Twitter. We've met them and we've found them to be very responsive to date. To be fair to them, they've been incredibly responsive to us. Previously we thought they were not so responsive and now they appear to be. We also did a party briefing in Canberra recently for political parties where Facebook and Twitter came along, for example. We're engaging with them.

At the same time, for the first time ever, we're about to launch a social media campaign designed to help citizens think about the information they're receiving—not the information itself, but the source of the information—to make sure ads are authorised and that they can peg that information back to a verified source. We're going to be asking citizens to stop and consider that information. We're working on that. It will be social media only, but it'll be a way of us also helping citizens identify, effectively, disinformation. So we're working with Facebook and Twitter. We're running for the first time ever a social media campaign, which will launch this year and urges citizens to consider the authorisation of what they're reading to make sure that information is real. We'll continue to liaise with Twitter and Facebook during the event. Where there are issues, we will deal with those issues as they pop up.

Senator WATERS: You said they'd been a little bit more—I can't remember the descriptor you used—helpful than we thought they had previously been. Can you tell me anything more about what actual concrete steps are at your disposal to force them to comply or to encourage compliance?

Mr Rogers : I might ask Mr Pirani to answer.

Mr Pirani : We have a power in the act to seek injunctions under section 383 of the act, and that would include against Facebook if they continue to allow material to be posted that was in breach of the act. However, the approach we've been taking thus far is that we now have clear points of contact with Facebook and the other social media players in Australia. Part of the frustration that we've had previously is that, when we had to get action taken—and Facebook eventually would do it—the difficulty is that we had to go through the US and that took quite a deal of time. So Facebook have been extremely cooperative. My staff have made several requests to them for action to be taken, and it's been taken almost immediately.

Mr Rogers : Twitter have also been very good as well.

Mr Pirani : And some of the action they've actually taken has actually been taken before we've received a complaint, because they've regarded it as a breach of their own rules. So we at the moment have a very good relationship with Facebook and with the other social media players, and it is something we are actively fostering.

Mr Rogers : And, again, we'll analyse that during the election and afterwards. We'll have a think about how that worked during that period.

Senator WATERS: Okay. One last question: I think you mentioned that this was the first social media campaign that you were doing just to help—

Mr Rogers : It was the first social media campaign about disinformation.

Senator WATERS: I see. My question was: what other social media campaigns have you run? In particular, given that the voting system was changed just prior to the previous election, have you done much voter education on how to vote in a valid manner since then? Have you got any planned for this election or have you done it recently?

Mr Rogers : At the last election, we did an incredibly comprehensive media campaign with all forms of media, including social media, and we intend to run something along the same lines for this election. It won't be as comprehensive with the changes to the Senate vote, because this is now business as usual, but we run a large scale PR campaign, an awareness campaign and a social media campaign over the various phases of the election, from the close of rolls through to the need for people to turn up to vote through how to vote formally. We'll be doing exactly the same campaign this time around, including on Facebook and on Twitter. We push those channels a lot.

Senator WATERS: Okay. Is it also mainstream media?

Mr Rogers : Absolutely.

Senator WATERS: Televised as well?

Mr Rogers : Televised, radio, newspaper ads—it will be comprehensive. Our research from previous elections shows it's relatively effective at getting the message out to voters.

Senator WATERS: Have you seen a material change in valid voting? I suppose you wouldn't know if it didn't reflect the voters' intention, but you would know if it's an incorrectly filled out ballot paper.

Mr Rogers : It's interesting that you ask. Just out of interest, at the last election the House of Representatives informality rate was 5.05 per cent, which was a small decrease on the election before, and the Senate level of informality was 3.94 per cent, which was a small increase on the election previously. So the House of Representatives informality went down by 0.86 per cent. The Senate informality went up by 1.01 per cent. When you think about that major change that occurred at the last election, it's actually a pretty good result. We think that was largely due to the education campaign that we ran.

Senator WATERS: You said last election was the first time that deliberately informal votes exceeded accidentally informal votes.

Mr Rogers : That's what our assessment is.

Senator WATERS: Did you have a split?

Mr Rogers : I'll have to take that one on notice. I don't have that with me, but we do have those figures.

Senator WATERS: Thank you.

CHAIR: Just one final matter. I'll begin with an apology to you, Mr Pope, because I'm going to ask a question about you but not to you. I say up-front that I ask this with no agenda at all, but it will be strange if the committee didn't address this issue. Mr Rogers, Mr Pope was a witness before the royal commission in Melbourne this week. I just want to know if that raises any concerns for you and, if so, any steps that you've taken to reassure yourself that those concerns are not warranted?

Mr Rogers : May I make two comments? The first one—the most important one, obviously—is that it's a royal commission and I'm incredibly loath to make any comment about any matter that's before the royal commission. So let me package that bit first. The second bit is about Mr Pope. I have absolutely zero concerns in any way, shape or form about Mr Pope, his performance or his dedication to the task.

CHAIR: Thank you. I think that's good to have on record. Are there any further questions? If not, I thank you very much for your time and your evidence here this evening.