Title Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Australian Electoral Commission
Database Estimates Committees
Date 28-05-2015
Committee Name Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Page 119
Questioner CHAIR
Dastyari, Sen Sam
Smith, Sen Dean
Rhiannon, Sen Lee
McKenzie, Sen Bridget
Gallagher, Sen Katy
Ludwig, Sen Joe
Responder Ms Halton
Mr Rogers
Mr Blackburn
Ronaldson, Sen Michael
Mr Pirani
Dr Helgeby
System Id committees/estimate/90b8ceea-5f84-4941-bcc0-a7792b8cdeda/0003

Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee - 28/05/2015 - Estimates - FINANCE PORTFOLIO - Australian Electoral Commission

Australian Electoral Commission


CHAIR: Welcome, representatives of the Australian Electoral Commission. Before I go to questions—and it entirely depends upon how we go for time—if it looks like there is an opportunity to conclude the section before the dinner break in consultation with Senator Gallagher, we are prepared to delay the dinner break in the hope of concluding the proceedings. Any facilitation of that, I am sure, would be welcome by all parties involved.

Ms Halton : People will speak in extremely short bursts.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Halton; that is exactly right. In doing so I welcome Mr Tom Rogers, the Electoral Commissioner, and officers of the Australian Electoral Commission. Mr Rogers, do you wish to make an opening statement.

Mr Rogers : I do not, thank you.

Senator DASTYARI: Mr Rogers, I just want to check I have my bearings here right. I am looking at item 1.3 on page 89 of the PBS, which is effectively saying that no budget measures have been announced since the MYEFO that impact the AEC, and, 'All budget measures have been previously reported in a portfolio statement.' Just to get my understanding of this right, is that telling us that there are no new measures in this budget related to the funding of the AEC?

Mr Rogers : Yes, it is exactly as you have stated.

Senator DASTYARI: Explain to me from a resource perspective how it works when it is a planned election year and when it is not a planned election year. Does the allocation work in such a way that in a planned election year you have an additional allocation for the budget? Is that correct?

Mr Rogers : That is correct. And there is a provisional budget that we get for each election, in advance of the election, so we can do our planning.

Senator DASTYARI: What is the provisional budget that you get?

Mr Rogers : I think $118 million—I am looking at my chief financial officer at the moment—is the planned figure for the 2016 election.

Senator DASTYARI: At this stage in the forward estimates does that appear in the 2016 financial year?

Mr Blackburn : The $118 million is included in the appropriation for the 2016-17 financial year.

Senator DASTYARI: While a decision for an election is a matter for the government, if there were to be an earlier election period, you would anticipate that a similar amount would just be spent earlier, for whenever the election is?

Mr Rogers : Correct. We would draw that amount of money down earlier.

Senator DASTYARI: Where does the figure of $118 million come from?

Mr Rogers : Unless I am corrected, that figure is based partly on historical figures on the agreed cost, approximately, that it costs us to run an election.

Senator DASTYARI: That would go up, election to election, I assume?

Mr Rogers : Depending on inflation and a range of other factors, yes.

Senator DASTYARI: So at the moment $118 million is planned for 2016, but—

Mr Rogers : Can I just confirm that these are our costs we are talking about. There are other costs for an election, but you are specifically asking about our costs. I want to be very accurate about that: $118 million is the AEC cost for the elections.

Senator DASTYARI: Just in general terms—I am not going to ask you to speak on behalf of other agencies—what other kind of costs would we be talking about?

Mr Rogers : Party funding, for example, and a range of other ancillary—

Senator DASTYARI: You are talking about all the electoral funding. Okay. That does not come through the AEC? I remember, as a former party secretary my role was to complete AEC forms, so I assumed that that was what—

Mr Rogers : It does, but essentially I am focused here purely on the AEC costs for the conduct of the administration of the election. We separate party funding out into a different figure.

Senator DASTYARI: Has that figure been planned for 2016 in your appropriation?

Mr Rogers : It is planned in the appropriations, because, again, it is based on historical figures.

Senator DASTYARI: What figure is that?

Mr Rogers : I am looking at my chief financial officer.

Mr Blackburn : It is estimated at $76 million for the next election—that is the party funding.

Senator DASTYARI: And that is in the forward estimates?

Mr Blackburn : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: You have talked about the party funding. You are effectively saying the $118 million is paying for your staff, polling days—

Mr Rogers : Printing the paper, procuring the cardboard—

Senator DASTYARI: You were saying there is also the party funding component. Is there any other component—you can take this on notice—that comes to mind? I am not talking about staff travel or other things that have nothing to do with your finance. But is there anything that comes to mind for the Electoral Commission, apart from the party funding and the election funding?

Mr Rogers : They are the major components, but I will take that on notice to make sure I do not mislead you.

Senator DASTYARI: Please provide an amalgamated figure for the AEC on the parts of an election that relate to you. I understand that there are all these other things that are in different departments that may be somehow linked to an election but which have nothing to do with the AEC. I just want the overall cost for the AEC. There has obviously been a fair bit of discussion—and I am sure you have seen some of the commentary—around Senate voting reform. You are nodding, Mr Rogers, so you are aware of the commentary?

Mr Rogers : I am aware of the commentary in the media—without going into the specifics of that.

Senator DASTYARI: When was the last time the AEC had to implement Senate voting reform? The parliament makes such decisions and you have to implement the changes?

Mr Rogers : That is correct, absolutely.

Senator DASTYARI: Have any plans been put in place for implementation of any kind of change?

Mr Rogers : Before I could put plans in place for a proposed change—and I am not being cute here—I would need to know exactly what the change was. I am aware of the general speculation about changes to the Senate voting system, but it is only hypothetical at the moment. I do not know exactly what that will be, other than the commentary I have seen.

Senator DASTYARI: I just want to make sure my understanding is right. Is what you are saying that, because at this point in time there is no firm proposal, you have made no plans to implement changes?

Mr Rogers : As I understand your question, the answer is no. It would be impossible for me to make hypothetical changes to the administration of the voting system for the Senate without knowing exactly what those changes were.

Senator Ronaldson: It would have been very hard for the commission, I would have thought, to do anything when we get reports like the one that was in The Australian today, from Niki Savva. You are on one side and then we have the shadow minister who thinks these reforms will 'significantly strengthen our democratic process'. I think you would be expecting a bit much when you yourself—

Senator DASTYARI: I am very happy with what Mr Rogers is saying. What he is saying is music to my ears, Senator Ronaldson.

CHAIR: Just a moment! I think it is unfair to ask—and it is against the standing orders as well—for expressions of opinion on hypothetical circumstances.

Senator DASTYARI: I have not asked for an opinion; I was asking whether any planning had been done.

CHAIR: Based on a hypothetical circumstance.

Ms Halton : I should also add that the policy responsibility in relation to electoral matters is not a matter for the commission; it is a matter that is advised on by the department.

Senator DASTYARI: Can you unpack that for me?

Ms Halton : The department has the policy responsibility; the commission enacts. We advise the minister on policy.

Senator DASTYARI: But Mr Rogers is responsible for the implementation.

Ms Halton : That is correct.

CHAIR: But there is nothing to implement. That is the point.

Senator DASTYARI: It is a point I am very happy with. Mr Rogers, when was the last time the commission had to implement any Senate voting reforms? Are we talking the mid-1980s?

Mr Rogers : I am going to refer that to the chief legal officer, who has a great corporate memory.

Mr Pirani : The system with the option of above-the-line voting was introduced into the Commonwealth Electoral Act in 1983. They were the last major changes to Senate voting.

Senator DASTYARI: Are you able to take on notice—because I assume it is not information you would have readily available—for the 1983 changes, what the period was between the legislation passing and the actual election in which those changes were implemented?

Mr Pirani : Just to be clear, the two dates are the date when the legislation was changed and the date of the next Senate election after that. Those would be the two dates.

Senator DASTYARI: Yes.

Mr Rogers : We can provide those dates. It is going to be difficult to provide anything more than that given the effluxion of time.

Senator DASTYARI: I know how long ago it was, I just want to get clear in my mind the previous historical context—the amount of time that was given to the AEC for implementation of a change in the voting system. I note from what Secretary Halton said that the policy itself is a matter for the department. I am more interested in the time period that would be required for the implementation of a change in the legislation.

Senator Ronaldson: Even then it is apples and oranges, but you only have an apple at the moment; you do not even have an orange. So any comparison would be—

Senator SMITH: Not a lemon?

Senator DASTYARI: I do think the changes are lemons.

CHAIR: I do think Senator Dastyari has asked for a historical time frame for the 1983 change, from when it passed through the parliament to when it was actually implemented.

Senator DASTYARI: And they are taking it on notice, which I think is acceptable for them.

Senator SMITH: While you are preparing the answer to that question on notice, it gives Senator Dastyari plenty of time to organise Labor's position.

Senator DASTYARI: That is something I am good at doing.

Senator SMITH: Your record is not as good as you think, Senator Dastyari.

CHAIR: I think someone has been doing a Google search for you, Senator Dastyari.

Senator Ronaldson: I am sure Gary Gray will be very pleased to hear those comments.

CHAIR: Do you have any further questions, Senator Dastyari?

Senator Ronaldson: He says he is not bad at numbers either.

CHAIR: Should I go to another senator briefly?

Senator DASTYARI: If you want to go to another senator briefly, please do.

CHAIR: Okay, we will go to Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: This is about question on notice reference number F77. I have put some questions in on notice about multiple voting, and in response to those questions you sent your submission to JSCEM about the matter, but there were two questions that you said were not applicable in answering, but I actually could not find answers to them when I looked at the submission. They were: 'If you use software, does it incorporate algorithms?' and 'Are the set of instructions for any algorithms used determined by AEC staff?' I could not find any reference to that in the report. I am still interested in how that is all done.

Mr Rogers : As I understand your question, you could not find the reference that we provided in the answer to your question. You could not find that particular link?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes. Well, I found the link. I found the report, but in your submission—which is about multiple voting and is very informative—I could not find anything about algorithms. I am trying to understand how you work this out and how you are using the software. Maybe I missed it, but I just wanted to ask that again, please.

Mr Rogers : I will just get the Chief Legal Officer to briefly answer that.

Mr Pirani : There is no algorithm that we use to detect multiple voting.

Senator RHIANNON: Good.

Mr Pirani : It is a process, and that was what was explained. That is what the reference in the submission was about. The submission went through the process that we use to first look at nonvoting. We scan the certified lists of voters and the approved lists of voters to have a look at possible multiple marks and where there are not marks. We do a process where we first go and look at nonvoting; then we go from that to the possibility of multiple voting. Letters are sent to the people who are identified, and the process is exceedingly manual.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. That is just what I wanted to check. Back on Senate voting reform, have you at any stage talked to the New South Wales Electoral Commission or anyone in New South Wales with regard to their voting system, particularly with respect to how it was implemented?

Mr Rogers : No, I have not.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you explain how it works? Do you only start looking at how a job can be done once you are given that job? Until the law is changed, even though there is a lot of talk and even though JSCEM has come forward with recommendations, you do not look at how that could be done until the act is changed—is that how it works?

Mr Rogers : Clearly the JSCEM report is now a matter for government, and government have not yet responded to that report. Clearly there may be some work that emerges from that for us when government responds to that. We are always involved in election preparation. On a daily basis we do a range of activities to prepare us for the next election. But, as I was indicating before to Senator Dastyari, first of all it would be inappropriate and secondly it would be impossible for me to prepare for a range of possible scenarios. There is a cost factor and there is a complexity factor. Particularly with the Senate voting system, for me to become involved in that before legislation was passed would be inappropriate, costly and, particularly as we are involved in a range of other activities, very difficult.

Senator RHIANNON: Right. That probably kills off all of my questions, Chair, so can I have a think about it please?

Senator Ronaldson: Senator, you have made a very good point. The trouble is we have a JSCEM report that was unanimous. The Australian Labor Party members were, as you are acutely aware, fully supportive of reform, but you now have a situation where Senator Dastyari and one or two others have apparently got a different view. And then we have the shadow minister and Mr Griffin, who are very experienced in those matters. You are probably a bit like me, wondering—

Senator SMITH: I do not mean to interrupt, Senator Ronaldson, but Senator Dastyari said his view would prevail.

Senator Ronaldson: Yes, that is very true. As you would be acutely aware, it rather does beg the question whether Senator Dastyari and Senator Conroy and Senator Wong are playing games in the Senate for the benefit of the crossbenchers. But the relevant shadow minister involved in this reconfirmed his position very recently in the House. You may or may not be aware of this, but I thought I would just read it for you:

These reforms will significantly strengthen our democratic process by reducing the capacity for manipulation and increasing transparency in our electoral system, which, despite these concerns, still remains among the most stable and effective in the world.

You and I would wonder whether one thing is being said for the crossbenchers in the Senate and something else is being said elsewhere. We will just have to wait and see.

Senator McKENZIE: Minister, are you able to table that?

Senator Ronaldson: This is a press article from The Australian this morning, but I am happy to take it on—

CHAIR: Minister, in the past there have been requests for the tabling of articles from which quotes have been taken. Do you have a redacted copy, without your highlights or any notes that you may have on it?

Senator Ronaldson: I do need to take my notes off the top that say: 'Utter hypocrisy of the Australian Labor Party. Who are they trying to impress by their comments in the Senate?' I am very happy to get a clean copy for you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Minister; your assistance to Senator Rhiannon has prompted a further question from her.

Senator Rhiannon interjecting

CHAIR: I will go to a coalition senator if you have concluded your line of questioning, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: I will come back to it.

CHAIR: We will come back to you.

Senator SMITH: I was just reflecting on your comment there, Senator Ronaldson, about the Labor Party wanting to keep the manipulation of our electoral system. Commissioner, do you have jurisdiction to investigate irregularities in the 2013 ballot that installed Bill Shorten as federal opposition leader? I am just reading from TheSydney Morning Herald. It says 'Labor Senator Sam Dastyari called on to answer questions over Bill Shorten leadership ballot'. I am just wondering if the AEC has jurisdiction.

Mr Rogers : It is not an issue for us.

Senator Ronaldson: Chair, I have a clean copy of the article.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator DASTYARI: Ms Halton, I just want to go back to the point you made earlier about policy being the prerogative of the department and the Electoral Commission being responsible for the implementation. Are you able to, at an overview level, walk through what the process would be once formal changes in the form of legislation are proposed? Is how it works, Ms Halton, that you are involved with the government in preparing their formal response to the JSCEM report?

Dr Helgeby : Yes. We will be involved in the process of helping government to prepare its formal response.

Senator DASTYARI: In the process of doing that, does the department consult with the Electoral Commission, or are the two things kept separate?

Mr Rogers : The department will obviously consult with the Electoral Commission to understand what the significance of various recommendations are.

Senator DASTYARI: Will or has?

Dr Helgeby : Will—prospective.

Senator DASTYARI: I just want to make sure I am getting this right. From what you are saying, in the preparation of the government's response, which is an ongoing process, at this point in time, Mr Rogers has not been consulted, but he will be as part of that process?

Dr Helgeby : He will be part of that process. The process has not really commenced. The tabling of the final report was only mid-April.

Senator DASTYARI: As part of the preparation of the response, you anticipate there will be discussions and consultation with Mr Rogers.

Senator Ronaldson: As appropriate.

Senator DASTYARI: If the government then chooses to proceed with legislation, the department will be involved in the preparation of the legislation as well?

Dr Helgeby : If the government was to—

Senator DASTYARI: I do not want to go too far down there. How does it generally work? I want to go into the hypothetical. Let us take away the specifics, so that it is dealing with the hypothetical in this instance.

Dr Helgeby : The general relationship would be that the department would take primary carriage of major reform oriented legislation.

Senator DASTYARI: When major reform oriented legislation is being prepared, I assume the general practice would be that there is consultation with affected parties, including stakeholders. I am not sure if the AEC would be defined as a stakeholder here or an affected party.

Senator Ronaldson: I am not entirely sure that the officer at the table can answer that question, which has multiple layers in it, about who consultations might take place with. You would be acutely aware that, in a general sense, if a government of any persuasion is bringing legislation, it is subject to the scrutiny of parliamentary committees. There would be, depending on the situation, consultation with stakeholders. This is all so hypothetical that neither this officer nor I can, in any way, say what consultation there would be about something that has not occurred.

Senator DASTYARI: I may just take it to one specific then, because you are right; we are venturing into the field of hypotheticals, which is something we try and avoid. Mr Rogers, at this point in time, have you had any discussions with the department or the minister regarding proposed implementation of Senate changes?

Senator Ronaldson: For any discussions that would form part of policy, of course, neither the commissioner nor the secretary nor the other officers at the table could possibly answer, nor would I expect that this committee would expect them to answer.

Senator DASTYARI: Sorry, Senator Ronaldson, but that is not the tradition in this committee. I was asking whether or not—

CHAIR: You have asked your question; the minister can finish.

Senator Ronaldson: You are entitled to ask both the department and others whether advice has been provided. You most certainly cannot ask what that advice is. I do not think you are heading down there, but, if you are going to, then the response is going to be—

Senator DASTYARI: I thought my question was whether advice had been provided. Has advice been provided?

Mr Rogers : As Dr Helgeby said before, the process is only just starting.

Senator DASTYARI: I just want to be clear. You are saying that no advice has been provided?

Mr Rogers : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: 'Yes' as in no advice has been provided?

Mr Rogers : That is correct. No advice has been provided.

Senator GALLAGHER: I have some questions on funding, staffing and graduate programs. Are they to you, Mr Rogers?

Mr Rogers : Let us start with that, and I will see what I can do.

Senator GALLAGHER: What are the staffing numbers in the AEC? Actually, I think I have them—788?

Mr Rogers : That would be roughly correct. The chief finance officer has our budget staffing figures. I can take that on notice and provide you with a detailed breakdown, if that would be of assistance.

Senator GALLAGHER: Thank you. I think you have reduced your staffing numbers fairly considerably, around 10 per cent—is that right?— over the last three or four years.

Mr Rogers : That is probably correct. It is also quite common with the electoral cycle: we staff up for the election and we staff down, at least partially, after the election. There are always some changes, depending on where we are in the electoral cycle.

Senator GALLAGHER: Is that a result of various efficiency dividends that were applied in terms of the reduction in staff?

Mr Rogers : As I said, because we have such a specific task, we do staff up for every election. We also make adjustments to the staffing profile after each election. It is actually not possible for me to link the staff reduction we have been through to any particular efficiency dividend or any other particular activity.

Senator GALLAGHER: In ramping up towards an election, would that be contract staff or fixed-term employment?

Mr Rogers : It could be a range or a mix of staffing solutions that we deploy to make sure that we are fully staffed up. On the day of the election, itself, we have a very large part-time workforce.

Senator GALLAGHER: Absolutely. How many are involved in your graduate program?

Mr Rogers : This year: the answer to that is zero. Last year it was four. This year it was zero.

Senator GALLAGHER: Why is that? You just don't have the capacity to take on graduates?

Mr Rogers : There are a range of reasons for that, and part of it is that we are involved in a fairly major reform program at the moment. We totally focusing on that issue. There is always the issue of ensuring that we are deploying our resources in a way that gets the most result. It does not mean that we will not involve ourselves in the graduate program again. Our numbers in the graduate program have gone up or down over the years for a range of circumstances. We may well become involved in the graduate program again.

Senator GALLAGHER: So that is a year-by-year thing for you, is it?

Mr Rogers : That is correct.

Senator GALLAGHER: That is a shame. Have you ever gone down to zero before?

Mr Rogers : I would have to take that on notice. I do not have that information in front of me.

Senator GALLAGHER: In terms of your staffing numbers, the average staffing level at the end of the 2014-15 year was 801, as I understand it. However, the budget papers for the 2014-15 year spoke of an expected 858 positions for that year.

Mr Rogers : That is correct.

Senator GALLAGHER: So you lost 57 positions over that 12 months?

Mr Rogers : We have been carrying some vacancies as we are again making sure that we are deploying our resources in a way that produces a good outcome for the commission. And that is exactly what we are doing at the moment. I expect that, as we get closer to an election again, those figures will go up.

Senator GALLAGHER: So that was a mixture of staff vacancies. Were there any redundancies involved in that number?

Mr Rogers : I would have to take that on notice. There has been no redundancy program or any widespread redundancies at all.

Senator GALLAGHER: Would you mind taking on notice whether there were any redundancies and if there were any compulsory redundancies as part of that answer. Can you update me on where you are up to with your enterprise agreement? It expired, I think, on 30 June 2014.

Mr Rogers : That is exactly right. We are going through the process at the moment. We have had approval for a bargaining position, and we are going through the same process that many other departments are going through at the moment. Approval is currently being sought from the Australian Public Service Commissioner for the package that we are putting forward. We held our sixth negotiation meeting with bargaining representatives on 26 March. A negotiation meeting has just occurred. I am not sure when the next one is. And we will continue our ongoing consultation with staff as we move forward with the bargaining process.

Senator GALLAGHER: This has not gone to a vote yet?

Mr Rogers : Not yet, no.

Senator GALLAGHER: Has it gone to the Public Service Commissioner?

Mr Rogers : It has gone to the Public Service Commissioner.

Senator GALLAGHER: In terms of the remuneration package that has been offered?

Mr Rogers : Yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: But it has not been put before staff?

Mr Rogers : That is correct. I am becoming nervous even talking about this one, given that we have not yet proceeded to a vote. There are a range of other issues here. Those are sort of the broad dates, but I would hesitate to go further in that process until we have actually—

Senator GALLAGHER: Yes. I think you are no different to other agencies that are having to submit it to the Public Service Commissioner, and it is no secret it will not be more than 1.5 per cent per annum, will it?

Mr Rogers : I could not comment.

Senator GALLAGHER: If it is, it will not get through the Public Service Commissioner. Outside of remuneration, are there any significant issues that you are aware of from staff in terms of this bargaining round? Are there other issues such as conditions of employment? You cannot enhance them under the workplace bargaining policy. Are there any particular issues for staff that will be troublesome in these negotiations?

Mr Rogers : Nothing that has been brought to my attention. I am not being cute with that answer, but nothing has been brought to my attention.

Senator GALLAGHER: That is fair enough.

Mr Rogers : Outside the framework of the bargaining, the enterprise bargaining itself.

Senator GALLAGHER: With some of the questions I had about where you see it going from here and what is the resolution, it is a bit early for that if you have not actually —

Senator Ronaldson: It is all a bit hypothetical, I think, yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: Yes, if you have not put in an offer to staff yet, for them to refuse.

Senator RHIANNON: First off, I just want to go to some of the questions on notice. Thank you for giving responses. F43 was about discrepancies between donor returns and party returns. In your answer you said:

… the process flagged 172—

out of a bit over 10,000—

as potential discrepancies. Most of these were minor in nature.

What does 'minor in nature' mean, please?

Mr Rogers : I would probably rely on the words that are there. They are minor discrepancies. As it says, I think in the return, there were some 10,000 individual line items that we went through. It flagged some 172 issues as potential discrepancies. As I understand it, we are following up on each of those discrepancies, to seek some sort of resolution to make sure that they are no longer discrepancies. But there was nothing major that was uncovered during that process, to the best of my knowledge.

Senator RHIANNON: Is there an amount? When you say 'minor', is there an amount up to which you judge it as minor?

Mr Rogers : I think it is a judgement word. If it were major, it would be a large amount of money or there would be some other significant discrepancy, and that was not uncovered, as I understand it, in the process that we went through.

Mr Pirani : Certainly, in the ones that I have seen, the majority of the amounts are less than $20,000.

Mr Rogers : Every time that it is time for those returns, there are discrepancies on all sides of politics, and most of them end up being very minor, or in fact clerical errors.

Mr Pirani : The $20,000 was mainly identified from discrepancies between the returns of the political parties and donor returns. They were by far the larger number. So there has actually been a disclosure of an amount and that has been disclosed by the political party or the associated entity, but there have been a range of donors who have been identified from those returns who we have not yet received a return from. That is a matter that is ongoing.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Mr Rogers, with regard to the Senate vote, you explained your situation, but can you detail to the committee the complexity of the count at the moment, because that JSCEM report has been out for over a year?

I am trying to understand if there is a complexity in changing the system. Could you explain the complexity at the moment, and if we went to optional preferential voting how much would change? Anything you can elaborate on would be useful.

Mr Rogers : Again, this will sound very unhelpful and I absolutely am not meaning to be but it is impossible for me to comment on that question because it is an unknown at the other part of the process and I am speculating about something that is not yet legislation and has not yet formed part of the government's response. I know that the JSCEM report has been handed down but government has not responded to that yet. What I can say is that the Senate voting system is complex. It is logistically a difficult process that we do every election, but I cannot comment on potential changes to the system because I do not have the benefit of seeing what those changes would be.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon. I advised Senator Dastyari—and perhaps you were not aware—that it is unfair to ask the officers to comment on hypothetical circumstantial situations—

Senator RHIANNON: I am actually trying to explore. I totally understand your ruling. I actually thought theses were not hypothetical. I thought it would be something very real for the AEC, so that is what I am trying to understand. Can you even just talk about the software issues? You have software that assists you in the count now. How flexible is it? How adaptable would it be if there were a changed system?

Mr Rogers : Again, we currently use a piece of software, but I cannot tell you how difficult it would be to change that software until I knew exactly what the change was that we are talking about. I am not trying to be difficult but it would be impossible for me because there are so many variables involved in that process. I would put on the record that the software itself is an artefact, that is just the thing we use to assist with the process. It is there, but I do not know what the change would be so it is impossible for me to provide you with any further comment on how difficult it would be to change it.

Senator RHIANNON: I thought the AEC would work on contingency plans, because all of a sudden there could be a DD election and one of the things you specialise in is going into election mode or adapting to the nature of a change in government. Is it not a part of the job, particularly yourself in your leadership role, to be aware of where governments may move so you can be ready to give that advice and to move quickly as required?

Mr Rogers : That is absolutely correct. We do our planning on a regular basis to make sure that we are ready, should an issue occur, and ready to deliver an election. What I would say is that the commission is a servant of parliament. If parliament passes legislation we implement that legislation. Obviously, I love it when we get more notice than less, but it does not matter to me. We always implement the legislation that is passed. We pull out all stops and frankly, if we get close to the time, we invent new stops and pull those out as well.

CHAIR: I am loathe to interrupt but I am trying to assist Senator Rhiannon. Does your software allow you to model various scenarios?

Mr Rogers : To the best of my knowledge, no it does not. That is why it is difficult to give you any other answer than the one I have given about the complexity of that process.

Mr Pirani : The actual software reflects the requirements of the act, so part of the certification we obtain before we can use that software is that it is consistent with the requirements of the act. Until we know if there are going to be changes to the act, and what they may be, we cannot do anything with the software.

CHAIR: Regarding the article the minister was referring to, Antony Green is the go-to guy—they will ask what happens if this changes and he puts up various scenarios. But you do not have that capacity, and it is inappropriate for you to comment outside of any speculative requirement. You simply are not equipped to do that. You are equipped to do the job you are tasked with and nothing further?

Mr Rogers : To answer the first part of the question, because I do want it on record, we do take preparation very seriously. It is what we are doing on a regular basis, but there is a point at which it becomes impossible for us to prepare in the realm of speculation or hypotheticals. It would consume too many resources and in fact would not be possible unless we knew exactly what change was.

Senator RHIANNON: We are probably getting to the end of this but I want to clarify something. You said very clearly that you do take it very seriously, and that is what we always see with the AEC. Are you ruling out that there has been no consideration within any level of the AEC of Senate voting reform, and how you would respond?

Mr Rogers : That is an incredibly broad question. The AEC is a large organisation. We are doing our preparation in a range of different ways—

Senator RHIANNON: Are you aware of it?

Mr Rogers : If you are asking me whether someone, somewhere in a conference room in the AEC asked, 'Did you see that media report and what would we do?', I cannot answer that.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that there has been no consideration of Senate voting reform that you are aware of?

Mr Rogers : There has been no work to change our systems or to model different approaches based on the joint standing committee report and recommendations for change to the Senate voting system. It would be (a) inappropriate and (b) impossible for us to do so—because we do not know what the shape of that legislation would be.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Mr Rogers. Minister, considering the JSCEM report came down 13 months ago—it was April 2014—why has there not been a government response?

Senator Ronaldson: The final report was tabled, as you know, about a month ago. It will be responded to in the fullness of time. I cannot add anything further to that. The government will respond to the final report in due course.

Senator RHIANNON: I refer to question F45. It was about 'other receipts'—always an interesting one. On the definition of 'other receipts', how does the AEC ensure that financial contributions that are disclosed as 'other receipts' are not in fact gifts. Do you just accept that at face value?

Mr Rogers : 'Other receipts' are not necessarily financial.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, I know—but a lot are, aren't they?

Mr Pirani : Part of compliance program is to have a look at the spreadsheets and other financial documentation that is used to provide the information that is included in the returns. 'Other receipts' is not a requirement of the act; the act refers to gifts—it does not even refer to donations. So we have designed the forms so that people can clearly understand that there are donations and there are other receipts. We had had issues in the past where people had looked at these returns and had seen an amount paid by the AEC and thought, 'What is the AEC doing giving a donation to a political party?' The amount in those cases was in fact the public funding—included on the forms as 'other receipts'. The current form was designed to assist people to fill out the information and the categories—whether it is a donation or an 'other receipt'. It is filled out by the financial controller or party agent who puts in the return. When we go and do compliance reviews, we look at the basis on which they have categorised that information.

Senator RHIANNON: I think the answer to the question was on the issue of compliance. Could you just remind me of how your compliance system works and how often you check up on—

Mr Pirani : There is a compliance review program—you referred to it at the last estimates. The old program was that we tried to do everybody once every three years. There is a new program that is being worked on that I understand is going to be rolled out on 1 July. It has a new model of risk factors et cetera so that we can target specifically those matters that fall within the high-risk profile. These are things that all flowed from the McCleod review and the various recommendations that were made at that time. It was not considered enough for us to merely do people once every three years—people knew we were coming and things might have happened in the intervening period. We had these schedules out there and everybody knew when we were going to go in and do a compliance review. The position is now being altered, and the risk factors and the new modelling is going to be used as the basis for our targeted activities. Prior to recent times we would do every party once every three years.

Senator RHIANNON: The McCleod review—I have forgotten where I can see that. Is that on your website?

Mr Pirani : It is still on our website.

Senator LUDWIG: I just want to come back to the issue around the interim report that was tabled more than a year ago now. I accept that you cannot deal with hypotheticals. I accept that. That is not something we can ask. Maybe you could at least, for the benefit of the committee, take us through how a Senate ballot is counted now and what would happen if it did not have GVTs?

Senator Ronaldson: It is hypothetical.

Senator LUDWIG: The first part is not.

Senator Ronaldson: You want to compare and contrast, but you—

Senator RHIANNON: He is just asking about policies.

CHAIR: Let's deal with the first part of the question and that may prompt further questions.

Mr Pirani : There are numerous provisions in the act that deal with the process of counting Senate ballot papers. There are the provisions in sections 273 and 273A, which are the detailed way in which the initial scrutiny is done, in which the fresh scrutiny is done and how the process is dealt with. Then you have to combine that with the formality rules on ballot papers, so you have to look at those sorts of issues. Then you have the group voting tickets and how they impact et cetera. There are numerous provisions of the act that come into play that we have to have regard to when we are doing the Senate count. These are things that are included in the current computer software program.

Section 273A specifically allows for the use of a computer to do the Senate scrutiny, and that is what is done. The initial scrutiny on the night normally only deals with numbers above the line. Anything that is below the line normally will be bundled up and will go to the Australian electoral officer who will deal with it in the context of the Central Senate Scrutiny, where they have the large process where things are double-keyed from the ballot papers in the presence of scrutineers into the computer system and it gets run at the end of that process.

It is extremely complicated. The details of what is in section 273 and 273A are detailed. They have the notional vote, it has the adjusted notional vote and the weighting they have to give to the various transfer values. It is all set out there in the act.

Senator LUDWIG: And you follow that?

Mr Pirani : We are required to follow that, and we do follow that.

Senator LUDWIG: It is quite a complex process.

Mr Pirani : It is exceedingly complex.

Senator LUDWIG: How long does that take, then? From when you do the scrutiny on the night? I would not mind some timings. You do the scrutiny on the night; you generally count above the line on the night—

Mr Pirani : Then you have a fresh scrutiny that occurs in the divisional offices. Then there are ballot papers that are packaged up and sent to Central Senate Scrutiny. Virtually anything below the line goes to Central Senate Scrutiny, where it is looked at by the AEO. Then we have the double-keying process.

Senator LUDWIG: How long does that take?

Mr Pirani : It depends on the number of ballot papers, it depends on the number of challenges—

Mr Rogers : Again, that is a difficult question. Just to confirm, the Central Senate Scrutiny occurs individually in each state; it is not one place in Australia, it is a distributed process.

Mr Pirani : We return the writs within the 100-day period the act requires. If there are no challenges then it can be done reasonably quickly. I understand that the writs for all the states and territories, with the exception of Queensland, were returned by us on 8 October 2013—except for the WA one, where we had the recount.

Senator LUDWIG: The double keying, can you just explain what that is?

Mr Pirani : We have two data entry people and they key in the information below the line with a computer system in the presence of scrutineers. They take it from the ballot paper and it is keyed into the computer system and that is what gets run.

Mr Rogers : It is double entered for an accuracy check. That is why it is double keying.

Mr Pirani : Sorry.

Senator LUDWIG: So it is twice entered?

Mr Rogers : Yes.

Mr Pirani : Yes.

Senator LUDWIG: So you then run—

Mr Pirani : Two different operators and it is checked.

Senator LUDWIG: Two different operators key the information in and then you run it separately, or do you compare at that first part and then run the program?

Mr Pirani : My recollection is that we run it singularly, at the end.

Mr Rogers : That is correct.

Mr Pirani : We press the button once and the result comes out.

CHAIR: What happens, then, if there is an error on one of the two data entries?

Mr Pirani : That is resolved prior to the barcoding process. It is part of the—

CHAIR: Okay, so there is a comparison?

Mr Rogers : There is a comparison at that time. So they are correct and then it is done, yes.

Mr Pirani : Yes. Again, it is all done in the presence of scrutineers.

Mr Rogers : Again, that is done manually. Once a flag comes up that there is a problem, that is taken off.

Senator LUDWIG: Then the program is run?

Mr Pirani : Yes.

Senator LUDWIG: And then the result—

Mr Pirani : And then the poll is declared.

Senator LUDWIG: Right. The computer program is one that has been around for how long now? It must be a standard—

Mr Pirani : No, the computer program was originally developed as part of our Industrial Elections Program.

Mr Rogers : I might take that part of the question, Mr Pirani. I think you are heading down a particular path, Senator—I hope. That program has been externally certified—it is obviously an important program for us—to make sure that it is accurate and produces an accurate result. As Mr Pirani said earlier on, the program is based on the act so it produces a result accordingly.

Senator LUDWIG: Is that written in a particular language?

Ms Halton : Computer language? This might be above—

CHAIR: The year 11 coders are going to—

Senator LUDWIG: I could never claim to have been a year 11 coder; they had not even invented coding at that point in time!

Mr Rogers : I can honestly tell you that I do not know, but I shall find out.

Ms Halton : We are heading back to 'Tetris', I feel, here in this briefing.

Senator LUDWIG: No, I was just curious to know whether it was run on a ready-made frame or whether it was run on an ordinary standard computer or whether it was a separately developed software package by a company who cut code in whatever language it was—Fortran, COBOL—

CHAIR: You are just showing off.

Senator LUDWIG: The M-204 at Social Security is still done on COBOL.

CHAIR: That is why it is being updated.

Mr Rogers : I am not saying this to cover my obvious lack of facility in this particular area, but that software package is currently subject to legal action—so we are getting into an area where I am unable to comment further.

Ms Halton : For several reasons.

Senator LUDWIG: Then you cannot answer the questions that I was going to ask next?

Mr Rogers : Correct.

Senator LUDWIG: It was a good build up but I am told I am not going to get an answer.

Senator SMITH: Can you give us an update on the voting irregularities in the federal seat of Indi at the last federal election?

Mr Rogers : I am unable to as that is still subject to action by the Australian Federal Police—clearly it would be inappropriate for me—

Senator SMITH: But at Senate estimates tonight the Australian Federal Police said that they had sent four briefs to the DPP on 18 and 19 May, would they not have shared that information with you?

Mr Rogers : We certainly did not know that that was going to be made public—

Mr Pirani : They did share an email with me saying that there were four briefs that were going to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, but I had understood that they were the ones who were going to be making that announcement. We were not aware that they had made that announcement.

Senator SMITH: They have made that announcement under questioning from me this evening. If we could just return quickly to a hot topic at previous estimates and that is multiple-voting offences. Can you give me an update on prosecutions relating to multiple-voting offences?

Mr Rogers : I think that people will remember from previous hearings that we had referred some 7,743 cases of apparent multiple voting to the Australian Federal Police. The Australian Federal Police advised us that they investigated 65 of those allegations. They have a case priority process that they apply to that and they investigated 65 allegations but they decided to refer none of those to the DPP for consideration for prosecution. From the AEC's perspective, that is the end of that matter. We referred those matters to the AFP, they investigated 65 of them based on the evidence that we provided to them and they have decided not to proceed any further with that.

Mr Pirani : There were also 19 apparent cases of multiple marks from Griffith and the AFP have advised us that they are not proceeding with any of those. There were also 719 cases of apparent multiple marks from the 2014 WA Senate re-run and the AFP have advised us that they are not pursuing any of those matters either.

Senator SMITH: When the AFP advises you that they are not pursing any of these alleged multiple-voting instances, do they also advise you about what obstacles exist to a successful prosecution?

Mr Rogers : Yes, they do. I will summarise it, and if I am incorrect the chief legal officer will jump in. Essentially it is the lack of any corroborative evidence being available. The AFP have previously given evidence—I think, to the joint standing committee—saying that they would recommend the introduction of a range of measures that would go to further mitigate this. It is about being able to provide that corroborative evidence that a person voted more than once. The proof of that is a difficult thing in the current process.

Senator SMITH: The current system makes it difficult for corroborative evidence to be collected.

Mr Rogers : Again, I am referring back to the AFP's submission to the joint standing committee, which is on record as a range of measures that they put in place.

CHAIR: There being no further questions, I thank you all for your attendance. Minister, thank you. The committee now stands adjourned until nine o'clock tomorrow, when we will deal with cross-portfolio Indigenous matters.

Committee adjourned at 18:30