June 19, 2017
The Electoral Commission of Queensland (ECQ) is a secretive, authoritarian organisation with significant management, technological and communication problems and a culture of insecurity, avoidance and occasional nepotism …
These are the findings of an inquiry set up to review the conduct of the 2016 council elections, the State Government’s referendum on fixed four-year terms, and the Toowoomba South by-election.
The review found that the way the ECQ operates had serious flow-on effects for the 2016 council elections, which included widespread issues with inadequate staff numbers at pre-polling and election days, insufficient training provided to them, and a lack of clarity around their work hours.
The postal vote system was beset with problems, in part due to the content of ECQ communication materials such as a ‘voter information letter’ which led to confusion, unreturned ballot papers and invalid ballot papers.
In addition, inadequate staffing of the call centre, compared with the 2015 State Government election, combined with significantly increased call loads led to inferior customer service.
There was also no clear agreement on the budget between the ECQ and the Local Government Association of Queensland.
The combined election budget was underspent by just over $4 million which had a significant impact on resources, resulting in inadequate pre-poll locations and insufficient staff on election night.
The inquiry was ordered in response to the large number of complaints about the conduct of the polls, pre-poll voting, counting and communication in the ballots.
The inquiry’s scathing final report, which was handed to the State Government in March, was tabled in Parliament last week.
It made 74 recommendations to urgently overhaul the ECQ before the next State election, which is expected to be held within six to eight months.
It has also recommended that council elections be moved from March to October or November, and that the optional preferential voting system now used for council elections be retained until at least 2020.
The inquiry was chaired by former Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley, assisted by former South Burnett Mayor Wayne Kratzmann and former Logan City Mayor Pam Parker.
In all, it received and considered 171 written submissions.
It also conducted interviews with ECQ staff and senior management, as well as a cross-section of mayors, returning officers, Council CEOs, the Local Government Association of Queensland and the ECQ’s IT provider CITEC.
The inquiry found the ECQ suffered from a long list of problems “related to technology, communication, the postal voting system, the roles and management of Returning Officers, staffing numbers, training of staff and the organisation of the ballot process on the ground”.
As a result of these defects, many people did not get to vote and vote counting was slow.
“There was a cavalier culture in the Electoral Commission – there were broken systems and poor management – that’s a recipe for disaster,” Mr Soorley said.
He said the ECQ’s own internal review of the 2016 elections had “glossed over many issues and problems within the organisation”.
“The evidence collected points to a management style and culture that is secretive, authoritarian, silo-based and non-consultative,” Mr Soorley said.
“Senior management staff often did not attend, or would leave early from, important meetings regarding election issues and planning.”
Mr Soorley said the review panel was unable to meet with Electoral Commissioner Walter van der Merwe on his own, as he was always accompanied by the Assistant Commissioner Dermot Tiernan who took the lead on responding to most issues.
“Their interactions and behaviour has the semblance of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ management style,” Mr Soorley said.
Mr Soorley was at pains to point out that criticism of the ECQ was not to be taken as criticism of booth workers and others who were involved in the ballots.
“An inquiry of this nature is designed to find and highlight any problems, and offer recommendations for improvement, but it is important to acknowledge the great majority of the 8829 workers on election day were committed to ensuring that democracy was well served,” he said.
“Most ECQ officers did a great job, sometimes under difficult circumstances.
“As we proceed to highlight problems that can be rectified and processes that can be improved, we thank the Returning Officers and polling booth staff who did their very best on the day.”
Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath said most of the inquiry’s recommendations were operational matters for the independent ECQ, which had supported or agreed to consider the report’s findings.
“These issues go to the heart of a free and fair democracy, and as such are taken very seriously by the Government,” Ms D’Ath said.
“I look forward to further discussion of the issues identified in this report.
“The commissioner’s response indicates the ECQ either supports or agrees to consider most of the recommendations ahead of the 2020 local government elections.”