Election investigation raises more questions than it answers

By Shane Scanlan

The Local Government Inspectorate has warned five local property managers for voting in last year’s City of Melbourne election on behalf of landlords.

And, while the authorities are hailing the result as evidence of an untainted outcome, the inspectorate has cast a cloud over the integrity of its work by refusing to divulge its methodology or even talk about the investigation.

The inspectorate launched an investigation last year following CBD News’s coverage of the City of Melbourne’s lord mayoral election.

The inspectorate found that 41 ballots had been signed and returned on behalf of landlords, but said the agents involved did not intend to break the law.

“This issue has arisen from a misunderstanding of the electoral laws,” said chief municipal inspector David Wolf.

Mr Wolf said: “Our investigation did not uncover any systemic or intentional ballot fraud.”

But the inspectorate refuses to say how, or even if it looked for systemic fraud.

The 41 cases were reported to it by the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC).  These examples were obvious to the commission because they were signed by property managers on behalf of voters.

A VEC spokesperson told CBD News: “It was during this process that the VEC identified ballot material as being defective on the basis that the declaration signatures had been authorised by property managers.”

“Where the name of the voter printed on the declaration envelope is clearly different to the name represented the declaration envelope – it is put aside and not included in the count.”

CBD News asked the inspectorate whether it had actually looked beyond what had been provided to it by the VEC.  It refused to answer.

An inspectorate spokespersons said: “There’s nothing further that we can add.”

But more than 8000 ballots were posted to third parties to on-post to voters and it is widely accepted that the time allocated for these voter to finally post their completed ballots to the VEC is potentially inadequate.

CBD News understands that about a quarter of these ballots were returned and included in the final count.

So we pointed out to the inspectorate that it would have been relatively simple to check whether an unusually high proportion of ballots were returned by a particular third-party agency – thereby triggering a more vigourous investigation.

An inspectorate spokesperson said: “There’s nothing further we wish to comment on.”

By refusing the discuss the subject, the inspectorate has engineered a situation where the public doesn’t know whether third parties intent on illegally manipulating the outcome were active or successful.

But this hasn’t stopped the City of Melbourne hailing the outcome as a victory for the electoral system.

CEO Justin Hanney said: “We are pleased that the investigation has shown there was no systemic or intentional ballot fraud and we will work with the Local Government Inspectorate to raise property managers’ and agents’ understanding of electoral laws.”
“Importantly, the Victorian Electoral Commission detected and excluded the relevant ballot papers thereby ensuring that the election outcome was not affected. Publication of the investigation outcome should reinforce voters’ confidence in our electoral system and regulatory processes.” 

But not everyone is buying the story.

Cr Rohan Leppert told CBD News: “I believe that the extent of the problem is far greater than the 41 ballots discovered to have been incorrectly handled.”

“The weaknesses in the City of Melbourne’s unique electoral system have been known for a very long time, but the state government has shown no appetite to address them.”

“Thousands of ballot papers are sent to property managers, rather than directly to voters. Just one property manager in Southbank receives nearly 2000 ballot papers, all delivered to the one address.”

“Obviously this creates the potential for fraud, and while I am not suggesting that there has been any malicious behaviour in this case, it’s a risk that should be removed for future elections.”

“The electoral system as a whole should of course be reviewed – something I have been calling for consistently for more than 10 years. I don’t think government can justify so many anomalies and special provisions just for the City of Melbourne.”

The VEC told CBD News: “The VEC has a comprehensive integrity program for each election which includes supervision of ballot pack deliveries, signature and date of birth checking of returned declaration envelopes against enrolment data, and investigation of instances where voters claim not to have received their ballot material.”

But in City of Melbourne elections, the VEC does not have signatures or dates of birth for most eligible voters.

The inspectorate said that, while a prima facie breach of the electoral provisions had been substantiated by its investigation, it opted not to pursue prosecution against the property managers. 

Formal warnings have been issued to five people and the inspectorate says it has also provided guidance to ensure property managers understand and follow relevant electoral rules. 

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