|Andy Becker, Australian Electoral Commissioner. Photo by Paul Harris.|
AEC reply to Sue McDonald
G’Day. Webdiary’s intrepid Honest Politics Trust investigator Sue McDonald has received a reply to her please explain letter to the Australian Electoral Commission. The head of ‘disclosure’, Ms Kathy Mitchell, is somewhat more expansive than she was in her letter to Webdiarist Michael Hessenthaler published in Abbott slush: your ideas. Ms Mitchell’s letter to Sue is attached.
Meanwhile, law lecturer Ken Parish has endorsed the legal opinion of Webdiary’s electoral law expert Joo-Cheong Tham in Abbott’s Honest Politics Trust a Liberal Party front: Donor disclosure required that the AEC should order Abbott to disclose his donors. Surely the AEC will finally do so? After all, Abbott has said over and over that he’s “happy” to disclose if the AEC tells him too. Ken’s piece and reader comments, including a couple from me, are at Ken’s weblog troppoarmadillo.
Whether it’s structural corruption or systemic incompetence, the buck stops at the top and the top man at the AEC is the Australian Electoral Commissioner, Andy Becker.
It’s worth remembering that the AEC is not just another public service department. It is an independent statutory authority with strong investigative powers to help it enforce the law on disclosure of political donations. It’s like the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission or the Human Rights Commission – it has statutory functions to perform, laws to enforce, and an obligation to act without fear or favour. It is not subject to political direction on the performance of its enforcement obligations. Its duties are not to our political masters, but to the voters – us.
I asked Fairfax journalism trainee Bonnie Malkin for a profile of Mr Becker. Be warned – it’s not pretty.
Andy Becker, embattled commissioner of the AEC, said years ago that he “fell into” the role of managing elections. For someone so lacking in motivation, he has done quite well for himself.
Since starting out as a returning officer in South Australia in 1967 Becker rose though the ranks to take the reigns of Australia’s most important democratic watchdog and become one of the country’s most controversial bureaucrats.
Becker first stumbled into the media spotlight in 1997 when he was backed for the job of AEC deputy commissioner by Liberal Senator and SA state director Nick Minchin, now Finance Minister and a close political ally of John Howard. It was a case of Howard finding jobs for the boys, wrote former NSW Auditor-General Tony Harris:
In 1997, Senator Nick Minchin supported the head of the State Electoral Office in South Australia, Andy Becker, for appointment as Deputy Commissioner of the AEC. Minchin got on well with Becker, whom he had known since his term as head of the Liberal Party directorate in the 1980s. The selection committee for the job, however, advised that Becker was unsuitable.
The selection committee was overruled and Becker got the job. In February 2000, with the retirement of Bill Gray, Becker was promoted to Commissioner of the AEC. His swift rise through the ranks did not go unnoticed in Parliament. In June 2000 Alan Ramsey wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:
And on March 16, Bob McMullan, a member of Kim Beazley’s Opposition frontbench, asked the Prime Minister in Parliament: “Can the Prime Minister explain why Cabinet appointed a new head of the Australian Electoral Commission [AEC] when the evaluation panel assessed him as ‘not recommended for the position’? Can the Prime Minister confirm this applicant was evaluated at an earlier time as ‘not recommended for the position of deputy commissioner of the AEC’, yet despite this he still got the job?
In appointing this individual to the vital position of Australian Electoral Commissioner, what extra insights did Cabinet have available to it that were not available to the evaluation panel that is, the secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration, Dr Peter Boxall, the Public Service Commissioner, Ms Helen Williams, and Mr Ian Dixon, the former electoral commissioner for NSW?
Howard’s reply: “I can inform the manager of Opposition business that appropriate procedures are always followed with Cabinet appointments under my Government.”
Just two months after gaining the top job, on May 24, Becker hit some seriously stormy weather. It emerged at Senate estimates committee hearings, after persistent questioning by Labor Senator Robert Ray, that Becker had agreed to hand over to the government an electronic electoral role to be used to send more than eight million personalised letters to voters about the new GST system. Alan Ramsey wrote in June 2000:
What set the hearing alight was when, 15 minutes into the questions, Ray asked if any government agency had asked the electoral office for an electronic version of the electoral roll and its 12 million names, along with birth dates and gender of every voter in the country, and Becker replied: “In the last few weeks? The Australian Taxation Office is one.” One of his officers added that the Tax Office had made its first request in March, and then, about April 20, asked for an “updated” version.
Did the Electoral Commission know what the Tax Office wanted to do with the roll? Yes, said one of Becker’s officers. And that was? “For a one-off mailing of ATO material to electors”, the officer read from a “safeguard agreement” between the Electoral Commission and the Tax Office.
Faulkner, startled: “A mailing of ATO material to electors?”
From there the heat accelerated.
At the time Becker told the Senate he had no idea what kind of material was to be included in the mail out. One week later he sought to correct the record of Hansard saying he had become aware in mid-April that the mail out would include a letter from the Prime Minister and a booklet. Wrote Tony Harris:
On May 31, Becker wrote to the Senate correcting some of his evidence. “Since last week’s hearing,” he wrote, “I have become aware that in Mr Carmody’s letter of 19 April he indicated that the mailout would include an information booklet ‘along with a letter from the Prime Minister’. Although the letter was addressed to me, I was not in Canberra when the letter was received … and I have no recollection of having seen Mr Carmody’s letter before last week’s hearing.”
Becker’s memory later improved, and by June evidence that he twice misled parliament on the mail out issue had come to light. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Mike Seccombe wrote:
It emerged yesterday that Mr Becker had not only seen the letter, but replied to it, mentioning Mr Howard’s covering letter.
The following month the affair turned nasty. The Privacy Commissioner, Malcolm Crompton, found that Becker breached privacy laws handing over voter’s details to the government, and his independence was in question. In Electoral roll used to help peddle new tax , the Sydney Morning Herald’s Toni O’Loughlin reported some key concerns:
Democrat Senator Andrew Murray was also concerned about the use of the electoral roll by the Tax Office to advertise the GST. “I think you would accede … that some people may perceive that the use of a mailout for a particularly contentious area of Government policy could be partisan or political,” Senator Murray said.
Becker was not prosecuted for breaking privacy laws however, as the letter had not been sent and the electronic copy of the electoral roll had been handed back to the Commission. He was found to have acted unwisely and improperly by the Senate committee hearing, quite an achievement for the reluctant leader.
This is Mr Becker’s press statement of September 1 on the Honest Politics Trust. Since this statement he has not communicated further with Australian voters – the people he calls his ‘customers’ and AEC returning officers call their ‘clients’.
Electoral Disclosure Obligations
Electoral Commissioner Andy Becker today clarified a number of matters related to the role of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) and recent media coverage of the Australians for Honest Politics Trust.
When this matter was first raised five years ago, the AEC determined at that time that the group Australians for Honest Politics was not an associated entity as specified by the Commonwealth Electoral Act, Mr Becker said.
The Electoral Act stipulates that an associated entity is an organisation set up to benefit a registered political party.
Mr Becker said that when any new information came to light, it was given careful consideration, but a knee-jerk reaction to a complex issue was inappropriate.
The Commissioner emphasised the AEC’s role as an independent statutory authority and said it will consider all the issues in a measured and deliberate way.
We are charged with ensuring that the disclosure requirements of the Electoral Act are met, even when this involves seemingly knowledgeable and articulate groups.
The AEC is a politically neutral organisation charged with monitoring the disclosure obligations of all players in the political process and will do so without fear or favour, Mr Becker said.
Further Information: Brien Hallett, Assistant Commissioner Information Education & Research, Telephone: 02 6271 4477. Mobile: 0413 274 798
For more information on Mr Becker’s idea of doing his job, see: