Amid Tony Abbott’s sweep to power, the swath cut through Labor’s parliamentary ranks and the drop in support for the Greens, about the only thing to warm the heart of the Left at last year’s election was the defeat of Sophie Mirabella in her northern Victorian seat of Indi.

That Mirabella’s nemesis proved to be a conservative independent, Cathy McGowan, seemed of little account, given the hostility the pugnacious Liberal MP aroused in the hearts of her foes.

So many would have been highly perturbed to learn of “strong indications of electoral fraud” in relation to McGowan’s campaign, as related in a report by Hedley Thomas in The Weekend Australian on Saturday.

The allegation is that over-zealous Melbourne-based supporters of McGowan’s successful “Voice for Indi” campaign went beyond the call of duty by falsely enrolling in Indi in order to vote for her, a matter that is now the subject of a “high-priority investigation” by the Australian Electoral Commission.

Substantive evidence appears to exist against a fairly limited number of individuals — “more than 20”, according to the report, compared with McGowan’s winning margin of 439 votes — but it is suggested that this might only be the tip of the iceberg, given the unusually high number of new enrolments in the electorate (although there may very well be innocent explanations for that).

The question of a voter’s residence inevitably involves grey areas, there being no compulsion for an individual to have one residential address with formal precedence over any other location where one might happen to spend a lot of their time.

This may be of particular relevance to the “Indi expats in Melbourne”, who McGowan identified as the masterminds of her campaign. As McGowan put it to The Australian: “a young kid has to make a decision — ‘Is my principal place of residence at Mum and Dad’s, where I go for holidays, or is it in Melbourne, where I work and study?’”

Such questions were recently under the legal microscope when the New South Wales Administrative Decisions Tribunal ordered the dismissal from Orange City Council of Kevin Duffy, who enrolled in the municipality at his son’s address shortly before nominating for election. The tribunal grappled with such issues as where Duffy slept and “engaged in domestic activities”, and the extent of the personal possessions he kept at his son’s place.

“Given the requirement that challenges to election results be initiated within 40 days of the declaration, the horse has and well truly bolted on any challenge to McGowan’s election.”

While it was accepted that Duffy “mostly slept at his son’s home during this period”, the ruling went against him in large part due to the extent of his ongoing connection with his former residence. The case is under appeal, but its findings don’t bode well for the legitimacy of enrolment transfers to Indi from anyone who was continuously paying bills and rent at addresses in Melbourne.

Given the requirement that challenges to election results be initiated within 40 days of the declaration, the horse has and well truly bolted on any challenge to McGowan’s election. However, the potential exists for charges of false or misleading statements to be laid against those who knowingly engaged in false enrolment, albeit that the threshold of proof might be difficult to clear.

The inquiry marks an interesting development at a time when AEC bungles and perverse Senate results have made electoral reform a hot topic. For the Liberal Party, it offers a further opportunity to crank up the rhetoric on “the integrity of the electoral roll”, which it invokes to support voter identification and oppose the automatic enrolment initiative brought in by the previous government — notwithstanding their, at best, tangential relevance to the issue at hand.

As with the deliberate multiple voting that voter identification presumes to stop, there has hitherto been no indication that opportunistic enrolment with the objective of influencing electoral outcomes has been widespread. Queensland’s Shepherdson inquiry of 2001 uncovered multiple examples of ALP members falsely changing their enrolments, but the motivation was to game party preselections and plebiscites involving small numbers of voters.

The inquiry did hear claims that higher stakes had been pursued with respect to the Mundingburra state byelection in Queensland, February 1996 — a perfect storm so far as incentives for electoral fraud were concerned, given that the fate of Wayne Goss’ Labor government rested on the outcome in the highly marginal seat (and which it indeed went on to lose). However, a detailed investigation of changes to the electoral roll before and after the event turned up only three enrolment changes that suggested a dubiously grounded desire to vote in the byelection.

Much has changed since then of course, not the least of which has been the rise of social media — which, the Liberal Party insinuates, may have been used by McGowan campaigners to organise and promote enrolment transfers by those itching to cast a vote against Mirabella.

That might lend credibility to arguments that the enrolment regime needs further tightening up, so long as any proposed changes are genuinely targeted to that end, and do not simply seek to create obstacles that will bear disproportionately on young voters who tend not to favour the Coalition.

Peter Fray

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