Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (10.00 p.m.)-There are a number of elements that underpin the integrity of the electoral system in Australia: the independence and incorruptibility of the Australian Electoral Commission and the electoral offices of the state and territory jurisdictions; the electoral laws that govern the activities of parties and candidates; and the freedoms we enjoy-the freedom of association, the freedom of speech and the ability of political parties and candidates to communicate freely with voters. A key element of that ability to communicate with voters is the professionalism, competence and impartiality of Australia Post. That is why it is with great regret that I bring to the attention of the Senate some serious matters of misconduct by this government entity.
In election campaigns, there are always allegations of dirty tricks and underhand tactics. Sometimes these are legal, even though they might represent poor form or a lack of fair play, and then there are other activities in the context of parliamentary elections that are just plain illegal. I would like to cite a number of disturbing instances from the recent Victorian state election campaign, some of which quite possibly breach Commonwealth law. I am not talking about any activities undertaken by the Australian Labor Party or the Greens. Regrettably, I am talking about Australia Post.
On the morning of Saturday, 18 November, a week before the Victorian state election, an unusual discovery was made. The Liberal candidate for the seat of Evelyn, Christine Fyffe, was campaigning at Chirnside Park Shopping Centre when she was alerted by a shopping centre employee to something very odd: thousands of Liberal Party brochures that were to be delivered by Australia Post were found in a rubbish compactor at the shopping centre. The compacting machine was so full that it could not be shut and the brochures were spilling out onto the ground. These brochures were to have been delivered to thousands of households in the marginal electorate of Evelyn. Evelyn was not just any marginal seat; it was Labor’s most marginal seat in Victoria, held by a margin of just 0.4 per cent. Liberal Party officials were subsequently able to view video footage from the security system at the centre that showed an Australia Post employee emptying an Australia Post tub containing the Liberal Party brochures into a rubbish compactor. The Liberal Party has requested that Australia Post undertake an internal investigation into the matter. Lest this be seen as the cry of a defeated candidate, I should point out to the Senate that Christine Fyffe actually won the seat, with a swing of three per cent. She previously held the seat two elections ago and she will again make an outstanding member for the state seat of Evelyn.
Sadly, there were a number of other serious failings in the performance of Australia Post during the Victorian state election. These included failing to deliver Liberal Party election material within a number of marginal seats and delivering material to the wrong seats. For example, in the electorate of Cranbourne, contested by Luke Martin, Australia Post underquoted by 2,500 the number of mail items required to reach each household in the electorate. Australia Post knew they had made a mistake in the first week of the campaign but, rather than advising the Liberal Party when this was discovered, they chose to hide the fact. They chose to randomly miss 2,500 households each week. They chose to fail to deliver to 10 per cent of the electorate each week and they chose to conceal this fact. When challenged by the Liberal Party in the third week of the campaign, Australia Post admitted what they were doing. The Liberal candidate, Luke Martin, failed to win the seat. While Australia Post’s failure to honour a contractual obligation and to then conceal that fact was not the cause of the loss, it was undoubtedly a contributing factor.
In addition, certain parts of Helen Shardey’s electorate of Caulfield-particularly the areas of Caulfield South and Elsternwick South-received no campaign material, despite Australia Post being contracted to deliver it. There were similar incidents in the electorate of Oakleigh, contested by Colin Dixon; in Frankston, contested by Rochelle McArthur; and in the suburbs of Wonga Park and Lilydale in Christine Fyffe’s electorate of Evelyn. In these cases, Australia Post told the Liberal Party that the election material had been delivered. At the same time, members of the community were telling us that it had not been.
The Liberal Party has raised these concerns with senior management of Australia Post and has requested they undertake a full internal investigation and explain their internal processes. The Liberal Party is, to date, entirely unsatisfied with the response from Australia Post. We do not know if the problems identified are due to poor performance by Australia Post staff or whether some Australia Post staff have the more sinister motive of political interference or political sabotage. Either way, it is totally unacceptable. Strangely, Australia Post seem relatively untroubled by these contractual failures and, in relation to the Chirnside brochure dump, they seem untroubled by the activity of one of their employees. They seem untroubled by an act which subverts the democratic process.
A letter to the Liberal Party’s state director, Julian Sheezel, from Mr Peter Lavis, Commercial Manager Victoria and Tasmania, Australia Post, dated 22 November 2006, says:
The service does not offer any delivery guarantee or confirmation.
I have to ask myself this question: what are you paying for? If you pay Australia Post to deliver and they offer no delivery guarantee or confirmation, I do not know what you are paying for. In other words: ‘We’ll try, but that’s all we’ll do; near enough is good enough.’ I have to say that carrier pigeons offer greater service standards and care more about customer satisfaction than Australia Post. We are not talking about any old delivery outfit here; we are talking about the Australian Postal Corporation, which is owned by the taxpayers, which enjoys a monopoly over many services and which is an organisation trusted in state and federal elections to deliver material and to treat all equally.
The State Director of the Liberal Party in Victoria has advised the Australian Federal Police of some of these matters, in particular the dumping incident in Chirnside Park. He will be making a formal referral to the Australian Federal Police. These matters go to the heart of the integrity and fairness of elections in Australia. Australia Post should treat these matters far more seriously than they are doing. I have confidence that the Australian Federal Police will do so and I look forward to questioning Australia Post in the next round of Senate estimates hearings.