Allegations ‘a storm in a teacup’

Nick Economou
Nick Economou

ALLEGATIONS of electoral fraud in Indi are no more than “a storm in a teacup” and it was “a very long bow” to connect them to independent MP Cathy McGowan, a leading political academic believes.

But Monash University’s senior political lecturer Nick Economou adds, any accusation of voter fraud ought to be investigated.

Mr Economou said unless the Australian Electoral Commission could unravel hard evidence of large numbers of people involved in a concerted effort of systemic fraud, the accusations levelled at Cathy McGowan’s campaign would be unlikely to stick.

The commission is reportedly looking at about 20 cases where “Indi expats” — young supporters of Ms McGowan who grew up in Indi but now live in other areas — allegedly changed their electorates back to Indi so they could vote for the independent, as well as claims they encouraged others to do the same.

Their votes may have contributed to Ms McGowan’s 439-vote winning margin over Liberal Sophie Mirabella.

“If they can uncover more than 400 instances of illegitimate enrolment then we’ve got a significant crisis on our hands,” Mr Economou said.

“But I doubt it will get to that ... it will just be a matter of a few individuals and they will pursue that.

“It’s not uncommon for people to come to Melbourne for work or study but remain (on the roll) in their electorate because to them that’s where they live.”

The Liberal Party made a submission earlier this year to a joint standing committee on electoral matters that: “Some evidence has come to the Liberal Party’s attention which suggests the possibility of individuals in the lead-up to the 2013 election deliberately re-enrolling at incorrect addresses (including addresses at which they had previously resided) in an electorate where evidence from social media shows they did not reside.”

“In some cases these fraudulent re-enrolments may have been part of a co-ordinated effort,” the submission continues.

“The committee may wish to investigate further the implications of any evidence, including from social media, of co-ordinated efforts to encourage fraudulent enrolments.”

The committee has not yet concluded its report on last year’s election; the commission launched its investigation last week.

Mr Economou agreed with speculation the commission’s investigation was likely sparked by Liberal Party concerns.

“That was a huge scalp Cathy got, surely they (McGowan’s team) didn’t think they (the Liberals) would just sit back,” he said.

But, he added, it wasn’t about “sour grapes”.

“I suspect the party was trying to understand how it lost and in the process uncovered an aspect of the contest that legitimately looks suspicious and needs to be looked at,” he said.

“If it is true people enrolled in Indi just to influence the result, that’s illegal and that’s a process that has to be stopped.

“It’s right to look at this and if it is uncovered we ought to be grateful the AEC can stamp it out.”

However, Mr Economou doubted that sort of widespread systemic fraud was the case in Indi.

“It sounds like a small group of people associated with it got wildly enthusiastic and people have jumped on board... I can imagine the situation,” he said.

“It’s drawing a very long bow to think Cathy knew or was complicit in this.”

Asked if this pointed to a more widespread problem and if enrolment rules needed tightening, Mr Economou warned against “hysterical over-reaction”.

“You risk disenfranchising a group who may have moved out but still identify with their home electorate,” he said.

He said unless a large number were found, Ms McGowan would retain her hold of the seat but it was possible the incident would affect her in the 2016 election.