Parkville Station

Interview: Returning Officers

The 2016 UMSU elections are just around the corner, so we spoke to two of the people in charge of keeping the show running smoothly: Returning Officer Charles Richardson and Deputy Returning Officer Stephen Luntz.

Parkville Station (PS): You’re the “Returning Officers” for this year’s University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) election. What does that mean?

Charles Richardson (CR): A returning officer is simply the person in charge of an election. We’re responsible for running the whole election, which means taking nominations, producing ballot papers, engaging staff to run polling places, authorising material, supervising campaigning conduct, the whole works, and then counting it all and declaring results.

PS: Where does the term come from?

Stephen Luntz (SL): It’s “return” of the writs, isn’t it? In England there would be a writ for the election and there was somebody whose job it was to run the election and return the writ.

CR: You’ve probably heard the “election returns” as a term for the results as they come in.

PS: Can you tell us a bit about yourselves? Is this your day job?

CR: We have a variety of backgrounds – I’m a political philosopher by training, I write, I have a semi-regular gig for Crikey, and have done various things as an election expert over the years.

SL: I was heavily involved in student politics, to the extent that it derailed my plans to go on and be a physicist. I write about science as one half of my income stream, and administer elections as the other half, of which Melbourne is one.

CR: The members of the firm all come from different backgrounds but share a common interest and expertise in elections.

PS: In what ways are elections for student organisations different from elections for other organisations?

SL: It depends which other elections — there’s a huge range. The difference from federal and state elections in particular is primarily that there are much more extensive rules policing campaigning in student elections. For federal and state elections, the belief is that if someone says something that is wrong or is offensive in various ways, the hope is the media will police this and report the errors and so on.

One can question how well this happens, but that’s the theory. Returning officers aren’t generally responsible for worrying about that, except in extreme cases.

CR: Whereas, at universities despite the efforts of people like you, there is not the same sort of media scrutiny, and student organisations have taken the view that there needs to be much more control over what is said in campaigning and what material is produced; and that’s part of our

I think there’s an argument to say that’s been taken too far, that the rules for student organisations are too prescriptive (and obviously they vary a bit from campus to campus), particularly in light of the new media landscape. [UMSU’s] regulations were written at a time when nobody knew about the Internet, certainly nobody knew about Facebook, and one can question the relevance.

But, as we say several times a day: “we don’t write the rules, our job is to apply them”.

PS: Would you like them to be less stringent?

CR: That is something we’ll be looking at when making recommendations this year.

SL: The other side to it, why student organisations are different, is that in federal and state elections, people are limited by defamation laws. To some extent, if a candidate stood up and said “my opponent kills puppies”, their opponent might well sue. The assumption is student candidates don’t have the money to do that.

So part of our job is to be a cheaper version of the courts, and find out whether this person has actually killed any puppies, and if they haven’t, say “well, you can’t say that”; and I think that part of it is absolutely right. With the media stuff, it is much more tricky and there’s lots of grey areas about what’s best. But I think the aspect that makes for a cheap opportunity compared to going to the courts — defamation proceedings are lose-lose for everybody — and having a much cheaper option to avoid that is a good thing.

PS: Has any candidate ever appealed above the returning officers?

SL: There is the Electoral Tribunal, which is the next level above us, and certainly there are appeals to that. That’s less common here than on other campuses, but that’s a reasonably standard part of the process. Occasionally things have gone even beyond the Electoral Tribunal to the courts; particularly on campuses when there is no electoral tribunal (many campuses are foolish in not having a tribunal) that has happened.

It’s a very bad outcome in general, because firstly it’s expensive, and you often have situations where only one side can really afford to go to the courts; and secondly, the courts don’t necessarily understand the circumstances, and some of the court rulings have been correct on a really ‘black letter’ interpretation, but in context, showed a lack of understanding.

CR: And that led to bankruptcy. Elections matter, and elections are important.

PS: Every year you write a number of recommendations in your report. Which unimplemented recommendation is most frustrating for you?

CR: They did finally implement it last year, but there was a section in the rules that said for a byelection, polls had to open at 9 o’clock in the morning, even though for a regular election it’s 10 o’clock. You’re never going to have students voting at 9 in the morning — it’s just ludicrous — and we kept pointing this out to them for years before they changed it.

SL: Campuses that don’t have an electoral tribunal, we have recommended over and over to have a tribunal, so that if people are dissatisfied
with our rulings, there’s a step before going to the courts. We have got a number of other places to produce one, but not all of them.

The other thing I would add to that is: where they have a Tribunal, having the Tribunal appoint the Returning Officer (rather than the Students’
Council or the equivalent). It’s very problematic when you’re making a ruling and you’re know that one team is almost certainly going to win, and you know that if you make this ruling, you will annoy this team that’s almost certainly going to win and they won’t hire you next year.

I’ve been in that situation: these guys look like they’re going to win, but they’ve broken the rules, they need to be punished, so I’m going to punish them, but probably that means I’m going to lose this job. I’ve done that in two occasions: one where I lost the job the next year; the other
year, we actually got rehired the next year because they couldn’t find anyone else to do it.

CR: It’s the paradox of electoral reform: changes to the rules are not in the interest of people who’ve won, because they did fine out of the old rules.

I think the one thing that offsets that is: we might sometimes lose a job for doing the right thing, but in the long run, our professional reputation depends on being seen to be doing the right thing.

PS: ANUSA are running their student elections online this year. How would you advise a student organisation wanting to do that?

CR & SL: Don’t.

SL: To qualify that, there are circumstances where I think it’s appropriate. For example, we’re doing Deakin [University Student Association]. Deakin has a component of their elections run online, because some of their students are off-campus students — I think they call them ‘Cloud Students’ — and they hardly ever come to campus. They’re running that section online for them, but for everyone else, it’s attendance.

CR: If you were running your local kindergarten group, there’s no particular harm in running an online election, because you don’t have that combination of highly motivated, tech-savvy unscrupulous people to do things with it.

I understand the frustration of people who say “I do my banking online, why can’t I vote online?” But there are good answers to that. You don’t care about the fact that your bank knows who you’re giving money to. You do care a lot if the Student Union, or the Government, knows who you’re voting for. Also, your money is worth as much to you as it is to anyone else: no-one can come up and bribe you to give away your money. But your vote’s not like that. For lots of people, their vote is actually much more valuable to someone else than it is to them, and those things make online voting a very big can of worms.

SL: What happened with the Census is just one example of the sort of things that can go wrong. Even if something doesn’t go wrong, if there’s doubt about, you’ve got a problem. You can look about how many countries have been destroyed by an election where there were allegations that it was rigged. No-one necessarily knew, but the losers didn’t accept it, and civil war broke out.

It’s the same thing on a small scale: the whole legitimacy depends on it being run in a transparent manner.

PS: What’s the most hilarious complaint you’ve ever received?

CR: Whether bicycle racks counted as tutorial rooms. It’s in the Regulations that say you can’t just dump leaflets in lecture theatres or tute rooms. One campaigner had gone round and put leaflets in bicycle racks, and we had a complaint that a bicycle rack should be treated as analogous to a tute room. Sorry, that’s not going to fly.

PS: Do you think voting is important?

CR: Yes. Voting is very important because the student union does do important things. In some ways, I think it’s more important than it was, because universities have become more like big corporations, but without any of the discipline the market imposes. Therefore much more inclined to be a law unto themselves, and students very often get the rough end as a result.

They need a student union to stand up for their interests, and they need that student union to be representative — to have the credibility that comes from representing a large number of students.

SL: The fact students are busier now means that a professional student union is more important when they get into trouble.

CR: It’s always easy to point to problems in democracy, ways that democracy doesn’t do what you would like it to, but we have an awful lot of historical experience to tell us that it’s much better than the alternative.

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