The New South Wales electoral commissioner has warned funding constraints may delay a host of byelections to replace outgoing MPs, including former premier Gladys Berejiklian, until mid-February, setting up a potential clash with the federal election campaign.
In an extraordinary budget estimates hearing on Thursday, John Schmidt, head of the NSW electoral commission, launched a blistering attack on the government’s “piecemeal funding” of the authority, claiming it can’t meet cybersecurity standards for elections in the state.
Schmidt also said the commission would not be able to hold the five byelections triggered by the resignation of Berejiklian until next year, which means they may clash with a federal vote which is due by May.
“My advice at the moment is it wouldn’t be possible or sensible to try and aim earlier than the middle of February,” Schmidt told the hearing.
“My systems can’t handle a full local government election and state byelections at the same time, that’s just a statement of fact. That shouldn’t be the case [but] it’s because they are legacy systems … some of the systems are more than 10 years old.”
In the days following the former premier’s decision to step down due to an Icac investigation, former deputy premier John Barilaro and three other MPs also announced plans to leave state parliament.
While the timing of the state election is up to NSW premier Dominic Perrottet, Schmidt’s warning about the commission’s capacity to host the byelections before the new year could complicate plans for a federal election.
“There are considerations of course, there’s the federal election coming up,” Schmidt said.
The electoral commissioner’s comments on Thursday came during the first appearance before budget estimates by Perrottet as premier, and as the two sat side-by-side, the commissioner did not hold back in his criticisms of the government’s funding of his agency.
In scathing comments he cast doubt on the authority’s capacity to deal with the threat of cyber-attacks and expressed concern the government had only provided him with a series of emergency grants to deal with security issues.
“Has this ever happened before?” Perrottet quipped during the exchange.
Describing the authority’s funding as “like having a house with really crap foundations and then building on top of it”, Schmidt warned the NSW Electoral Commission would not be able to run the upcoming local government elections and five state byelections at the same time due to funding constraints.
Schmidt paraphrased a quote from a banking executive talking about cybersecurity risks in the industry, saying dealing with “legacy systems” was “like having a house with really crap foundations and then building on top of it”.
“There are all these problems that it creates, both at a functional level and a security level,” he said.
Schmidt was particularly blunt about the commission’s capacity to deal with potential cyber-attacks, telling the hearing he did not believe the authority was able to adequately address the risk posed by hackers.
“Have I done all that I can with the resources I’ve got to address cyber risks? Yes. Do I believe I should be able to do more? Yes. Would I have been able to do more if I had received the funding I’ve sought for the last four budget cycles? Absolutely,” he said.
Asked by Greens MP David Shoebridge whether the electoral commission could meet the government’s own cybersecurity standards with the resources it had, he replied: “No.”
Funding concerns have been repeatedly raised by independent agencies in NSW for several years. The state’s anti-corruption watchdog has continuously warned its funding is not adequate as has the police oversight body the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission.
In October 2020, the NSW auditor general also criticised the funding arrangements for bodies such as Icac, writing in a landmark report that its independence could be threatened by the fact that politicians sign off on its funding.
On Thursday, Perrottet committed to meeting with the heads of those bodies, saying he was looking at their funding arrangements “with fresh eyes”, but he stopped short of addressing the specific funding concerns by Schmidt.
The exchange largely overshadowed Perrottet’s first appearance before estimates as premier.
Coming a day after he announced that he had ordered a review of grants funding in the state, Perrottet was grilled on the government’s $252m Stronger Communities Fund, which a parliamentary inquiry previously found was overwhelmingly spent in Coalition-held seats.
In one case, Hornsby council, in the seat of new treasurer Matt Kean, was awarded $90m despite not making an application for the grant. The inquiry found that during the grant process, funding guidelines were changed without applicants being given notice.
Perrottet told the inquiry he was not familiar with the specifics of the fund but said: “I don’t believe it was a fair outcome.”
If guidelines change they should be clearly communicated so councils such as Inner West council know funds are available, Perrottet agreed on Thursday.
The premier also doubled down on his commitment to replace stamp duty with a land tax when he appeared at budget estimates.
“Stamp duty is an inherently terrible tax,” Perrottet said. “It’s by far the most inefficient tax that we have in our state.”
Replacing it with an annual tax, similar to council rates, would help more people buy a home and would drive growth in productivity, the Liberal leader said.
With Australian Associated Press