What does it take to run federal elections? A lot, it turns out.

People line up to cast their votes at Moonee Ponds West Primary School, the electorate of Maribyrnong,, on May 18, 2019 in Melbourne.

CPAs considering working in parts of the electoral process need to understand legislations and how they need to be implemented in various circumstances.

At a glance

  • CPAs work across various electoral-related organisations – from the Australian Electoral Commission to the Parliamentary Budget Office and state-based electoral commissions.
  • As CPAs excel at points of detail, they may be well-suited to electoral-related roles
  • CPAs considering working in parts of the electoral process need to understand legislations and how they need to be implemented in various circumstances.

It’s federal election night and a life-or-death battle is on for a closely held seat.

Behind the scenes, a team of Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) staff works diligently to ensure speedy, accurate count tallies are fed to their website and the waiting media.

At the booths, polling officials hired by the AEC are counting first preferences on the House of Representatives and the Senate ballot papers and conducting a two candidate-preferred count.

For the House of Representatives, there are three counts of all ballot papers, while the Senate ballot papers, after an initial count, are fed into a computerised scanning system.

“It’s exciting, but there’s a huge amount of pressure,” says director of national enrolment services for the AEC, Sean Ferrari FCPA. “Everything we do is being very closely scrutinised.”

Ferrari is one of numerous CPAs who are involved, in some way, in the process of deciding who governs the country.

An independent federal agency, the AEC organises, conducts and supervises federal elections, by-elections and referendums, and has offices in each state and territory.

It is also responsible for the maintenance of the electoral roll.

With 151 members elected to the House of Representatives – one for each of Australia’s 151 electorates – and an average of 110,000 voters per electorate, plus 76 senators (12 from each state and two each from the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory), that’s a lot of voters. Ferrari notes, however, that only half the state senators are up for election at one time. “Therefore, in the 2019 election, only 36 state senators and four territory senators were up for election.

“Our job is about trying to keep about 16.5 million people on a database at a correct address at any given time.

“Besides people initiating their own enrolment update, we use data from various government sources to update people on the electoral roll,” says Ferrari, who has a permanent team of 11. “This federal election we had five weeks to polling day, candidates nominating, and a one-week period for electors to enrol or update their details.”

Running on adrenalin

Given Australia is one of the few countries with compulsory voting, the AEC must make voting services available to all, in nursing homes, remote areas and overseas.

“We have a pre-poll period because not everyone can get to a booth – mobile teams go into hospitals, for example,” Ferrari says.

“We also organise polling venues, staffing and the delivery of materials. Everyone is running on adrenalin during the election. It’s hard work, but we know we are doing something important for the country. We feel a real sense of responsibility to ensure the election is conducted appropriately.”

At the start of his career, Ferrari gained a bachelor of commerce degree, majoring in sports management at Deakin University, and then worked in elite talent pathways for the Australian Football League (AFL).

In many ways, preparing for an election is similar to gearing up for a large sporting event, he says.

“People only see what happens on game day, but there is so much work done in the background.”

"It's very hard work, but we know we are doing something important for the country." Sean Ferrari FCPA, AEC

Ferrari later completed a bachelor of business majoring in accounting, and joined the Department of Finance in Canberra in 2004. He worked briefly for the Department of Defence CFO group, before returning to the Department of Finance, initially in the whole of government finance team, and then as an internal business manager, in 2006, when he qualified as a CPA. He became an FCPA in 2014.

In 2008, Ferrari joined the AEC on a three-month secondment as director of finance, but ended up joining the AEC permanently, moving to operational areas, where he has undertaken numerous roles.

“I’ve fallen into the job in some ways, but at some point in their career, many CPAs get out of strict accounting and actually understand the operational areas of a business.”

Ferrari has held numerous roles on CPA Australia committees. He remains a member of the Public Sector Accountants Committee and was Australian Capital Territory (ACT) president in 2012.

While it’s been some time since Ferrari produced a financial statement, he says he uses critical thinking and problem-solving skills that were taught to him as a CPA.

“The Electoral Act is very similar to accounting in that prescribed rules, legislation and processes have to be complied with.”

This federal election, Ferrari was also appointed by the Electoral Commissioner to the position of Australian electoral officer for the ACT, being the returning officer for the ACT Senate.

Behind the scenes

Police watch on at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre during the Liberal campaign launch in 2019.

Before voters head for polling booths, many are interested in the costs of proposals such as tax reforms, child care and aged care and other fought-over issues.

It’s the Parliamentary Budget Office’s (PBO) job to provide independent and non-partisan analysis of the budget cycle, fiscal policy and financial implications of proposals for the federal election.

“The PBO serves all parliamentarians and seeks to help level the political playing field by preparing policy costings and budget analyses for any parliamentarian who requests such,” says Karen Williams FCPA, assistant parliamentary budget officer, Corporate Strategy Branch, in Canberra.

“In 2018-2019, it completed almost 3000 policy costing options – about half of these in the last quarter.”

If that’s not enough to keep PBO analytical staff toiling over rows of numbers, the PBO also conducts research on budget and fiscal policy settings, and regularly takes a specific area of policy and delves deeper. 

Effectively, Williams is the COO of the PBO. Her branch develops and implements corporate strategies and policies and manages delivery of corporate services from payroll to HR.

“When elections roll around, our branch makes sure the backbone of the organisation keeps running efficiently behind the scenes,” she says. “That involves ensuring IT systems, including analytical software, keep operating well, and that our staff levels increase temporarily to support the increased demand in our policy costing services.

“This election, for example, our staff resources increased about 25 per cent.”

Williams says she relishes the opportunity to serve the parliament, to be independent and to do something she considers important to the population at large.

With a bachelor of commerce in accounting from the University of Canberra, she’s worked as chief finance officer of the Department of Parliamentary Services and the National Archives of Australia. She previously held positions in Commonwealth agencies ranging from the then Department of Family and Community Services to the National Crime Authority.

“The majority of my career has been in finance roles, preparing budgets and financial statements, developing financial policies, and managing finance systems,” says Williams, who was CPA Australia’s ACT president in 2008.

From 2013 to 2017, she was also a member of the PBO audit committee and in 2017, chair of the Parliamentary Service Reconciliation Action Plans Champions Group (RAP), which works to build an understanding and respect between the Parliamentary Service and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

Of her diverse role at the PBO she says: “I’m really proud of building strong corporate foundations, helping shape the PBO’s culture and systems and developing fit-for-purpose policies as the PBO has matured.”

Democracy in action

Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivers a victory speech with his family.

In Tasmania, it is Mike Blake FCPA, who chairs the Tasmanian Electoral Commission (TEC), which undertakes the conduct of state and local government elections, the determination of boundary redistributions and more.

The commission has 14 permanent staff, but that increases dramatically during election periods.“Tasmania is, since 2017, the only state that provides a public tally room on election night,” Blake says.

“It really is exciting. Hundreds of people including MPs, the elected premier, media and the public come and watch the voting as it unfolds. It’s a fantastic evening involving the community seeing their democratic rights in action.”

Blake’s role is about assisting Electoral Commissioner Andrew Hawkey and member Karen Frost FCPA, in maintaining the integrity of the process, rather than the day-to-day tasks.

“The skills needed are not dissimilar to more conventional boards including risk management.”

Blake began his career with Deloitte Ross Tohmatsu in Zimbabwe and moved to Australia in 1989. 

He is a member of the Australian Accounting Standards Board and has, in the past, been on the Urgent Issues Group representing auditors-general, the Auditing and Assurance Standards Board. In 2016, he was appointed to the International Public Sector Accounting Standards Board representing CPA Australia and Chartered Accountants Australian and New Zealand (CAANZ).

In the same year, Blake was presented with CPA Australia’s Tasmanian Divisional Council President’s Award for Excellence – Service and Leadership.

In addition, he’s previously chaired the advisory board to the University of Tasmania’s then Faculty of Business and the Tasmanian Council of Professional Bodies.

Blake says he never imagined he would be involved in the TEC, but was keen to contribute back to Tasmania after retiring.

Tasmania uses the Hare-Clark system of proportional representation to elect its lower house, similar to how the Australian Federal Senate is elected.

“The unique nature of Tasmania’s voting system was something I wanted to understand better and play a part in,” says Blake.

Therefore, when you next cast your vote and leave the polling post, your civic duty done, spare a thought for the CPAs who contributed to the process, and who will likely be working late that evening.

The road to government

Voting queues are seen in the electorate of Wentworth at North Bondi Primary School on election day in Sydney this year.

Mike Blake FCPA says CPAs who are considering working in parts of the electoral process need to understand legislation and how it must be implemented in sometimes awkward circumstances; conflicts of interest; and the need to be totally independent and unbiased. He says it’s also important to understand risk, in particular cyber risk.

The TEC ably responded to a cyber breach of some data, stored by a third party, that included small parcels of information relating to non-voter data and requests for voting services.

Blake believes CPAs are suited to electoral-related roles because they excel at points of detail and says his own FCPA membership has broadly enabled relationships with colleagues, staff and clients including, in his auditor-general roles, with parliamentarians and the diverse public service and media.

“It has facilitated the ability to analyse and interpret sometimes complex financial information for others and to develop and write accounting and auditing standards.”

Karen Williams says the PBO looks for people with strong quantitative analysis skills and an aptitude for economic and financial modelling.

“In my corporate branch, a CPA would [work in] budgeting, financial reporting, management accounting, and governance of the PBO’s financial resources,” she says.


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