Qld election farce: Disgraced boss, a failing system and our IT experts locked down in Wuhan

The Palaszczuk Government has come clean about the “difficult few years” behind the failure of the election reporting system on March 28.

May 19, 2020, updated May 19, 2020
The council elections and by-elections were held under extraordinary conditions. (Photo: Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

The council elections and by-elections were held under extraordinary conditions. (Photo: Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

The council elections and two state by-elections were already controversial due to the Government’s insistence that Queenslanders still vote despite an unfolding health crisis after the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China.

Now it has emerged that the count reporting problems on election night were partly the result of a new computer system not being tested as planned because “coding resources” were locked down in Wuhan.

In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, the Department of Housing and Public Works, which supported the Electoral Commission in its computer upgrade, conceded there had been a “difficult few years” – starting with former commissioner Walter Van der Merwe’s decision to acquire the Konnech system.

According to the department, and Queensland Chief Customer and Digital Officer Chris Fechner, the commission “massively underestimating the scope of the product changes during the procurement exercise” and the “significant skills and capacity uplift” needed to deliver it.

Van der Merwe was the subject of an internal investigation that found he had failed to do his job, was drunk in the workplace, absent without reasonable excuse, and seen in a compromising position “of a sexual nature” with an employee. He was also fined after steroids were found in the office.

“When (Van der Merwe) stepped down in February 2018, the project had a considerable number of open “high” and “extreme” risks that were inadequately mitigated,” Fechner told the committee.

“At this time the project was significantly challenged and lacked adequate governance capability to recover the project.”

The department, commission and other stakeholders sought to make good out of a bad situation, working to a timeframe that ran into a pandemic – and an unexpected coincidence.

“The delivery of the project was further impacted in the final development and bug fixing stages during January and February 2020, as most of the coding resources were based in Wuhan China and were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 lock-down,” Fechner said.

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Final testing the week before the election revealed “unacceptable issues in security and load capacity” within the system, which had previously prompted concerns it could be vulnerable to hacking. The commission decided to resort to a contingency website, however on election night “the overall process of posting results to the website was delayed by data quality issues related to the collection and manual data entry by Returning Officers”.

The count data was accurate, according to Fechner, but “mis-keying and miscellaneous character input” prevented the results being promptly displayed on the commission website and media feeds. This left candidates, journalists and the general public unable to monitor the results by conventional means.

ABC election analyst Antony Green, who had worked with the commission in the lead-up to the election, feared the debacle might undermine confidence in the electoral system ahead of the state election.

Green told the committee its inquiry “should not become an excuse for punishment, but rather an opportunity to ensure the failure in delivering results is not repeated at the state election in October”.

Fechner expressed confidence the system would be ready. The Government and commission have yet to announce any changes to the election process.

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