On 21 February 2009, the AEC celebrated its 25th anniversary as an independent statutory body, with the theme '25 years serving the Australian community'. This important anniversary year comes at a time when the needs of a contemporary society call for changes to the electoral system, with the Government putting in place processes to facilitate widespread debate over electoral issues.
An anniversary provides the space to discuss the themes relevant to the future, as well as to celebrate the past, and there is much to celebrate. During the past 25 years, the AEC has delivered nine federal elections, 28 by-elections and three referendums, and has made a significant contribution to the stability of Government in Australia through its delivery of impartial and independent elections. The administration of the electoral system, supported by the dedication of AEC staff, has engendered the trust of the Australian community that federal elections in Australia deliver results that accurately reflect the collective choice of the community. So, it is with a sense of satisfaction that we take a look back and follow the evolutionary pathway of Australia's Electoral Commission.
The functions now fulfilled by the AEC were originally undertaken by a branch in the Department of Home Affairs in 1902. In 1973 it became the Australian Electoral Office, and then in 1984, following major amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, the Australian Electoral Commission was created. The 1984 amendments not only established the AEC as an independent statutory authority, but also introduced the registration of political parties, improved the process for drawing electoral boundaries, provided for public funding of election campaigns, ensured the disclosure of campaign donations and electoral expenditure and provided specific enrolment provisions for people in special circumstances. Since this time, candidate names appear in random order on House of Representatives ballot papers, and a simplified group ticket voting option appears on Senate election ballots.
Since its inception in 1984, the AEC has worked to enhance the accountability and transparency of electoral procedures and practices. The 1980s were characterised by an emphasis on developing uniform practices and introducing computer-based or automated systems to replace manual processes. National consistency across divisional offices was supported by enhanced training programs and a consolidated election procedures manual.
In 1989, a significant modernisation milestone was achieved with the introduction of the new Roll Management System (RMANS). RMANS enabled computer-based data entry and update to take place in divisional offices. This year also saw the introduction of a computerised system for managing the recruiting, appointing and paying of thousands of temporary staff required for elections, replacing what had been a labour and time intensive process carried out by many staff.
The modernisation trend continued in the 1990s with the further development of computerised systems and standard reference manuals to increasingly streamline election practices. This period saw the progressive development and enhancement of the AEC's first computerised Election Management System (ELMS). ELMS has served the AEC and the Australian community since 1991, capturing timely and accurate election information and ensuring a consistent application of election best practice throughout the country.
In keeping with the technological progress sweeping all areas of society, and in time for the 1996 federal election, the AEC launched its website and introduced call centres to enhance the delivery of information services to electors. Then in 1997, the AEC's national 13 phone number was launched.
The 1999 introduction of a web-based virtual tally room (VTR) was a great success, with the VTR now superseding the National Tally Room (NTR) as the official source of election night results. This year was also significant for the introduction of the Continuous Roll Update (CRU) program which provided a new method of managing the accuracy of the electoral roll and was a move away from the biennial doorknock approach of previous years.
The ongoing focus for this decade has been on delivering improved or additional electoral services. The AEC established a successful business partnership with Centrelink for the 2004 and 2007 federal elections, enabling the delivery of high-quality, cost-effective election information services for the Australian public.
For several years the GENESIS (general enrolment, elections support and information system) roll management and election support system has been under development. During 2009, the GENESIS Application Processing System (GAPS) was finalised and rolled out to staff. This replaces the enrolment processing application module in RMANS which had not changed significantly since it was developed in 1989. GAPS provides for the submission of enrolment applications over the internet using SmartForm technology, with the enrolment data able to be automatically uploaded into the enrolment database when the signed enrolment form is subsequently received.
As we move further into the 21st century, our environment is becoming faster paced and less predictable, while community expectations around accessible and convenient electoral services are evolving. During this 25th anniversary year of the AEC, we are thinking about where we are now and how far we have come, and considering the means by which we will continue to provide the Australian public with a successful, contemporary electoral system.