I commenced as Electoral Commissioner in January 2009. I would like to acknowledge the contribution made by my predecessor, Mr Ian Campbell PSM, during his three years as Electoral Commissioner. I would also like to acknowledge the contribution made by the Hon. James Burchett QC, whose nearly six years as the Chairperson of the AEC concluded on 22 July 2009. I welcome the Hon. Peter Heerey QC as the new Chairperson.
Since becoming Electoral Commissioner, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the history of the democratic process in Australia. Many of the signposts of democracy in Australian history, such as the introduction of compulsory enrolment in 1911 and compulsory voting in 1924, are still very relevant. Our challenge is to ensure we continue in the direction these signposts point us to.
The AEC has played an important role in the democratic process and has established a strong reputation for delivering professional electoral services to the Australian people. Saturday 21 February 2009 marked the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the AEC. This was an ideal opportunity to celebrate our achievements and consider how we will build on this foundation as we conduct our business in the future.
One of the biggest challenges facing the AEC is ensuring that Australian citizens are able to exercise their key democratic entitlement, the right to vote – the franchise.
Ahead of the 2007 federal election, the participation rate – a measure of the number of eligible Australians enrolled – reached its highest level ever.
However, evidence of a decline in Australians' participation in electoral matters continues. Today, over 1.2 million eligible Australians are currently not on the electoral roll and, therefore, not able to exercise their franchise. To achieve the AEC's participation target of 95 percent, more than 700 000 new enrolments are required by mid-2010. Even to maintain the participation rate at the level achieved for the 2007 federal election, just over 92 percent, nearly 300 000 new enrolments are required by mid-2010.
Even more sobering is the fact that some 660 000 enrolled electors did not vote at the 2007 federal election. Some 546 000 electors voted informally for the House of Representatives and some 340 000 electors voted informally for the Senate at this election. Together these statistics with the 1.2 million eligible Australians not on the electoral roll means that over 2 million out of 15 million estimated eligible voters were not able to exercise their franchise.
The AEC is responding to this challenge. In 2008–09, targeted mail-outs were sent to 2 664 615 electors around the country to assist in locating the 1.2 million people missing from the electoral roll, as well as assist those moving address to update their enrolment details. To support the mail-outs, media services were used to increase awareness of the number of people missing from the electoral roll and how those people can enrol. Other strategies employed to successfully manage the electoral roll included forming partnerships with other agencies and organisations; developing a greater understanding of the characteristics of the electors and, in particular, people eligible to be electors who are not enrolled; and moving towards meeting customer expectations of a whole-of-government approach to delivering services online.
Raising electoral awareness, particularly among people who are newly eligible to enrol, is a vital way to both grow the electoral roll and encourage Australians to exercise their franchise. We used education, awareness raising, communication and media activities to deliver key messages. For example, Enrol to Vote Week was held in 1700 high schools around the country, with the aim of securing enrolments by eligible 17 and 18-year-old students. The AEC received more than 21 000 enrolment forms as a result.
Past methods of contacting people regarding enrolment have served us well. However, the AEC's continued reliance on 'snail mail' for this is not delivering a sufficient response to achieve higher participation rates. Community attitudes and responses to hard copy mail are undergoing change as many people switch to electronic alternatives in their daily communications. The challenge for the AEC and the Parliament is to make our services more relevant and timely to today's methods of providing government services. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has recommended that parliament change electoral legislation to meet this challenge.
Another of the AEC's greatest challenges is conducting federal elections. Preparations for the next federal election are progressing well, under the agency-wide, four-year Election Preparation Program launched in October 2008. The program covers a four-year span so that AEC managers can plan beyond the standard three-year electoral cycle.
The AEC also conducts federal by-elections, assists with federal electoral boundary redistribution processes, and assists a range of electoral activities in the states and territories. For example, in 2008–09 we:
We also provide valuable services that keep the democratic process transparent and accountable, such as the registration of political parties and the processing of funding disclosure returns. In 2008–09, we upgraded the annual returns locator system available on the AEC website, to provide for an expanded analysis of the information provided in the returns, images of the original returns, and a data export function. This system can be accessed by a wide range of clients, including political parties, academics, members of the media and other people interested in electoral matters.
In February 2008, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters commenced an inquiry into all aspects of the conduct of the 2007 federal election. The AEC made numerous submissions to the inquiry, appeared at public hearings around the country and responded to requests for information and electoral data. The AEC also provided the committee secretariat with a technical adviser who assisted with administrative matters, provided electoral advice and assisted with drafting the report.
The committee's main report, tabled in Parliament on 22 June 2009, contained 53 recommendations covering issues such as delivering the franchise, maintaining an effective electoral roll, increasing the participation of Indigenous and homeless electors, responding to the increased demand for early voting, formality issues, modernisation and sustainability of electoral administration and modernising regulatory arrangements.
During 2008–09, the AEC provided technical advice to an Australian Government Green Paper process on electoral law reform. The process of consultation and discussion focused on disclosure, funding and expenditure issues as well as options for strengthening and modernising other areas of Australia's electoral law. The first Green Paper on Electoral Reform, entitled Donations, Funding and Expenditure, was released for public comment on 17 December 2008; a second Green Paper is expected to be released towards the end of 2009.
In July 2008, the Court of Disputed Returns handed down a decision in the case of Mitchell v Bailey (No. 2), relating to the 2007 election result in the Division of McEwen. The AEC commissioned an independent review of ballot paper formality guidelines and recount policy.
The court's decision and the review provided the AEC with further guidance on the application of formality rules in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. We have put a plan in place to address the issues ahead of the next federal election.
When preparing the 2009–10 Budget, the Australian Government made decisions relating to the AEC's services, including closing the Adelaide and Melbourne Electoral Education Centres from 1 July 2009.
To continue to provide coordinated and targeted electoral education and information services, we will leverage whole-of-government approaches and explore innovative ways to contribute to civics education. We will collaborate with the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations on support for civics and citizenship education in schools through the development of a national curriculum. We will also continue to deliver our successful School and Community Visits Program with our staff building on their enhanced training skills.
In addition to the savings requirements, the 2009–10 Budget contained policy initiatives that will involve the AEC. In particular, we received funding for work to improve the participation of Indigenous Australians in the electoral process, as part of a whole-of-government initiative to close the gap of Indigenous disadvantage. This provides an exciting challenge for the AEC in delivering the franchise to Indigenous Australians.
The AEC participated in the 2008 Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) State of the Service Employee Survey. While there were positive indicators, the survey results indicated a number of areas of concern. To better understand the organisational health of the AEC, I commenced a series of staff engagement workshops across the country, facilitated by an independent consultant. More than 100 staff across the organisation participated in these workshops. The staff workshops focused on two broad objectives:
The consultant will provide me with an independent report of the staff workshops by late August 2009 and it is my intention to use this report to improve the organisational health of the AEC. More information on how the AEC is addressing the 2008 APSC State of the Service Employee Survey results can be found in the 'Human resources' section of this report.
We have established a new AEC Strategic Plan for 2009 to 2014. Our strategy for delivering electoral services that are responsive to the needs of the Australian community is based on three themes: modernisation, collaboration and investing in our people.
The theme of modernisation embraces legislation, governance, policies, systems and processes. Our priorities are to:
The AEC operates in a complex environment, with many stakeholders and a wide range of customers. Collaboration with all our stakeholders, in particular the state electoral bodies and state and federal agencies with which the AEC shares customers, will be a key contributor to our future success.
Our strategy focuses on:
Cooperating with public and private sector organisations to access reliable and timely data for roll management, and working with AusAID and other agencies to share and build electoral capability overseas, are also high priorities.
Investing in our people is essential to deliver our outcomes and to recruit and retain high-quality people, now and in the future. Our commitment to our people centres on:
I acknowledge and appreciate the dedication and professionalism my AEC colleagues have shown, since I began my term as Electoral Commissioner, in all facets of their work and in their commitment to delivering the franchise of Australian citizens.
I look forward to building on the AEC's past successes to further develop an electoral system that Australians can be proud of ove the next 25 years.