For the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), 2009–10 was a year of preparing for the immediate challenge – the forthcoming federal election – while also looking over the horizon, to map out changes in the way the AEC might better meet the needs of voters in coming years.
The AEC worked consistently towards 30 June 2010, our 'election ready' date, with a focus on preparing essential elements for the 2010 federal election. A countdown tool on the staff intranet provided a daily reminder of how many months or weeks remained before the AEC had to be 'election ready'. Having reached this target, we were able to respond immediately to the announcement of the election in July 2010. The AEC's performance in conducting the 2010 federal election will be discussed in the 2010–11 Annual Report.
Beyond the immediate, and important, work of election preparation and administration, the defining challenge for the AEC remains the state of the Commonwealth electoral roll. By June 2010, an estimated 1.59 million eligible Australians were not on the electoral roll. The growth in the estimated number of people not enrolled reflects the fact that the Australian population continues to grow at a faster rate than the rate of enrolment. It will take a number of years of effort, and the right strategies, to improve the percentage of those enrolled.
Increasing the number of names on the electoral roll is just one part of the challenge. At the 2007 federal election, a significant number of registered voters did not vote on the day, or were unable (or unwilling) to record a valid vote. In total, around 2.4 million eligible Australian voters did not fully exercise their franchise in the 2007 election. This presents a considerable challenge to the AEC and to the Australian community.
The AEC continues to focus on four key outcomes:
The great majority of the missing 1.59 million electors are aged 18 to 39, which suggests that a particular range of strategies is required. Our outreach and advertising activities in 2009–10 were targeted closely at young and isolated social groups.
The Australian community is increasingly turning to digital media for its information needs, and the AEC must therefore harness the new tools. In June 2010, the AEC launched its Famous People Vote Too campaign, an internet-based strategy to encourage younger Australians to enrol to vote and to update their enrolment details. Using the appeal of a range of well-known Australians – actors, sportspeople, designers – and encouraging video input from the public, the campaign was a concerted effort to increase awareness and enrolments in advance of the next federal election.
The AEC trialled SMS messaging for communicating with potential voters. With careful use of data from agencies such as Centrelink, we were able to issue some 54 000 SMS reminders by mid-June 2010. These reminders were designed to prompt responses to letters previously sent by the AEC. The trial was moderately successful and demonstrated the affordability of this means of communications. In September 2009, the AEC also introduced an online electoral enrolment form, the AEC SmartForm, which enables people to supply their details to the AEC electronically, and generate a printed form to be signed and returned to the AEC for processing. This removes some of the time-consuming data entry steps in the electoral enrolment process.
Apart from the focus on preparing for the federal election, the AEC conducted a total of 1 048 other elections and ballots in 2009–10. In meeting its statutory responsibilities, the AEC conducted 265 industrial elections and 661 protected action ballots. This represented a marked increase in the number of protected action ballots, almost three times as many as for the previous financial year. The AEC also responded to requests from the public and private sectors, conducting 122 elections and ballots on a fee-for-service basis. The divisional staff are involved in the delivery of these activities, providing them with invaluable experience between federal elections.
In 2009–10, the AEC received a budget allocation to fund work improving the electoral participation of Indigenous Australians, part of the government's broad agenda to 'close the gap' between Indigenous and other Australians. After consulting with Indigenous groups, the AEC appointed 19 electoral participation officers. These new staff undertook intensive training in electoral processes and are now working on the ground in urban, rural and remote Indigenous communities to provide electoral education and information and help with enrolment processes. Ahead of this, the AEC had begun pilot projects in several Indigenous communities – from remote areas in the Pilbara in Western Australia to urban areas of Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales – to engage community leaders and strengthen Indigenous participation in Australian democracy. These projects move away from external, one-size-fits-all approaches: instead they encourage self-sustaining forms of electoral participation within communities. While this year was a building year, the work undertaken so far has been positively received and lays a foundation for future years.
Rebuilding electoral participation will require modernisation of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Electoral Act). Most provisions of the Electoral Act have been in place since 1918 – the world has changed enormously since then, and new communication technologies have had a profound impact on how people interact, communicate and participate in social processes. Young Australians in particular now expect that enrolling and voting should be simple processes that involve a range of options, including electronic tools.
Many of the states and territories are making efforts to modernise their electoral legislation, which now provides such tools as online electoral enrolment and electronic certified lists for use by polling officials. The ongoing cooperation between the AEC and the state and territory electoral commissions enables us to evaluate the success of their new systems, and this knowledge will prove invaluable for considering similar changes at the federal level. In 2009–10, we sought to strengthen our collaboration with the state and territory electoral commissions and to refine our views on improving electoral processes.
Federally, the prospects for electoral modernisation seemed positive in 2009–10. Most of the recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) in its report on the conduct of the 2007 federal election, tabled in June 2009, gained the support of government and opposition parties. The Australian Government was also in the process of considering issues and submissions raised by two green papers on electoral reform, released in 2008 and 2009. The government's second green paper, Strengthening Australia's Democracy, was launched in September 2009, providing opportunities for the community to engage in the debate about changes to Australia's democratic processes. We continued to work closely with the JSCEM and maintain productive relationships with all major political parties.
Just as importantly, we continued to work with the community to improve the ability of Australians to exercise their franchise. For example, voters who are blind or have low vision have required the physical assistance of others. In 2009–10, the AEC again consulted closely with the representatives of these members of the community, and identified potential solutions. The discussions informed amendments to the Electoral Act to provide an electronic method of voting for Australians who are blind or have low vision.
Those amendments were among many provisions to modernise aspects of the Electoral Act that were enacted shortly after the end of the reporting period, on 14 July 2010, under the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Pre-poll Voting and Other Measures) Act 2010, Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Act 2010, and Electoral and Referendum Amendment (How-to-Vote Cards and Other Measures) Act 2010. We are pleased to be keeping ahead of these contemporary electoral matters – an achievement of which all Australians should be proud.
Our efforts to strengthen and build partnerships with stakeholders led to the AEC Colloquium, held in Canberra in September 2009. This was a forum to encourage collaboration between the AEC and leading researchers, in the interests of understanding the long-term social trends affecting the public's willingness to enrol to vote and to stay enrolled. The first tangible outcome of the AEC Colloquium was a research project conducted by AEC staff and Dr Helena Catt, former Electoral Commissioner of New Zealand. The project report, Mobilise the Franchise, was launched in April 2010 and provides a fresh approach to understanding, and responding to, the challenge of improving electoral participation.
The AEC Strategic Plan 2009–2014 has been in operation for more than 12 months, and its three key themes – modernisation, collaboration and investing in our people – guided AEC goals and work practices over the year. The theme of 'people' formed a real focus within the AEC, based on the powerful fact that the AEC's biggest asset is its staff.
Moving into my second year as the Electoral Commissioner, I can say that one of the best things about the job is working with such a dedicated team of people right across Australia. As an organisation, our challenge over the next few years is to fully develop our staff, in order to maintain the high quality of our work and to create a first-class working environment. In the second half of 2009, I received an independent report on staff satisfaction and options for changes to our practices. Out of that report, we developed and launched the Investing In Our People program, which will better develop staff for existing and future jobs, and recognise staff achievements.Error processing SSI file
I expect that, following the directions set out in the Strategic Plan 2009–2014, the next few years will bring considerable change to the AEC. Our work environment must be able to respond immediately to any reforms to the Electoral Act. We must also build our capacity to identify existing and emerging social trends and address community expectations. To that end, we established the Strategic Capability Branch within the AEC national office. The new branch realigns our staff structure with these anticipated challenges, laying the foundation for innovative, responsive policies and practices in the coming decade.
The AEC needs to work further with the broader community to strengthen Australia's culture of electoral participation, and ensure that ours is a nation in which citizens value their franchise and make the effort to exercise it. For its part, the AEC wants to minimise the effort required for electors to exercise the franchise, but in a way that guarantees the integrity and security of the electoral roll in an electronic age.