As typical election years go, 2013 was anything but typical. The 43rd parliament was Australia’s first hung parliament since 1941. For the AEC, early election readiness was imperative in case Australians found themselves heading back to the polls.
On 30 January, the then Prime Minister announced the election seven months in advance. A known election date prompted early action on activities normally left until the issue of the writs, such as election-advertising, rental of premises for polling day, pre-polling and election service centres and election specific recruitment. The known election date gave the enrolment message added pertinence for hard to reach audiences. Meanwhile, in the absence of a formal election writ, contingency planning for other election dates continued.
On 9 May, the government announced its intention to hold a referendum with the election. Australia’s last referendum was in 1999. The last combined election and referendum was in 1984, which meant the AEC’s referendum expertise was limited.
For the casual observer of the electoral process, the implications of a combined election and referendum are not obvious. The innocuous buff-coloured ballot paper, for issue to every voter, belies its impact on finely honed election logistics. The ballot paper alone would require an additional 38 000 tonnes of paper to be designed, printed, transported, stored, issued, explained, counted, verified and advertised.
The ballot paper alone required an additional 38 000 tonnes of paper to be designed, printed, transported, stored, issued, explained, counted, verified, and advertised.
In running the referendum, the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 authorises the Electoral Commissioner to print and distribute the arguments for and against the proposed change to the Constitution – the yes and no cases.
Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013 passed parliament on 24 June and triggered a 28-day timeframe for members of parliament to prepare cases for or against the proposed law.
The Electoral Commissioner issued guidelines detailing his approach to the task and requirements of the Referendum Act regarding word count, authorisation and timelines, plus the booklet’s layout. Market testing helped determine a layout that presented the cases clearly and equitably.
The Electoral Commissioner received cases for and against, on time, within the word limit, and with appropriate authorisation 28 days after passage through parliament of the Constitution Alteration bill.
The change of leadership in the last parliamentary sitting week in June brought another swift shift in the election planning landscape. The AEC immediately slipped back to the familiar scenario of election preparation with an unknown election date.