Community engagement is a familiar term, but what does it mean? If ‘to engage’ means ‘to attract’ and ‘hold fast’, how do you attract eligible voters, particularly from multicultural communities, and hold them fast to the notion of voting?
For some communities there may be barriers to overcome to engage in the electoral process. The barriers of remoteness and lack of access, social isolation, apathy and disinterest are examples. Significant numbers of eligible voters want to engage but meet a language barrier at the polling place. These are the voters that the AEC’s new approach to community engagement aims to ‘attract and hold fast’.
Casting a formal ballot may not be straightforward for people whose fluency in English is limited and who are inexperienced with Australia’s voting procedures. By combining Australian Bureau of Statistics and AEC data, the AEC identified pockets of high unintentional informality in multicultural communities. A new community information program will target several language groups in electorates in Western Sydney and Melbourne.
The AEC recruited and trained 12 community engagement officers (CEOs) (ten in Sydney and two in Melbourne) who speak a range of languages including Arabic, Persian, Korean, Afghani, Dari, Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese. Equipped with translated material, they went to their communities to discuss, demonstrate and offer the chance to practise voting for the federal election.
Significant numbers of eligible voters want to engage but meet a language barrier at the polling place. Community engagement officers go out to their communities to discuss, demonstrate and offer the chance to practise voting for the federal election.
The CEOs face significant challenges. For instance, many language groups do not have readily translatable words for Australia’s electoral jargon. How do you explain the concept of formality in Dari? Or two different ballot papers and two different voting methods to new citizens who have no experience of democracy? Success relies on CEOs establishing credibility with their community, and communicating clearly.
Support for CEOs comes from one AEC ‘home division’ and a permanent AEC officer, who provide workshop assistance and electoral expertise. This partnership is important, and establishes new community relationships, which permanent AEC staff can maintain throughout the election cycle.
An evaluation of the community engagement activities post-election will gauge the effectiveness and future direction of the program. However, pre-election evaluation showed initial engagement was promising. Community workshops were in high demand and ‘attracted’ the identified communities. Participants in the workshops were enthusiastic, and most importantly, correctly completed ballot papers in practise sessions. Participants were motivated to share their new understanding of voting with family and friends, and many, for the first time, feel confident to vote independently and correctly at the next federal election.
How these actions ‘hold fast’ will take time to realise, but the new approach positively and practically addresses informal voting and engages new Australians in the electoral process.