Delivering reform at the Griffith by-election
When the Division of Griffith by-election was announced in January 2014, AEC staff in Queensland needed to move quickly to update election procedures and implement recommendations made in the report by Mr Mick Keelty AO, Inquiry into the 2013 WA Senate Election (Keelty Report). Ensuring the changes were understood, supported and fully adopted was vital and would require ongoing communication, dialogue and teamwork.
The Griffith by-election was the first parliamentary election since the loss of Senate ballot papers in Western Australia and release of the Keelty Report just one month earlier, on 6 December 2013. With election day set for Saturday 8 February, divisional staff prepared for their first meeting with the Keelty Implementation Taskforce (KIT) in January 2014.
Divisional Returning Officer Karen Burnes went to the meeting with lots of questions:
‘We were all wondering what new procedures would we need to implement? How much time would we have? How would we do it?’
At the meeting KIT talked through the proposed changes and their implications for election practices and procedures. ‘It was great to be part of an open dialogue between those of us delivering the by-election on the ground and KIT who were operational people, familiar with the challenges of running elections’, Karen said. ‘Nothing that they presented fazed us – it was all manageable, all common sense, and all designed to ensure the security of ballot papers and the integrity of the election.’
Following the meeting, Karen and others who’d attended scheduled time to talk to the rest of the Griffith team about the changes, which included overarching ballot paper principles, strengthened ballot secure zones and new forms and procedures to manage the arrival and despatch of ballot papers.
Communication was key, Karen noted. ‘In the dynamic election environment it was critical that everyone was kept informed on a daily basis’, she said. In addition to regular communication between staff, training materials were also updated. ‘Everyone involved, no matter what their role, needed to understand the new measures and ensure the security of ballot papers at all times’, Karen said.
The by-election was conducted under unprecedented scrutiny – evident during the Declaration of Nominations on Friday 17 January, which was attended by eight media crews, numerous candidates and a large number of AEC staff from the Queensland and national offices.
In the end, Karen noted, the investment in communication, dialogue and ongoing support for staff paid off. ‘I had absolute confidence that all staff had been given clear and adequate instruction about the new procedures and that support was always available from KIT, our state management team and colleagues from all parts of the AEC.’
Karen also described how the benefits of the new approach became clear when staff began the process of accounting for ballot papers at the end of the by-election following the Distribution of Preferences. ‘Our ballot paper reconciliation was easy thanks to clear information about ballot paper custody and transfer at every step of the process’, she said.
‘As the Divisional Returning Officer, I certainly felt very much in control of what was happening. All matters that we covered off were about a more rigorous approach to the handling and custody of ballot papers and it all translated into a higher level of control, better management of all election activities and better services to voters.’