Delivering by-elections in a COVID-19 environment
COVID-19 has had a profound effect on all of us, including the AEC.
We’re tackling a nation-wide skills shortage and service delivery pressures, while maintaining and rolling out AEC programs and initiatives. Our external environment is changing, and the AEC is responding.
Two by-elections in 2020–21 showed how well we can adapt to COVID-19 conditions. The seats of Eden-Monaro and Groom were contested on 4 July and 28 November, and were delivered safely, efficiently and with integrity.
The AEC launched a range of specific videos and e-learning modules for all election staff, including advice on hand hygiene, personal protective equipment, cleaning polling place surfaces, and managing voter queues safely.
Federal and state stakeholders were consulted to ensure protocols were followed, including chief medical officers, health departments, police, education departments and Australia Post. The National Bushfire Recovery Agency and Services Australia also assisted by providing AEC information to voters affected by bushfires.
The Eden-Monaro by-election was also delivered in an environment severely affected by the 2019–20 bushfires, which was a learning opportunity for staff. The special needs of voters in this electorate showed the importance of consultation, coordination and streamlined communication with stakeholders before and during an election.
These insights were applied to Groom and, together with the changing state rules, were monitored to ensure polling places and procedures complied with local safety requirements.
Strict attention was given to social distancing, venue sanitising, and a range of physical controls in place like protective screens. AEC workers were trained and provided with personal protective equipment.
The costs for these services and additional polling place staff was significantly higher than the average cost of by-elections between 2016 and 2019, however the safety of staff and voters was paramount.
The experience of these two by-elections is informing preparations for the next federal election. We observe and plan for fluctuations in staffing, supply chain, stakeholder engagement and voter preferences, remaining agile and ready to deploy at the scale required for a national event.
Torres Strait Regional Authority elections
The Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) is an Australian Government entity. Its Board consists of 20 elected members who are Torres Strait Islander or Aboriginal people living in the region. The election is held every four years.
The AEC delivers TSRA elections in accordance with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act 2005 and Torres Strait Regional Authority Election Rules 2017 (Cth).
The AEC implemented several COVID-19 measures to protect the health of community members and staff. We developed a work health and safety service plan and guidelines to oversee election delivery, while also ensuring appropriate processes were in place.
Voting for the TSRA Board election was conducted on Saturday 28 November 2020.
Of the 20 TSRA electoral wards, voting took place in 17 contested wards in the 2020 Elections, with three wards uncontested. The AEC delivered mobile and static polling to the wards of Badu Island, Bamaga, Boigu Island, Erub Island, Hammond Island, Iama Island, Kubin, Mabuiag Island, Mer Island, Ngurapai and Muralag, Port Kennedy, Poruma Island, Saibai Island, Seisia, St Pauls, TRAWQ and Warraber Island. The remaining wards of Dauan Island, Masig Island and Ugar Island were uncontested as only one candidate was nominated.
For a non-compulsory election — and given COVID-19 impacts — the turnout of eligible voters was 60.27 per cent, only slightly lower than the 2016 turnout of 63.29 per cent. All temporary election staff were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Of the 51 candidates for the 2020 TSRA election, 19 were women, the highest number on record. Five were elected to the 20-member board.
Key milestones in delivering the TSRA elections in November 2020 included:
- delivering candidate information sessions across all 20 TSRA electoral wards
- conducting the ballot draw on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait — a first for the region — to provide greater transparency to stakeholders
- delivering voter information sessions across all 17 contested electoral wards as part of the AEC’s Indigenous Electoral Participation Program.
The AEC worked with the TSRA to produce a polling schedule that included:
- mobile polling in 13 wards
- static polling at four locations on Thursday Island, Horn Island and the Northern Peninsula Area
- early voting in Cairns and Thursday Island, along with the option of postal voting
- post‑election officeholder elections.
International services: building success through agility, creativity and stakeholder engagement
The AEC is internationally recognised for its support of emerging democracies.
We help build the technical capability of partner electoral management bodies in the Indo-Pacific, with programs delivered through bilateral and multilateral partnerships. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is a strategic funding partner in these activities.
Agility, creativity and strong stakeholder engagement have been central to providing virtual international support during COVID-19.
Initiatives to support international partners include technical assistance, training and workshops, knowledge exchange and mentoring programs, strategic planning, and advice. We also helped design, print and supply electoral materials.
During the year we supported our neighbouring countries, including in the lead-up to the Autonomous Bougainville Government general election on 20 August.
On 22 July the last of five chartered flights arrived in Buka, completing delivery of 18,000 kilos of AEC-produced ballot materials for the election. Bougainville Electoral Commissioner George Manu publicly acknowledged our work managing this project under unique circumstances.
By May 2021, attention turned to support for the Papua New Guinea Electoral Commission, which was preparing for a by-election in the seat of Moresby-North during a national outbreak of COVID-19.
Delivering elections in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a unique challenge. Its electoral commission faces an enormous logistical exercise in a country with vast cultural and linguistic diversity, difficult terrain, and poor transport infrastructure. These factors make PNG’s elections some of the most complicated in the world.
To support PNG’s efforts, the AEC delivered 63,000 units of personal protective equipment to Port Moresby, including disposable masks, face shields, gloves, hand sanitiser, thermometers, disinfectant and paper towels. Polling was held on 4 June 2021 and staff and polling officials used the equipment to protect themselves and others.
The AEC’s Community and International Engagement team adapted several international activities to virtual formats over the last 12 months, in particular through the Building Resources in Democracy, Governance and Elections (BRIDGE) program.
BRIDGE is a modular professional development initiative which focuses on electoral processes. In the 20 years since it was founded, the AEC has played a central role as a partner and host of the BRIDGE Secretariat. The AEC also coordinates the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand Electoral Administrators (PIANZEA) Network.
PIANZEA has benefited from face-to-face BRIDGE workshops over the years. From 8 to 12 March 2021, the AEC facilitated the first multi-country virtual BRIDGE workshop on voter and civic education for participants from Fiji, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
The AEC will continue to adapt practices to meet the needs of our international partners.
Four Countries Conference
We participated in a virtual Four Countries Conference during the year along with counterparts from Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand. The conference usually meets physically every second year to discuss shared challenges — such as cyber security — and to promote best practice in electoral administration. Regular contact has continued virtually throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including to discuss the challenges the pandemic presents to electoral administration.
Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand
The Electoral Commissioner attended four meetings of the Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand (ECANZ) in 2020–21, including three extraordinary meetings in August, September and November 2020. These meetings focused on COVID-19 and provided a platform to share information on incorporating health and safety directives into election operations and delivery.
The Deputy Electoral Commissioner engaged with a sub-group reporting to ECANZ. His contribution included developing secondment opportunities between electoral commissions and supporting ECANZ by providing an analysis of key electoral activities.
The AEC participated in the Inter-jurisdictional Working Group on Electoral Integrity and Security, chaired by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
We also chaired ECANZ working groups, including the National Enrolment Forum, Election Staffing Community of Practice and the Indigenous Electoral Participation Working Group.
During the year the AEC participated in ECANZ working groups, including:
- Compliance Network
- Materials Management Group
Spotlight on virtual learning and development
Like many agencies, the AEC pays close attention to innovations in learning and development. We are committed to increasing the capability and agility of our workforce and being a learning organisation.
At the start of 2020, our National Training and Education Unit was preparing significant new in-person employee learning programs. When COVID-19 caused nationwide office closures in March 2020, the team expanded the use of e-learning modules and launched virtual platforms so staff could continue their learning.
For the unit’s Director, Belinda Bennett, the about-face was vital to ensure a seamless outcome for staff and to ensure the AEC’s learning targets could be met.
“We had to change from face-to-face learning programs to delivery in a virtual environment, effectively condensing a workplan stretching over three to five years into one year’, she says. ‘It was an instant change and we had to rewrite major programs and leverage technology that we didn’t know well.”
Beyond the technical hitches, the team also needed to consider how the online format would change the way learning materials would be presented. Managing learning program reviews previously prepared for face-to-face delivery was challenging, especially within a context of competing priorities.
“We were re-writing content and researching new technology at the same time we were developing and delivering content,” Belinda said.
The AEC’s Digital Technology and Communications Branch was able to explore the best virtual platform for their needs. The new solution is already producing lasting results. ‘Thanks to virtual programs, we have content that will be ongoing and will be more accessible and sustainable,’ Belinda said.
The National Induction Program, the Senior Leaders Program and the Operational Leaders Program are among training activities reshaped to ensure participants’ access given the COVID-19 working environment.
Jaime Garrido has worked in the AEC’s Community and International Engagement team since 2018. Last year he participated in the new Senior Leaders Program — a series of virtual events focusing on self-leadership, leadership of others and resilience. Joining sessions from home during COVID-19 lockdown, he felt the virtual format was well suited to the content, particularly for networking with colleagues in other offices around Australia.
“The course demonstrated the AEC’s investment in its people to deliver an innovative and engaging virtual program to support and encourage staff in their leadership journey,” he said.
When people came back to the office, some employees requested a return to face-to-face training. “It has a place in our organisation, but it is not the be-all and end-all,” Belinda says. “This is a shift in mindset and I’m proud that this significant shift in our learning capability has all been achieved in a 12-month period.”
Spotlight on recruitment, wellbeing and the new normal: lessons from Victoria
Adapting to COVID-19 has been tough on everyone.
Like most employers in Australia, the AEC was faced with a rapid closure of offices across the country, and the immediate transition to a virtual work environment. At the same time, we could not afford to halt the critical services we provided to the Australian community.
No one felt this disruption for as long in 2020–21 as our colleagues in Victoria, who confronted four lockdowns in the last year. At the helm were Maree Fasoli, Director of Operations, and the now retired Steve Kennedy, who was State Manager during much of this period.
Maree, with her experienced Assistant Director, Operations, led and managed the vast Victorian network of operational staff to overcome obstacles during the pandemic. The team also adapted recruitment processes to deliver a virtual assessment centre — the first of its kind and scale for the agency.
One of the most significant challenges the team faced was a large recruitment round, conducted online for the first time. “Because Victoria was in hard lockdown, we had to look at the process for recruitment to get people into the agency,” she says.
Maree also observed unforeseen advantages to the online interviews. “There are benefits to not being face to face with people,” she said. “With a dispersed network like the AEC’s you are rarely face to face with your staff. This has given us a lot more confidence around the virtual environment.”
Following appointment, the first step to onboarding the large group was to set up home laptops, mobile phones and connectivity. Once online, the team took new colleagues through a comprehensive induction and fit-for-purpose orientation program, introducing teams and finding solutions for them to network together. “As well as a peer support system, experienced divisional office managers and team leaders guided new starters in learning about election readiness. The groundwork for these virtual processes is already paying off. “Recently, the fourth lockdown in Victoria coincided with a start date for four new staff members,” said Maree. “No one panicked because we have a solid protocol to induct people now. Feedback shows that staff feel supported and encouraged.”
Another important focus was ensuring health and wellbeing of all staff. Targeted help was offered to all Victorian staff through National Office and a range of business areas. Employees were also supported by our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services and mental health organisation, Black Dog Institute.
“We were very focused on communication over multiple channels during lockdown,” Maree explained. “We guided people to information through emails, the intranet and a weekly bulletin. We have some staff who work part-time so it was important to send timely messages over many different channels.”
In particular, the weekly bulletin explored ways to ensure wellbeing and support for those in need. “One staff member has four children under nine years of age, so she started a mini network where people could talk about difficulties parents were having working with kids at home.”
Victoria’s example is now viewed as best practice for the agency. “We found a nice balance of COVID normal,” says Maree. “We can convert pretty easily with laptops, headsets and cameras. We have tools at our disposal, and we feel confident that we know what we are doing.”
Spotlight on promoting electoral engagement through Indigenous languages
To encourage enrolment of Indigenous Australians, the AEC invests in broad engagement strategies with a multi-pronged approach.
English may not be the first language of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote Australia. Noting the oral nature of Indigenous languages, the AEC commissioned a series of in-language videos, which can be found on our website. Topics cover processes on how to enrol, how to cast a vote and promotion of election workforce opportunities. The videos have been produced in 20 languages and more are planned for the coming year.
The AEC collaborated with Carbon Creative and its Managing Director, Birri Gubba man Wayne Denning to produce the videos. Based in Brisbane, Wayne and his team were able to travel to isolated communities in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. They met and filmed people on country talking about the various ways to participate in the electoral system.
The result shows people explaining why it is important for Indigenous voices to be heard through the electoral process. “The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we met agreed with the process,” Wayne says. “They had a great level of pride in being able to speak language and share this message with their communities.”
Exchanging information and stories in this way will benefit all Australians, Wayne believes. “They see themselves and that translatability is important. It’s about trying to capture a sense of authenticity, respect and warmth in an engaging way, working with real people.”
For Wayne, the videos are a testament to the AEC's commitment to working closely with Indigenous Australians. "It's fantastic to work with visionary organisations," he says. "We have a capacity to capture the voices of many Australians who don't always have the chance to be heard. Having the connection to country included in the messaging is vital. It shows oneness, connection to community and country, and gives us a sense of empowerment and pride."