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The Electoral Commissioner reflects on the year

Photo of Tom Rogers, Electoral Commissioner, Australian Electoral Commission
Globally, the electoral environment for democracies has become increasingly complex with increasing citizen expectations, more evidence of mis and disinformation, and the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. Against that backdrop, the AEC is continuing to focus on delivering the highest electoral standards to ensure citizens maintain their trust in the AEC and, therefore, election results.

During this financial year, rolling lockdowns and other pandemic-related health and safety measures have changed the way we will deliver electoral events. I am immensely proud of the way our staff have adapted and responded to the changing operating environment, transforming our work practices, shifting priorities and continuing to develop and deliver safe electoral processes.

In difficult and unusual pandemic-related conditions, AEC staff delivered two electoral events this year with agility and integrity. The Eden-Monaro by-election on 4 July was the first federal electoral event held under COVID-19 conditions. The experience of this by-election in turn informed delivery of the Groom by-election on 28 November. Both events required intensive consultation with a large number of stakeholders to ensure we had accurate and up-to-date advice about health restrictions. The AEC implemented a range of safety measures for voters, AEC staff and other participants. In addition to implementing these new safety measures, we continued to prioritise participation and maintain electoral integrity.

Maintaining trust

Electoral integrity remains at the heart of the AEC’s operations. Our values of electoral integrity through quality, agility and professionalism continue to guide us, and remain highly relevant to all aspects of our work. It is this total focus on electoral integrity which enables the AEC to assure citizens that electoral outcomes reflect the will of voters, and that Australia’s electoral system remains one of the most transparent in the world.

Federal elections are one of Australia’s largest and most complex peacetime logistical exercises. The next federal election is likely to be amongst the largest and most scrutinised in Australian history. COVID-19 restrictions and implications, increased risks of mis and dis information, and vastly increased citizen engagement through social media commentary, will all combine to create a particularly challenging electoral delivery landscape. The AEC is responding by strengthening electoral integrity with strategies to maintain the reputation of Australia’s electoral system. This includes work to educate and inform the public about the electoral process and educating electors about disinformation, and why it is important to check the source of the information consumed at election time. Our electoral education program also provides citizens with the knowledge and confidence to participate and have trust in the result.

The AEC works productively with its stakeholders, including the members of the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce (EIAT), to help safeguard elections against interference. Agencies represented on the taskforce provide a range of specialist support to the AEC, including intelligence and security expertise. The taskforce has now supported the AEC during several elections to reduce the risk of interference, most recently during the Eden-Monaro and Groom by-elections in July and November 2020.

Delivering the franchise

One of the most important rights of Australian citizens is the right to vote and to exercise that right.

Australia’s voting system allows voters to easily access their vote according to their circumstances — at any polling place within their state or territory, at an interstate voting centre on election day, at one of the hundreds of early voting centres available across Australia, at remote polling locations, via post, from overseas and even from Antarctica.

The electoral roll continues to be in the greatest shape it’s ever been, with an enrolment rate of more than 96 per cent, and this is largely due to ongoing efforts by the AEC. However, the AEC acknowledges that enrolment among Indigenous Australians is an enduring challenge. Increasing electoral participation among Indigenous Australians has long been a key focus area for the AEC and our Indigenous Electoral Participation Program. Electoral participation remains a key focus area, and we are proud of our ongoing work to grow the roll, including for Indigenous Australians.

This year the AEC oversaw the redistribution of electoral divisions in Western Australia and Victoria. Citizens in these states will vote according to these new divisions at the next election. The AEC conducted these processes in accordance with the legislation, including allowing for public consultation and objections processes — in some cases virtually, for the first time. In addition, Parliament passed legislation to retain the two seats in the Northern Territory, and to change the way future calculations would be made in the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory. This means the Northern Territory’s two federal election divisions will again be contested at the next federal election.

Improving our capability

The 2020–21 federal Budget delivered in October 2020 included some momentous initiatives for the AEC that will enable us to continue our critical modernisation journey and secure the ongoing integrity of Australia’s democracy. It included $96.4 million in funding over three years to upgrade and modernise our core infrastructure and deliver critical foundation capabilities that underpin the AEC’s future delivery of electoral events. Work began quickly on the AEC’s Indigo Program, designed to replace our aging core election IT systems and providing agile technology solutions to improve the way we provide electoral services to citizens. The Budget also included funding to establish the AEC Command Centre: a secure, central point of command from which future elections, in all their complexity and scale, will be monitored.

Learning and development remains an integral part of professionalising our workforce and I am immensely proud of our ongoing achievements in this area. AEC staff participated in several enhanced training programs this year, covering internal education and leadership activities.

Further, the AEC is working to install a permanent interactive public exhibition space in the Museum of Australian Democracy and upgrade the National Electoral Education Centre (NEEC) at Old Parliament House. A school trip to Canberra is an excellent rite of passage for many young Australians and the NEEC is often on the itinerary. Typically welcoming around 90,000 visitors annually, the NEEC reopened following the 2020 Canberra lockdown and has continued to manage the evolving COVID-19 environment while still providing education resources to schools in appropriate formats. The improvements will include updating existing technology and adding a walk-up experience for other visitors to the museum, broadening the reach of the centre.

The future

The AEC will continue to evolve and adapt to meet the challenges of the external environment. Work will continue to progress these initiatives and build the necessary foundations to better deliver elections in a changing environment, with enhanced security and an eye to future legislative changes. Reliable infrastructure is vital in our increasingly complex and dynamic operating environment. The funding received this financial year provides us with greater certainty on how we can plan to deliver electoral services beyond the next electoral cycle. The AEC aims to deliver citizen-centric electoral services, which means we seek to facilitate—not complicate—participation in federal electoral events.

The last 12 months have further demonstrated our agility in delivering electoral events in a COVID-19 environment. We are taking the lessons from electoral events delivered during this period and scenario planning to enable us to deliver, within electoral laws, successful elections regardless of whether such an event might need to be conducted under COVID-19 conditions. Should this be the case, we will be ready and mobilised. The safety of Australian voters and the integrity of the election results will remain our utmost priorities.