Australia's Involvement in Elections Abroad

Updated: 16 January 2014

The last ten years have been momentous ones in world history. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of European communism were symbolised by the systematic dismantling of the Berlin Wall. In Asia, agreements on the future government of Cambodia paved the way for the reopening of relations between Vietnam and the West, thus in effect closing the book on the Vietnam War. The long and bitter struggle over the future of South Africa was resolved. And in many developing countries, an increasing need was seen for the implementation of multi-party systems of government, not only to give effect to democratic norms, but also to produce the sorts of improvements in the quality of day-to-day governmental administration which are increasingly being demanded by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Australia has strongly supported these developments, and staff of the Australian Electoral Commission have had the good fortune, while taking part in its program of international assistance, to be first-hand witnesses to history in the making.

The Commission's involvement in international elections started in 1989, when the United Nations requested Australia to send an electoral expert to Africa to advise the United Nations Transition Assistance Group in Namibia.

The Namibian peacekeeping operation was one of the most important ever undertaken by the UN, was certainly its most comprehensive up until that time, and was also the UN's first major electoral exercise.

Namibia, previously known as South West Africa, was a former German colony which had been administered by South Africa since the First World War, in recent decades effectively as part of the apartheid system, under a mandate granted by the League of Nations. Resistance groups in the Namibian population had long been engaged in armed struggle against South African rule, and the issues had been further complicated by the war between South African and Cuban troops in bordering Angola. The peace settlement reached in late 1988 was a carefully crafted one, resulting from long and patient diplomacy involving among others South Africa, the United States, the Soviet Union, Cuba and Angola.

Elections, conducted by the South African administration but "supervised and controlled" by the UN, were to be the climax of the process. These elections were held in November 1989, and the AEC contributed some 25 officers to the contingent of supervisors fielded by the UN. The elections were certified by the UN to have been free and fair, a verdict which was accepted without question by all of the Namibian political parties. Namibia gained its independence on 21 March 1990, and has proved to be an outstanding success story among African countries.

In early 1990, the AEC's next major international involvement started to take shape. War had long racked Cambodia, and the problems of that country were seen not only as a major humanitarian disaster, but also as an obstacle to the development of constructive relations between the countries of Indochina. Australia had been an active participant in the Paris Peace Conference which had been seeking solutions to the Cambodian conflict, and in February 1990 the AEC participated in the development by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Senator Evans, of a series of working papers, presented to the Jakarta Informal Meeting on Cambodia, which among other things outlined the way in which elections might be able to be conducted in Cambodia by the UN, and which formed the blueprint for many of the subsequent negotiations.

The working paper on possible electoral arrangements in the transitional period was substantially reflected in the peace agreement reached in Paris in October 1991. Partly as a result of the AEC's long-standing interest in the matter, AEC officers on secondment to the UN became heavily involved in both the planning of and preparation for the UN conducted election in Cambodia.

The AEC also contributed a substantial team of international polling station officers, who ensured the smooth conduct of the voting at election time. Again, the election was certified by the UN to have been free and fair, and the peace settlement process concluded with the adoption by the newly elected Constituent Assembly of a new Constitution.

The work done by the AEC in Namibia and Cambodia was widely acclaimed as a constructive Australian contribution to international peace, and indeed a 1991 Senate inquiry into Australia's involvement in United Nations peacekeeping operations recommended that the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 be amended to formalise the provision of international electoral assistance as one of the AEC's functions. That amendment was made in 1992.

The AEC's most recent major international work was carried out in South Africa. The election held there in 1994, the first universal franchise election in that country, was one of the most historically important of the post-war period. AEC staff participated at senior levels in both the United Nations Observer Mission in South Africa and the Commonwealth's Observer Group; provided important technical assistance to South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission; and took part in the observation of the conduct of the voting and the count.

The AEC's international work has become more diverse with the passage of time.

Since 1989 AEC officers have served as consultants to the United Nations at its New York Headquarters and in Western Sahara, Cambodia and South Africa; as consultants to the Commonwealth in Mozambique; as members of Commonwealth observer groups in Bangladesh, Ghana, Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania and Zanzibar, as consultants to the International Foundation for Election Systems and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance; and as providers of technical assistance, funded by the Australian Agency for International Development in a range of countries. The nature of the work done has been extremely diverse, ranging from high-level policy advice and development, with major political and diplomatic overtones, to observation of electoral processes at the grass-roots level.

The last ten years have also seen a maturing of the expectations of the international community regarding electoral processes. While the effective conduct of elections in Namibia, South Africa and Cambodia remains an inspiration, the failure of elections in Angola and Haiti to resolve long-standing problems has forced policy makers to focus on the necessary pre-conditions for the growth of democracy.

While these debates continue, however, there is no dispute over the value of technical excellence in electoral administration. Here, the AEC's reputation – and Australia's – are very high.

In addition to his role at the Australian Electoral Commission, Michael Maley has served as Senior Deputy Chief Electoral Officer with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia.