Australian Electoral Commission - Colloquium 2009

Updated: 1 February 2011

Welcoming address by the Australian Electoral Commissioner, Mr Ed Killesteyn PSM

23 September 2009

I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region. I would also like to acknowledge and welcome other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may be attending today's event. Together we acknowledge the contributions of Aboriginal Australians and non-Aboriginal Australians to the betterment of our democracy.

I wish to also acknowledge Her Excellency the Governor-General of Australia, Excellencies, distinguished and honoured-guests, and colleagues in the Australian Electoral Commission.

My name is Ed Killesteyn and it's my great pleasure, as the Australian Electoral Commissioner, to welcome you all to our Colloquium on electoral matters.

2009 marks the 25th anniversary of the Australian Electoral Commission's establishment, on the 21st February 1984, as an independent statutory authority. Our anniversary is an opportunity for the AEC to reflect on the achievements of its staff over the past 25 years, but also to focus on the future of electoral services and administration over the next 25 years. This Colloquium, bringing together scholars, political commentators, election experts and other key stakeholder groups, is one such opportunity to do just that.

The Colloquium is very much in line with the thoughts recently expressed by the Prime Minister about the need for a broader interchange of ideas between the public sector and the academic community. I intend for it not to be the last opportunity.

I hope the discussion generated during the Colloquium today will help the AEC leadership further sharpen its focus on the 3 strategic themes we have set ourselves:

  • first, the modernisation of our organisation that is required, and the changes that will be needed to provide the electoral services that will be demanded by the Australian community during our next 25 years;
  • second, collaboration and partnership, including in particular with other Australian election management bodies and organisations, to provide future electoral services; and
  • third, the investment needed in our people to equip them to deliver these services.

In 2009, some 260 000 children will be born in Australia. How will these children exercise their electoral franchise in 2027, 18 years from now, or, as another measure of time to which we in the AEC respond with familiarity, only 6 elections away? How will this be different from today? Can we be confident that all 260 000 of these new adults will participate in the electoral process? What do we need to do now to arrest and turn around the long term decline in electoral participation, which currently sees some 1.2 million eligible Australians not enrolled, a third of whom are young adults?

To answer these questions, we need to think about what characterises our current electoral services, how these services are experienced by the community and what could and should be changed to make electoral services more relevant for future generations of voters.

Today, in the main, electoral enrolment and voting processes in Australia are paper-based and manual.

Electoral enrolment services are available during standard business hours, when, for example, people can contact the AEC about letters we have sent them if we believe they need to enrol or update their enrolments. The AEC sends out these letters on the basis of data about people movements and other relevant life events, like turning 18 years of age, which we obtain from various trusted authorities. More enrolments and enrolment updates result from this paper-based process than from any other source.

At election times, voting services are provided for the majority of the voting public during defined hours on a Saturday, and over 80% of electors vote in person at a polling place and record their votes with a pencil on hard copy ballot papers, most of which are ultimately counted by hand. As a federal election is one of the largest, most expensive community-wide logistical exercises in peacetime, tens of thousands of temporary employees have to be brought on board to supplement permanent AEC staff.

Electoral services do not provide the 24/7 convenience or electronic ease of access and speed of delivery that large numbers of consumers currently expect from business. Indeed, Australian electoral authorities are now well behind many government agencies in responding to customer demand for convenient e-services.

Currently, alternative services to voting on election-day are also paper-based and manual – electors can lodge an application for a postal vote by mail, or travel to an early voting centre and go through similar voting processes to those voting on election-day at polling places across the country. The very large increase in numbers of electors at each federal election who cast an early vote is an indicator of strong demand for more convenient voting options.

Electoral authorities spend tens of millions of dollars in the run up to and during elections on mass media advertising, informing the community about elections and what they have to do to claim and exercise their franchise. We do not currently invest the largest part of our available public awareness resources in trying to reach and influence those who are least likely to comply with their obligation to enrol and vote, or who need the most support to do so.

And lastly, separate electoral authorities deliver electoral services for federal, state and local government elections.
Any objective analysis would suggest that little has changed in the way in which the franchise has been delivered from 25 years ago, in 1984, when the AEC was established.

What might be different in 2027 for a child born today seeking to claim and exercise their franchise in a way which addresses the challenge of keeping electoral services relevant? It is important to have a picture of the future. Like the Cheshire Cat's advice to Alice, in Wonderland, and I am paraphrasing here, "if you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else".

I would speculate that in 2027, some members of the community will be able to claim and exercise their franchise electronically, only supplemented by paper-based processes where costs of deploying technology widely become prohibitive. And those who take the technological route will not think of their experience as representing "technological change", because they will not think of electronic devices as "technology". For the coming generations of voters, the hand held device will be a tool as natural as the pencil or biro was to their predecessors.

By 2027, the current legislative onus on eligible electors to claim their franchise might be seen to be in need of modification. By 2027, electoral authorities might, using data from "trusted authorities", proactively update peoples' enrolments, and verify this information with the electors concerned to ensure its integrity.

Secure, linked government and selected business databases could enable Election Management Bodies to protect and deliver the franchise to the community in a much more elector-friendly fashion. When electors move house their address changes could be updated across the whole of government, for those people wishing to use this service. This would remove the onerous task of advising multiple agencies of one's change of address. Authentication of enrolment transactions and checking electors' identities could be done on-line in seconds through linked databases. There would be no close of roll required for an election, as no physical rolls will need to be printed, and people's enrolment claims could be processed and validated on-line seconds before they exercise their franchise, if they so choose.

By 2027, staff in Election Management Bodies should be doing different types of work, which would require many different skills from what is the case now. Enrolment and elections management staff would be involved in data checking and validation and integrity work, and e-business applications development to keep pace with the community's demands for ever more convenient services. The large manual data entry task currently associated with roll maintenance would disappear, with consequential impacts on the way the AEC structures itself and organises its people. Given that it would be unusual in 2027 for an eligible elector to be "missing" from the electoral roll, Election Management Bodies would be able to re-direct effort to ensuring that people are better informed about electoral matters and motivated to exercise their franchise. Public awareness staff would be involved in developing new ways of providing highly targeted electronic electoral information to the community – reducing the amount of costly mass media election information advertising that occurs today at election times.

And, perhaps most importantly in addressing declining youth participation rates by inculcating values-driven voluntary compliance, educating primary and secondary school children about the importance of participating in Australia's model of democracy could, perhaps should, be delivered through a nationally consistent curriculum in all primary and secondary schools, building upon excellent initiatives such as the Constitution Education Fund - Australia. In that respect I am pleased to advise that the AEC has opened up a dialogue with the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Agency.

By making it easier for people to claim and exercise their franchise, the "wired society" of 2027 would also remove some current disincentives to participation in the electoral process, and enable Election Management Bodies to focus more attention on providing tailored services to community groups with special needs such as indigenous peoples, or the homeless or the disabled and infirm.

Collaboration between electoral authorities would be much more extensive in 2027. Sharing costs between Election Management Bodies of developing and implementing electoral services would be one of the key responses by the electoral industry to continuing pressures on their budgets in future years.

The demand for more convenient and accessible services would not only entail changes in Election Management Bodies' business processes. Reinforced by increasing budget pressures, this change would have an impact on the organisational structures of Australian electoral authorities and the organisational boundaries between them and other entities that provide related services.

And of course, all of this modernisation, electronification and streamlining will need to be balanced by the need to preserve the ritual, the perceived public ownership, the involvement of our civil society and the transparency of elections-practice in Australia.

I hope my speculation about how a child born today might exercise his or her electoral franchise in 18 years' time will help set the scene for what I'm sure will be an interesting and challenging discussion of ideas coming out of the Colloquium sessions today.

Fostering such discussion about the electoral services that will be required by a modern Australian community in the future seems to me to be a particularly good way to mark the AEC's 25th anniversary.

But, if change is to happen, then I might just conclude by quoting some further advice to Alice, this time from the Red Queen:

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else –– if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

It is now my very great honour to invite the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, Her Excellency, Quentin Bryce AC, to open this Colloquium.