Keynote address to AEC international visitor program

Updated: 11 September 2013

Address by Mr Ed Killesteyn, Electoral Commissioner

5 September 2013

It’s an honour and privilege to be hosting this international visitor program for the 2013 Australian Federal Election.

For me, as the Electoral Commissioner, it is most humbling to host electoral commissioners and representatives from older democracies, such as India, where elections are conducted on an awesome scale, and with which Australia enjoys a rich British heritage, to newly emerging democracies such as Bhutan, with its first democratic election being held in 2007, initiated with vision by the monarchy, and Nepal, where democratic practices are emerging and evolving on the back of a troubled and bloody past.

I warmly extend a special welcome to all the Commissioners participating in this program representing Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Thailand, and Timor-Leste.

I would also like to welcome Mr Andrew Ellis from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and Mr Peter Erben from International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

The countries represented here today reflect the extremes of democratic characteristics, from India with its 715 million voters and one million voting machines, to Bhutan where voters number in their hundreds of thousands rather than millions.

The unifying feature of our respective democratic histories, as well as one of the foundations for a successful future, is the existence of a truly independent electoral commission. Notwithstanding our differences in history, size, budget, technology, voting systems, or the number of electors, effective management of electoral systems requires institutions that are inclusive, sustainable, just and independent. This includes, in particular, electoral management bodies that have the legitimacy to enforce rules and assure fairness with the cooperation of political parties and citizens.

This is an awesome responsibility: full of challenges, full of difficult decisions, where the consequences of decisions by the electoral management body can, without any exaggeration, change the history of the country.

You will no doubt have your own examples, but let me share one such difficult decision in Australia.

The last parliament, elected at the 2010 election, was the 43rd Federal Australian Parliament since Federation in 1901. It was the first hung parliament in the House of Representatives since the 1940 election, with neither Labor or the Liberal-National Party Coalition able to win a majority of the 150 seats in the House, where government is formed. Ultimately, through alliances with a number of independents and the Greens Party, the Labor Party was able to form a minority Government, which history will show was characterised by ongoing instability.

But, it could have been different. In two electorates, I took the decision to exclude in the order of 4000 votes because of irregularities in the opening of ballot boxes. The franchise was lost for these voters, a significant enough decision in itself. In the end, the exclusion of the ballots did not affect the outcome of the winning candidate in each electorate, with the Coalition winning both of those seats. Had a different outcome emerged however, with Labor members winning those seats, a totally different government complexion may have emerged.

It is because of these onerous responsibilities and challenges that are placed on electoral management bodies, that I believe there is real value in exchanges such as where staff, and electoral commissioners, can get together to exchange information; to explore innovative practices, to draw on the lessons of others; to provide mentoring from ‘older’ democracies to newer democracies; or simply act as a vehicle where the difficult decisions we face as commissioners can be shared.

Of course, not all of the work of electoral commissions is about making history-changing decisions. Much of it involves the forensic planning and logistical work associated with preparing for, conducting and cleaning up national elections.

In this respect I think a useful question is how should we measure the quality of our work as electoral management bodies.

Often the work of an electoral management body is described in terms such as the ‘defenders of democracy’, or the ‘protectors of democracy’, or the ‘custodians of democracy’.

One has to be careful before adopting such terms – which imply there is an absolute ideal, with the electoral management body placing itself above all others in making judgements.

Ultimately ‘democracy’, however that is constructed in a particular country, is the best way that citizens design a system to transfer control of certain aspects of their lives from themselves to others – from the many to the few.
Therefore, and I think this is a generally well accepted proposition, a healthy democracy is one where all citizens are participating in the exercise of their free choice to transfer power to some other party.

From an electoral management body’s perspective, it also makes sense to measure the quality of our work, and to give us strategic guidance about where best to devote and invent resources, by measuring the extent to which the community is participating in elections – that is the core of our work.

In this respect, the AEC is guided by three measures. First, those eligible citizens who are on the electoral roll: or, to put it another way, the number that are not on the electoral roll who should be. Second, the number of people who are on the electoral roll and actually vote; or, to put it another way, the number of people who don’t vote as they are required to do so. And finally, the number of people who vote but, for one reason or another, whose vote cannot be counted – in Australia’s case, this would be an informal vote.

Using the 2010 election as a benchmark, 1.5 million eligible citizens were not on the electoral roll, 900 000 citizens who were on the electoral roll did not vote, and 730 000 informal ballots were cast. In total, in excess of three million citizens did not play an effective part in the formation of the government at the 2010 election. That is nearly one in five of the estimated number of eligible voters, and in my view, presents a sobering challenge if we see a healthy democracy as measured by the extent of participation.
These numbers and analysis have guided the AEC over the last several years in its strategic decision making, including the often difficult and politically sensitive task of advocating for changes in electoral laws to make it easier for people to participate in our democracy.

I would have to say that I am pleased with the progress we have made since the 2010 election. Especially in relation to improving the number of people on the electoral roll, we have been able to reduce the number of people unenrolled from 1.5 million as it was at the beginning of 2012, to just over 1.2 million heading into the 2013 election. We have achieved this outcome through a mix of technology, advertising, use of social media, and legislative change that enables the AEC to directly enrol or update a person’s enrolment without the individual having to initiate the transaction, using information from third party government sources.

These reforms will take time to become fully effective, but I am satisfied that AEC now has tools to redress unacceptable enrolment numbers.

As a consequence, our strategic attention is now turning to the second and third components of a healthy democracy: what we can do to encourage more electors to actually turnout at election time, and how we can better help electors to correctly cast their ballot.

The AEC is strongly of the view that long term community change to participate in elections will only come about through civics and citizenship education.

Let me conclude.

How to motivate eligible citizens to voluntarily participate in each country’s democratic system, to create enduring habits of enrolling and voting, is likely to be the most challenging aspect of the work of electoral management bodies over the next few decades – especially for mature democracies but also for newer democracies, as they seek to put in place democratic systems that will exist well into the future.

As you can see by the Australian numbers – one in five not participating – even compulsory systems have their limitations, but for any retreat to onerous penalties for non-compliance, while possibly having a short term impact, would probably not survive the communities’ push against them. Whether we have compulsory or voluntary systems of enrolment and voting, our view is that voluntary compliance, built on the foundations of citizens who are well educated in the ideals of democracy, is a better way forward.

This task – of long term and enduring motivational change – is not one for the electoral management bodies alone. The community, including political parties and the media, need to be involved.

I welcome you to our election visitor program and hope it gives you a sense of what the Australian electoral system is like.