1996 Election Report: Introduction

Updated: 5 December 2007


The Commonwealth of Australia was formed on 1 January 1901. Following the enactment of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 and the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902, an electoral office was established as a branch of the Department of Home Affairs. For the next 70 years the office functioned as a branch of various Commonwealth departments. The Australian Electoral Office Act 1973 established the Australian Electoral Office as a statutory authority responsible to the Minister for Services and Property.

On 21 February 1984, following major amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) was established as an independent statutory authority.

The role of the Australian Electoral Commission

The AEC is responsible for the administration of federal elections and referendums. This includes:

  • maintaining and updating Commonwealth electoral rolls
  • conducting federal parliamentary elections, redistributions, referendums, and industrial and other elections as required
  • enforcing compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting
  • conducting electoral education and promoting public awareness of electoral and parliamentary matters
  • providing information and advice on electoral matters to parliament, the government, and government departments and authorities
  • electoral research
  • assisting in the conduct of certain approved foreign elections and referendums.

The structure of the Australian Electoral Commission

The AEC is organised on a geographic basis with the Central Office in Canberra; a Head Office in each State capital and the Northern Territory; and a Divisional Office in or near each of the 148 electoral divisions. (Each State is divided into electoral divisions corresponding to its number of members in the House of Representatives.)

The AEC is headed by a Commission consisting of a Chairperson (who must be a judge or a retired judge of the Federal Court), the Electoral Commissioner (who performs the functions of the Chief Executive Officer), and one other part-time non-judicial member (usually the Australian Statistician).

In addition to the Commission there is a Deputy Electoral Commissioner and an Australian Electoral Officer (AEO) for each State and the Northern Territory. AEOs are responsible for the management of electoral activities within their State or Territory.

Each electoral division has a permanent Divisional Returning Officer (DRO) who is responsible for electoral administration in that division.The AEC administers the following Acts:

  • Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918
  • Representation Act 1983
  • Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984.

The AEC also has specific functions under the Constitution and the following Acts:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989
  • Industrial Relations Act 1988.

1996 federal election timetable

An election timetable is determined by the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (CEA) and the Constitution.

The dates for the 1996 federal election are presented in the centre column below.
Timetable 1996 federal election dates Definitions
Announcement 27 January 1996 The Prime Minister announces the dissolution of parliament and the intention to hold an election.
Issue of Writs (Constitution s.12, 32, CEA s.151) 29 January 1996 (6pm) The issue of a writ triggers the election process. A writ is a document commanding an electoral officer to hold an election and contains dates for the close of rolls, the close of nominations, the polling day and the return of the writ.
Close of Rolls (CEA s.155) 5 February 1996 (8pm) Electors have until 8pm, seven days after the writs are issued to enrol or to update their enrolment.
Close of Nominations (CEA s.156) 9 February 1996 (12 noon) It is not possible to nominate as a candidate for election until the writs have been issued. Candidates must nominate by 12 noon on the date specified on the writs as close of nominations.
Polling Day (CEA s.157) 2 March 1996 (8am – 6pm) The day on which the majority of electors cast their vote at a polling place. It must be a Saturday and at least 33 days after the issue of the writs.
Return of Writs (CEA s.159) House of Representatives

1 April 1996

Senate: NT 25 March 1996 TAS+ACT 28 March 1996 QLD+WA 4 April 1996 NSW+SA 10 April 1996 VIC 11 April 1996

After the Senate polls are declared, the AEO for each State and Territory returns the writ endorsed with the names of the successful candidates to the State Governor (or Governor-General in the case of the Territories). For the House of Representatives, the Electoral Commissioner endorses on the writ the name of each candidate elected for each division and returns the writs to the Governor-General.
Meeting of Parliament (Constitution s.5) The 38th parliament met for the first time on 30 April 1996. The new parliament must meet within 30 days of the return of the writs.


A redistribution (or redrawing) of electoral boundaries takes place periodically to make sure that there are, as near as is practicable, the same number of electors in each division. In 1994 redistributions were carried out in Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory because of population changes. As a result of these redistributions, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory each gained a seat (Longman and Namadgi respectively), while Victoria lost one seat (Corinella). At the 1996 election, voters were electing 148 members to the House of Representatives, compared with 147 in 1993.

Legislative amendments

Since the 1993 federal election there have been a number of amendments to the CEA. Some of the major amendments are summarised below:

Election funding amendments

Part XX of the CEA, dealing with election funding and financial disclosure, was amended in June 1995 by the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 1995. The amendments were designed to streamline the administrative processes involved in election funding and disclosure.

  • a new election funding base rate of $1.50 for both House of Representatives and Senate votes was set. This rate was subject to the Consumer Price Index which took the rate applicable at the 1996 election to 157.594 cents per vote. The amendments provided a doubling in total payments of election funding. By way of comparison, the funding rate for the 1993 federal election was 100.787 cents per vote for House of Representatives candidates and 50.393 cents per vote for Senate candidates.
  • election funding became an entitlement automatically paid. Previously election funding operated as a reimbursement scheme requiring parties and independent candidates to submit original vouchers supporting claimed campaign expenditure.
  • the amendments required payments of election funding to be calculated on the 20th day after polling day and payments to be made as soon as possible thereafter.

General amendments

  • any prisoner serving a sentence of 5 years or longer is ineligible to enrol and vote (ie actual sentence). Previously prisoners were disqualified from enrolment if they were under sentence for an offence punishable by imprisonment of five years or longer (i.e. potential sentence).
  • an elector going overseas may register as an overseas elector within three months before their day of departure or within one year after their date of departure. Previously the application period was only in the month before departure.
  • rolls for an election close at 8pm. Previously rolls closed at 6pm.
  • applications for enrolment may be accepted by fax machine. This is a new provision.
  • registered General Postal Voters (GPVs) are automatically sent postal ballot papers and certificate envelopes. Previously GPVs were automatically sent a postal vote application form as soon as an election was announced.
  • electors interstate on polling day may vote between 8am and 6pm in that State or Territory. Previously an elector could not cast a pre-poll vote after the close of the poll in their home State or Territory.
  • the security deposit for filing a petition with the Court of Disputed Returns increased to $500. Previously the security deposit was $100.

Points of interest – specific to the 1996 federal election

For the first time:

  • a national telephone enquiry service (13 23 26) was set up from 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday. The service was also available on the weekends prior to the close of rolls, prior to polling day and on polling weekend. A total of 317 799 enquiries on this number were handled throughout the election period, in addition to the large number of calls to the AEC's normal listed numbers
  • the National Tally Room was set up in a new venue at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra
  • the Internet was used extensively by the AEC, political parties and their candidates, and the general public to communicate information about the federal election
  • cheque-book style ballot papers were issued for the House of Representatives (a pad of ballot papers with numbered stubs; papers are torn off as required).

Other highlights:

  • the AEC hosted 24 international electoral officials throughout the election period (a list of the officials is provided at Appendix A)
  • the AEC was able to provide a clear indication of the election outcome within 60 minutes of the polls closing in the eastern States
  • public funding paid to political parties and candidates topped $32 million
  • section 329A of the CEA became controversial during the election when the AEC was granted an injunction against Mr Albert Langer for contravening this section. Section 329A makes it an offence to actively encourage electors to fill in a ballot paper otherwise than fully preferentially
  • in Western Australia and Tasmania polling day coincided with the Labour Day long weekend resulting in an increase in declaration voting
  • the AEC conducted three by-elections for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission on the same day as the 1996 federal election
  • the 1996 federal election was one of a number of elections conducted in the first half of 1996. In the Queensland State division of Mundingburra, a by-election was conducted on 3 February, State elections were conducted in Tasmania (24 February) and Victoria (30 March). The AEC also conducted local government elections in Victoria and a host of industrial elections nationally
  • AEC staff in Tasmania had their workload substantially increased by the overlap of the State and federal elections, with the State election conducted just one week before the federal election.