Behind the Scenes: The AEC's 1998 Federal Election Report: Introduction

Updated: 4 December 2007


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The Commonwealth of Australia was formed on 1 January 1901 when the six Colonies (now States) federated to form the new nation. A Federal Parliament consisting of two houses – the House of Representatives and the Senate – was established to govern the new nation. Eligible Australians vote at federal elections to elect people to represent them in both houses of parliament.

History of Electoral Administration

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 to administer the conduct of federal elections and referendums. 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 Act") 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.

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 a part-time non-judicial member (usually the Australian Statistician). In addition, the Deputy Electoral Commissioner assists the Electoral Commissioner.

In each State and the Northern Territory, the Australian Electoral Officer (AEO) is responsible for the management of electoral activities within their State or Territory. An AEO for the Australian Capital Territory is temporarily appointed for each election period. The AEO is the returning officer for the Senate election in their State or Territory.

Each electoral division has a permanent Divisional Returning Officer (DRO) who is responsible for electoral administration in their division. The DRO is the returning officer for the House of Representatives election in their 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.

Redistribution of Electoral Boundaries

Each State and Territory is divided into voting districts called electoral divisions, with voters in each division electing a Member of Parliament to the House of Representatives.

A redistribution (or redrawing) of the geographic boundaries of these divisions takes place periodically to make sure that there are, as near as practicable, the same number of electors in each division. The procedures for conducting redistributions are outlined in the Act.

Following the 1996 federal election, redistributions were undertaken in Western Australia, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory.

The Western Australian redistribution was triggered as the maximum statutory period of seven years had elapsed since the last redistribution in 1989. This 1996 redistribution process resulted in adjustments to the existing 14 division boundaries but no change to the number of divisions the State was entitled to.

In the 1997 redistribution process, it was determined that the population growth in Queensland meant the State was entitled to one more seat in the House of Representatives. The boundaries of the existing 26 divisions were adjusted to include 'Blair' the new 27th division.

Also in the 1997 redistribution process, it was determined that due to population decrease the ACT would only be entitled to two Divisions at the next election. The boundaries of the previous three divisions were adjusted to form only two divisions.

At the 1998 federal election, voters were electing 148 members to the House of Representatives, the same number as at the 1996 federal election.

The number of divisions in each State and Territory at the 1998 federal election was:
New South Wales 50 South Australia 12
Victoria 37 Tasmania 5
Queensland 27 Northern Territory 1
Western Australia 14 Australian Capital Territory 2

Electoral Legislative Amendments

Since the 1996 federal election there have been changes to several aspects of electoral law. The Electoral and Referendum Amendment Act 1998, which received Royal Assent on 17 July 1998, brought about a number of amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act. The amendments were generally of a technical nature designed to improve operational procedures in the conduct of elections and referendums.

One significant change arising from the amending Act was the effect on 'Langer-style' votes in House of Representatives elections. The Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended so that, while it was no longer an offence to encourage a 'Langer-style' vote (e.g. 1,2,3,3,3,…etc.), such votes would no longer be counted as formal votes.

Some of the other major provisions of the amending Act are summarised below:

  • the declaration of nominations and draw for ballot paper positions to be conducted 24 hours after the close of nominations. Previously these were conducted as soon as possible after the close of nominations.
  • an increase from six to fifty in the number of nominators required by a candidate not endorsed by a registered political party
  • an increase in the nominations deposit required for the House of Representatives from $250 to $350 and $500 to $700 for the Senate
  • voters now able to vote immediately outside a polling place if because of physical incapacity they cannot enter the polling place
  • the AEC now able to conduct the Senate scrutiny using a computer process
  • Australians living overseas for career or employment purposes and not currently enrolled when they depart, are able to enrol and obtain eligible overseas status up to two years after they leave Australia Previously enrolment from outside Australia was not possible.
  • an increase in the eligible overseas elector registration period from three to six years, with the opportunity to apply for yearly extensions after that period.