An overview of the Australian Electoral Commission
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is responsible for conducting federal elections and referendums and maintaining the Commonwealth electoral roll. The AEC also provides a range of electoral information, education programs and activities.
The AEC is funded to deliver one key outcome:
Maintain an impartial and independent electoral system for eligible voters through active electoral roll management, efficient delivery of polling services and targeted education and public awareness programs.
Australian federal elections are conducted in accordance with the Australian Constitution and relevant legislation, notably the Commonwealth Electoral Act (1918) (‘the Electoral Act’).
The AEC was first established as a branch of the Department of Home Affairs in 1902. Between 1973 and 1984, it was known as the Australian Electoral Office. On 21 February 1984, following major amendments to the Electoral Act, the AEC was established as an independent statutory authority.
The AEC’s corporate plan for the period 2016 to 2020 outlines its current objectives:
deliver a changed model for elections and referenda;
govern the organisation for quality and assurance;
professionalise the workforce;
re-establish the reputation of the AEC; and
build an agile and responsive organisation.
The need for modernisation
The AEC’s original submission observed that federal elections are ‘often described as the largest peace-time logistical events in Australia.’ The AEC characterised the current model for conducting federal elections as being unsustainable:
…the current model for the conduct of elections, including the recruitment and training of temporary election officials, is at the end of its useful life. While the AEC’s funding has been sufficient for election delivery within the existing model, there has not been any capacity for significant improvement or replacement of systems.
The AEC advised the Committee that without legislative reform and additional funding, further modernisation would be difficult to achieve:
… the AEC has innovated within its current significant legislative and resource constraints. Following an evaluation of the successes and challenges of the 2016 federal election, the AEC has concluded that further meaningful innovation and modernisation are unlikely without legislative reform and significant investment in the AEC’s base operating systems and models.
Further, the AEC advised that its 1990s information technology systems are potentially expensive to maintain and vulnerable to evolving cyber threats:
The maintenance of these systems and efforts to keep them operating within the modern environment are becoming increasingly costly and present an increasing risk to the integrity and security of the electoral process.
The AEC explained that cybersecurity is an area of concern:
…recent cyber security incidents, for example, the incident affecting the 2016 census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and ongoing speculation about the recent US Presidential election, demonstrate the potential catastrophic risk of a failure in this domain.
The AEC has noted in its submissions that since 1983, the size and scale of federal elections have posed greater complexities and challenges:
the size of the eligible voting populations – 9.4 million in 1983 to 15.7 million in 2016;
the manner in which electors and other stakeholders engage with the AEC – the number of pre-poll votes has also grown from 5.9 per cent to 22.1 per cent of all votes issued since the 2004 federal election; and
the number of political parties and candidates seeking to participate.
The loss of Senate ballot papers in Western Australia during the 2013 federal election count triggered a series of external reviews, as well as a period of self-analysis. Reviews by the ANAO and Mr Mick Keelty AO APM, (the ‘Keelty Report’) as well as self-analysis, on the incident and on the AEC’s delivery of federal elections, have led to ongoing reform within the AEC.
The AEC noted that ‘changes required to modernise… will not happen overnight.’
The Committee wishes to thank all individuals and organisations who have contributed to the inquiry process.
All transcripts of public hearings and written submissions are on the Committee’s website. A complete list of submissions and witnesses will be included in the Committee’s final report for this inquiry.