Australia has a long history of electing governments through fair, open and democratic elections. Our Constitution provides that the Senate and House of Representatives shall be ‘chosen by the people’. The terms of Senators are limited to six years and the House of Representatives, collectively, is limited to three years. This creates a requirement for a federal election at least every three years. Ministers of the Executive are required to be Senators or Members of the House.
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is responsible for the conduct of federal elections. As the entity trusted to count the votes and declare results, the AEC fulfils a critically important role supporting our democracy.
Notwithstanding all of the above, modernisation of the AEC has fallen behind community expectations. There is significant scope for technology to improve and replace manual handling methods. Overdue upgrades of the AEC’s core information technology systems pose unacceptable risks to the integrity of elections. Outdated and cumbersome legislation needs amending. The AEC recognises that it needs to invest in better training for temporary election staff.
Successive governments have not pursued reform of the AEC. Consequently, the AEC has had limited capacity to modernise and is experiencing organisational stress. Voters must have confidence in the election result and certainty that no bias or error has influenced the outcome. Change is now imperative to maintain this confidence and the AEC needs additional resourcing to keep pace.
This report focuses on urgent short term reform issues for the AEC, those being:
modernising the current paper-based system and integrating information technology systems;
new and enhanced training for temporary election staff; and
technical amendments to legislation.
While this represents a starting point, the Committee understands that modernising the AEC is going to be a continuous transformational journey. There are evolving challenges, such as cyber security and the influence of foreign actors that requires close scrutiny and an ability to rapidly respond to ensure the integrity of our electoral system. Future technology may provide new opportunities and solutions.
The Committee will continue to monitor developments at the AEC, by reviewing reform progress every six months.