All functional and robust democracies require effective Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) to conduct free and fair elections, and Australia is no exception. Voters must have confidence that the result declared by the EMB in a democratic election accurately represents the votes cast, regardless of whether voters dislike or disagree with the results. In Australia, the Commonwealth EMB is the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).
The AEC’s legislated mandate is to ‘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.’ Therefore, the AEC is a critically important democratic institution in Australia, the health of which must never be taken for granted or held hostage to partisan politics in the Parliament.
Since 1983, the size and scale of federal elections have posed greater complexities and challenges, which the AEC has at times struggled to meet despite the dedication and commitment of their staff. Evidence to the Committee indicates public confidence in the ability of the AEC to effectively deliver this mandate has been weakened over recent federal elections. This has not happened due to fraud or corruption, but through internal process failure and technological and legislative impediments.
Recent events domestically and overseas, including the denial of service attack on the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and speculation on attempts to influence last year’s US election, indicate cyber security threats to Australian electoral processes must be effectively identified and mitigated.
Successive JSCEM reports on the conduct of federal elections and the Keelty Inquiry into the 2013 WA Senate election have identified that significant process, technological and cultural reforms are required. Implementation of these reforms requires commitment from the AEC and bipartisan support from governments and Parliaments.
The Committee commends the AEC for its willingness to adopt the Keelty reforms and its proactive efforts to identify ways of transforming culture and processes. But this ability is significantly constrained by outdated legislative requirements and the Parliament’s support for change is required.
This third interim report provides a range of recommendations for reform to assist the AEC to address some of the most urgent impediments to its ability to implement organisational change. However, the Committee acknowledges that while these reforms will provide much needed improvements, they will not create an organisation that is genuinely transformative in nature. Nor will they realise the IT infrastructure required to deliver electoral services in ways that meet current community expectations.
The task of transforming the AEC into an organisation that is able to continuously adapt to meet its mandate in a rapidly evolving world will take ongoing bipartisan political support and oversight. To this end, I sincerely thank the Deputy Chair, Mr Andrew Giles MP, Committee members and participating members for their ongoing engagement, good-will and genuine commitment to ensuring the integrity of our national electoral processes.
On behalf of the Committee, my sincere thanks to the Committee Secretariat; Julia Agostino, Nathan Fewkes, Andrew Gaczol, Nick Parsons and Kelly Burt for their continued hard work, professionalism and engagement with the Committee.