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Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand - 7 March 2018

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ECANZ Electoral Innovation Conference

Sydney, 7-8 March 2018

Opening remarks

The Hon Tony Smith MP

Speaker of the House of Representatives

Mr Tom Rogers, Australian Electoral Commissioner.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a pleasure to be with you today, and to welcome you to the beautiful north shore of Sydney Harbour for the 2018 Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand conference.

The theme of the conference, ‘Electoral Innovation’, is a subject close to my heart.

As Speaker, I am custodian of the traditions, practices and dignity of the House of Representatives.

It is a responsibility which extends, I think, to taking an interest in the Australian electoral system. I welcome the opportunity to provide you, as the custodians of our democratic processes, with just a couple of observations from the perspective of an Australian elected representative.

The way we choose citizens to sit in the national parliament says a lot about who we are as a nation, the value we place on democracy, the rule of law and institutions serving the national interest.

Australians have a proud history as electoral innovators, from the Australian Ballot to the early enfranchisement of women, compulsory enrolment and voting, the introduction of the Virtual Tally Room and telephone voting for vision-impaired Australians.

We can be sure that this creative, reforming spirit will be called on in the years ahead, as demands to modernise the electoral system become louder and louder.

We are all familiar with the calls for the increased use of digital technology as part of the voting process, for the elimination of long queues at polling stations, and for instant and error-free reporting of election outcomes.

To some, our largely paper-based voting system seems out-of-date.

As the public becomes more comfortable with digital technology, the argument will increasingly be made that elements of the electoral process should be modernised, automated, perhaps carried out on-line.

Before becoming Speaker, I served twice as chair of the Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

In November 2014, as part of its inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 federal election, the committee published an interim report assessing options for electronic and online voting in Australia.

The committee concluded – contrary to some initial expectations, including my own – that the introduction of electronic voting would not be desirable in the foreseeable.

While technology has moved on since 2014, significant risks remain.

Allowing electors to vote from home using the internet has some appeal at first glance.

But, as the committee’s report made clear, the secret ballot – critical to the integrity of our electoral system – is put at risk in any system where votes are cast away from a private booth in a designated polling place.

Convenience is one driver of reform but it should not be the only consideration.

There are many who say voting should be like any other transaction. But it is not – it is fundamentally different to any other transaction.

Of course, this need not be a total bar to innovation; there is a lot that can be done to modernise the electoral process while preserving the integrity of the ballot, such as the use of electronic rolls.

From my perspective as a local member, one of the most significant developments in Australian electoral politics is the increase in the number of electors casting their vote before polling day. This is changing the character of elections.

This trend has been evident for some time.

It was the subject of a detailed inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters as part of its review of the 2007 general election.

It is evident in Casey, the Victorian electorate I represent.

My first federal Election was in 2001. Over the five following federal elections I have contested since, I have seen the number of voters casting their ballot prior to polling day increase dramatically, with no apparent ceiling in sight.

At the 2016 federal election, one third of Casey electors cast their ballot prior to polling day, many by postal vote, and many more at the pre-polling centre.

This represents that a clear evolution in the electoral process is in play where ‘polling day’ means less and ‘polling period’ means more.

This has profound implications for the conduct of local election campaigns.

Campaign activity needs to be sustained at a high level over a longer period.

The aim being to ensure that campaign issues are at the forefront of voters’ minds at whatever point they choose to cast their vote during the ‘polling period’, as well as to avoid voters switching-off part way through a long campaign.

More staff and volunteers are required for canvassing and to represent candidates at pre-poll voting centres. This creates particular challenges for the Australian Electoral Commission in managing interactions between campaign workers that now stretch out over the entire pre-polling period.

Candidates’ spending on campaign materials has to be more evenly applied throughout the election period.

Campaigns will benefit less now than they once might have from keeping resources in reserve for a last push before election day.

In short, the advent of the ‘polling period’ means that campaign organisation is more complex in terms of timing and resource allocation.

Candidates and campaign managers need to be better coordinated and organised.

For all these reasons I am delighted that this meeting of electoral management bodies from Australia and New Zealand has chosen to focus on electoral innovation.

It is fitting that you will hear from distinguished colleagues from other jurisdictions who, I am sure, are grappling with familiar issues.

Thank you for inviting me to open your conference this morning.

I wish you every success in your discussions which I trust will be stimulating and productive.

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