The Australian Electoral Commission has got stroppy at our claims that
it isn’t aggressively pursuing those scoundrels who don’t vote – but we
remain unconvinced.

Indeed, Crikey understands that the AEC isn’t that rattled at all about
catching up with malefactors from the 2004 election – despite the
provisions of Section 245 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.

Since Nick Minchin’s fellow South Australian operator Andy Becker was
head of the Commission, followed by Howard Government special ministers of state,
Minchin and now Eric Abetz, there have been indications that the AEC
has been a little less independent than it might be.

This has included outsourcing electoral policy formation either to the
ministers office or to private legal firms, playing along with
budgetary measures that have reduced policy and operational capacities
in the AEC, silencing or sidelining the AEC in public forums and in the
media so that the minister became the official spokesman, ignoring the
clear legislative intent on one-vote-one value so that a vote in the
ACT now has half the value of a vote in the NT, and outsourcing some
electoral operations – such as postal voting – with predictable
consequences.

When Becker was first appointed he rearranged the top four or five
senior executive service jobs in the AEC. Within a year he had his
desired staff turnover and the yes men and women were installed. Middle
management took longer to work on, but by the end of 2002 a number of
highly competent and experienced senior staff were gone or had
sidelined themselves. The AEC is now largely tame – and seems to have
decided to put itself in the position where it’s defying its own
legislation so that it doesn’t upset a government with a few heavies
who
favour the abolition of compulsory voting.

Other ranks are rattled. One divisional returning officer – one of the
people charged under the Electoral Act with administering compulsory
voting – has made these comments:

We are very worried that we are breaking the law. We have
been informed (in confidential memos from higher up) that the
non-respondents to our non-voter enquiries, and those who have flatly
refused to pay their $20 on-the-spot fines, must be logged into the
enrolment system. This means that all they will get will be a form
letter asking if they live at that address. What happens in the likely
situation that they don’t respond to that letter? They will go on to
targeted enrolment review which will be too late for non-voter court
action that has to be commenced at least a month before the cut-off
date. We have not been informed that there will be any other follow up
court action later in the year. Deliberate non-voters will be let off
the hook and they will not be prosecuted as required by law.

And there’s more – but we’ll tie that up later with the inevitable response this will provoke from the Commission.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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