The Australian Electoral Commission has moved to quell fears in the local government sector that its staff may no longer attend council citizenship ceremonies to enrol new voters on the spot as soon as they become eligible, saying staff will still come if requested.
After decades of maintaining the popular policy of sending AEC staff to welcome the latest participants in Australia’s system of democracy (which is based on compulsory voting), councils had feared that electoral officers could soon be withdrawn from the ceremonies amid cost cutting and shrinking federal budgets, with local governments forced to pick up the tab for dealing with enquiries from prospective voters.
The issue came to a head at this year’s National General Assembly of the Australian Local Government Association in mid-June, which carried a motion (No. 58) put up Victoria’s Wyndham City Council calling for the peak body to write to “to the Minister responsible for the AEC seeking a reinstatement of these resources.”
Specifically, the motion called for the National Assembly to “express its concern about the removal of Australian Electoral Commission officers from Citizenship Ceremonies, leaving Council staff with the responsibility for dealing with voter queries and enrolments, a cost shift onto Local Government.”
But according to the AEC there has been no decision to start withdrawing officers from citizenship ceremonies, it’s business as usual and they will still show up if there are sufficient numbers.
“There has been no change in AEC policy in attending citizenship ceremonies. The standing policy remains that for all citizenship ceremonies where there are 10 or more attendees the AEC attends also,” an AEC spokesperson told Government News.
“Councils pre-advise the AEC of scheduled citizenship ceremonies and numbers to facilitate the ongoing process of attendance. If there are less ten attendees, the AEC policy is to follow up new citizens via correspondence with enrolment applications.”
The AEC spokesman said the organisation also followed up new citizens who “for whatever reason … miss a larger ceremony where the AEC is in attendance.”
But the AEC has offered a small clue as to how the mix-up might have occurred.
The Commission has confirmed that not everything has been going entirely to plan in Wyndham, partially explaining how the council may have come to think AEC staff had been cut.
“As a result of an oversight, a small number of ceremonies were not attended earlier this year in the Wyndam Council area. The AEC wrote to the Wyndham Council and apologised for this oversight prior to the ALGA conference,” the AEC spokesman said.
A statement provided by the council, attributed to Wyndham City Mayor, Bob Fairclough, said there is concern “that if AEC staff are not in attendance at citizenship ceremonies then Council staff are required to distribute AEC/electoral material, answer questions (which in most cases they are not qualified to do), collect voter enrolment applications/forms and return them to the AEC.”
“Council appreciates the AEC attention to this matter and commitment to be present at citizenship ceremonies,” Mr Fairclough said.
“Without AEC attendance, there is a significant error [and] non-completion rate, resulting in people not being enrolled or AEC needing to follow up, which otherwise could be avoided.”
Mr Fairclough said that in the 2013-2014 financial year, Wyndham City Council conducted 22 citizenship ceremonies, with over 120 people attending each ceremony, a significant number.
“This is indicative of Wyndham’s status as Victoria’s fastest growing municipality and home to people from diverse cultures and backgrounds attracted by Wyndham’s location and housing affordability,” Mr Fairclough said.
“Council is in continuing dialogue with Commonwealth officials regarding possible additional support for councils experiencing rapid population growth and therefore extraordinary demand for citizenship ceremonies.”
Wyndham City Mayor, Cr Bob Fairclough.
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