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The Commonwealth of Australia was formed on 1 January 1901 when the six colonies (now States) federated to form the new nation. A Federal Parliament, consisting of two houses - the House of Representatives and the Senate - was established to govern the new nation. It is at federal elections that eligible Australians elect people to represent them in both houses of Parliament.
History of electoral administration
Following the enactment of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 and the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902, an electoral office was established as a branch of the Department of Home Affairs to administer the conduct of federal elections and referendums. For the next 70 years the office functioned as a branch of various Commonwealth departments. The Australian Electoral Office Act 1973 established the Australian Electoral Office as a statutory authority responsible to the Minister for Services and Property. On 21 February 1984 following major amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Act) the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) was established as an independent statutory authority.
The role of the Australian Electoral Commission
The AEC is responsible for providing Australians with an independent electoral service that meets their needs and enhances their understanding of and participation in the electoral process.
Eight processes uniquely identify the AEC:
- preparing for, conducting and reviewing elections
- managing the Commonwealth electoral roll
- educating and informing the community about participating in the electoral process
- providing advice and assistance on electoral matters in Australia and overseas
- ensuring that political parties and others comply with financial disclosure requirements
- supporting electoral redistributions
- conducting research into electoral matters
- providing information and advice to Parliament and the Special Minister of State on electoral matters
The structure of the Australian Electoral Commission
The AEC is organised on a geographic basis with the central office in Canberra; a head office in each State capital city and the Northern Territory; and a divisional office in or near each of the 150 electoral divisions.
The AEC is headed by a Commission consisting of a Chairperson (who must be a judge or a retired judge of the Federal Court), the Electoral Commissioner (who performs the functions of the Chief Executive Officer) and a part-time non-judicial member (usually the Australian Statistician). In addition, the Deputy Electoral Commissioner assists the Electoral Commissioner.
In each State and the Northern Territory, the Australian Electoral Officer (AEO) is responsible for the management of electoral activities within their State or Territory. The ACT is managed by the NSW AEO, and during the election period an ACT AEO is appointed. The AEO is the returning officer for the Senate election in their State or Territory. Each electoral division has a permanent Divisional Returning Officer (DRO) who is responsible for electoral administration in his or her division. The DRO is the returning officer for the House of Representatives election in their division.
The AEC administers the following Acts:
- Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918
- Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984
The AEC also has specific functions under the Constitution and the following Acts:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989
- Workplace Relations Act 1996
- Public Service Act 1999
- Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997
Legislation changes since the 2001 election
A number of changes have been made during the 40th Parliament to the Acts administered by the AEC. These include amendments:
- removing the roll from sale in any format and extending the end-use restrictions for roll information to all forms of the roll to prevent the use of the roll for purposes other than those permitted by the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Act)
- allowing scrutineers to be present at pre-poll voting centres, and govern the behaviour of scrutineers at pre-poll voting centres
- extending the time in which Australians overseas can either apply for eligible overseas elector status or enrol from outside Australia for eligible overseas elector status, from two to three years
- including the sex and date of birth of electors on the certified list as a check on fraudulent voting
- amending the prohibition that prevents prisoners voting so that it affects prisoners serving a sentence of three years or more (instead of five years or more as previously)
- allowing registered political parties and independent members of parliament to be provided, on request, with certain information about where electors voted on election day
- increasing the penalty for multiple voting and make each additional occasion a separate offence, as well as increasing the penalty for false witnessing of enrolment forms
- allowing for the use of a measure of error in determining the ACT and NT's entitlement to representation in the House of Representatives.
A more comprehensive description of the amendments made during the 40th Parliament can be found in the Electoral Newsfile No. 117.
Redistribution of electoral boundaries
Each State and Territory is divided into voting areas called electoral divisions, with electors in each division electing a Member of Parliament to the House of Representatives.
A redistribution (or redrawing) of the geographic boundaries of these divisions takes place at least once every seven years to make sure that there is, as near as practicable, the same number of electors in each division within a State/Territory. The procedures for conducting redistributions are outlined in the Act.
Following the 2001 federal election, redistributions were undertaken in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. Boundaries were also changed between elections in the Northern Territory.
The redistribution conducted over 2002-2003 in Victoria was triggered as seven years had elapsed since the last redistribution. This redistribution resulted in some changes to existing boundaries in Victoria, however the number of divisions was not changed. The names of 36 of the 37 divisions were retained. The Division of Burke was abolished, and a new division was created in the west of Melbourne, the Division of Gorton.
As a result of population changes, redistributions were conducted in 2003 in Queensland and South Australia. It was determined that population growth in Queensland meant that the State was entitled to one more seat in the House of Representatives. In Queensland the boundaries of the existing 27 divisions were adjusted to include Bonner, the new 28th division. In South Australia, it was determined that the State was entitled to one less seat in the House of Representatives. Boundaries were adjusted and the Division of Bonython was abolished.
In 2004, the Northern Territory reverted to two electoral divisions, Divisions of Lingiari and Solomon. This was the result of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Representation in the House of Representatives) Act 2004 setting aside the determination made in 2003, which saw the Northern Territory change from two electoral divisions (the Divisions of Lingiari and Solomon) to one (the Division of the Northern Territory). The amendment reverts the Northern Territory to the previously established Divisions of Lingiari and Solomon. As a result of this amendment, at the 2004 federal election Northern Territory electors elected members to the House of Representatives for Lingiari and Solomon.
At the 2004 federal election, electors were electing 150 members to the House of Representatives, the same number as at the 2001 federal election.
The number of divisions in each State and Territory at the 2004 federal election was:
|State||Number of divisions|
|New South Wales||50|
|Australian Capital Territory||2|