More than 100,000 people will be employed to ensure the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum runs smoothly, with preparations well underway for the compulsory nationwide vote expected to be held later this year.
With the Federal Government seeking to change the Constitution to enshrine a First Nations consultative body to the parliament, a huge effort is being made to give the referendum every chance of success.
It will be the first referendum held in more than two decades.
The Australian Electoral Commission was allocated $63 million in the last federal budget to prepare for the vote. That figure includes $16.1 million to help get more Indigenous Australians on the electoral roll.
As of late last year, more than 80 per cent of Indigenous Australians had enrolled to vote, with that number rising.
While the referendum’s timing and other logistical arrangements remain unclear, the AEC appears confident its preparations are on track.
An AEC spokesperson told Region that a lot of work was being done in preparation for the vote, but much of it was usual business for the agency.
“The AEC has been preparing to run Australia’s first referendum in more than 20 years for some months now, prompted by the Government’s announcement that it will be held in the 2023-24 financial year,” the spokesperson said.
“While the date of the referendum isn’t yet known, this isn’t an unusual circumstance for us – we never know the date of a federal election until it’s called.
“A lot of our preparation is similar to the work we do ahead of a federal election. Activities like designing postal vote packs, planning the locations of polling places, ensuring we’re able to secure appropriate materials, making sure transport arrangements are in place, looking at our remote mobile polling program, planning voting for people overseas and the voting service for people who are blind or have low vision (to name just a few select things).
“In addition, we are, of course, doing our best to get as many eligible Australians as possible onto the electoral roll so that they can participate in the referendum – at this stage, the roll is at its highest ever mark of an estimated 97 per cent completeness.
“Like a federal election, the conduct of a federal referendum will be one of Australia’s largest peacetime logistical exercises and it’ll involve more than 100,000 temporary employees to assist with logistical arrangements, work at polling places and deliver the count.”
The referendum will be traversing new ground for the nation, and there is significant community uncertainty about it.
Concern is being expressed about the process and also about the intent of the poll.
The AEC is also attempting to address these issues and avert misinformation.
“We’re conscious that Australians haven’t voted at a referendum in over 20 years – in fact, approximately 7.4 million enrolled voters aged under 42 have never voted at a referendum,” the spokesperson said.
“We’re taking this into account, and the AEC’s public education campaign will be a resource for newer referendum voters to ‘start from scratch’.
“As per the federal election, the AEC will also address mis- and disinformation. While the AEC will not have a role in fact-checking claims made by Yes or No campaigners, we are the owners of the process of running a referendum, and it’s right for us to step in and clear the air about that process.
“We’re already detecting a huge knowledge gap about the process of referendums and taking steps to address this. As an example, some voters believe you need to enrol separately to vote at a referendum – this isn’t the case.
“There are also a few misconceptions going around due to the 2017 Marriage Law Postal Survey. This wasn’t a referendum, and it’s important that we take steps to ensure that voters know the difference – unlike the postal survey, a referendum is compulsory and will be conducted similarly to the 2022 federal election.”
The National Indigenous Australians Agency received $6.5 million from the federal budget to establish working groups on referendum strategy.
Government legislation seeks to amend the Referendum Act to reflect modern delivery and communications methods for voting, making the process similar to a federal election.
It will make the Voice referendum a different experience to the Republic referendum of 1999 in that it will require disclosure of campaign donations and expenditure, restrict foreign influence, and not require the production and distribution of a ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ printed pamphlet to each elector household, and not fund a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ campaign.