AEC’s warning ahead of Voice vote

The Australian Electoral Commission has appeared before senate estimates. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

The Australian Electoral Commission has warned of a “regrettable increase in threatening commentary” and a rise of disinformation in the lead up to the Voice to Parliament referendum.

Commissioner Tom Rogers, in giving evidence to Senate estimates on Tuesday, said with “increasing threats to electoral integrity” and various other issues, the referendum and the next general election would be undertaken against a background of “the most challenging, unpredictable, complex and yet exciting epoch in the AEC’s history”.

The AEC will be responsible for undertaking the Voice to Parliament referendum, expected to take place between October and December.

Mr Rogers said the 2023 referendum would be conducted in an “information ecosystem” completely different to the last referendum, which carried significant risks of disinformation.

Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers appeared before senate estimates on Tuesday. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

“Against a backdrop of increasing threats to electoral integrity, escalating electoral costs, supply chain disruptions, recruitment challenges and ageing systems, the AEC continues to prepare for a referendum and the next general election, whenever that may be, and at least one by election,” he said.

“The information ecosystem was entirely different at the time of the last referendum, with no social media. We’re already seeing an increase in disinformation on social media, and a regrettable increase in threatening commentary. We’re adapting our approach to manage this for the referendum, including protecting our own staff from online harm.

“We’re seeing a more unpredictable information environment every day, requiring us to navigate far more challenges than ever before.”

Politicians, like Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney, will be invited by the AEC to contribute to the official pamphlet. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

Mr Rogers said the AEC was gearing up to produce official Yes/No pamphlets to be distributed to all households in at least 54 languages, including 20 oral Indigenous languages.

He recommended parliamentarians – who will write the essays which make up the pamphlet, keep their arguments simple.

“Translation is a really difficult thing, and some of the concepts, if they’re very complex, are difficult to translate accurately and so simplicity of messaging is actually critical here to ensuring people understand what’s occurring,” he said.

“And I mean that quite sincerely. Particularly translated information; there are some concepts that just don’t translate across many languages.

“So if there was a plea, (it would be) that the simplicity of the argument in those cases is very important.”

Mr Rogers said the AEC would write to all politicians in the next week with information about the process of putting the pamphlets together, including advice on formatting and fonts.

He warned parliamentarians if they didn‘t get their essays in on time, rules dictate one-sided pamphlets could be distributed.

“It might mean that we’re distributing a booklet with only one case,” he said.

“Whatever parliamentary processes put in place by the ’yes’ and the ’no’ groups that are formed, it will be very critical to make sure that we get all of that material on time.”

He confirmed the AEC would not interfere with the copy, even if there were spelling mistakes.

He confirmed the booklet would be accessible online, with pamphlets to be made available on referendum day to voters who request a copy.