In April 2015, there was a change in policy on public access to the Commonwealth electoral roll. The final report on the 2013 Federal Election by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters stated that ‘public access to the electoral roll should be unfettered’ (see Chapter 4, pages 83-89).
Readers may be aware that in 2013, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) adopted a policy that significantly restricted access to the most recent electoral roll. Members of the public were only allowed to search the electoral roll to check their own enrolment details, or to make an objection to the enrolment of another elector.
These strict rules had a significant impact on the work of organisations supporting people affected by forced adoptions and institutional care, as well as individuals wishing to connect with family members.
A number of organisations, including Jigsaw QLD, VANISH and the NSW Committee on Adoption and Permanent Care Inc made submissions to the Inquiry, outlining how restricting access to the electoral roll was not in the spirit of the Senate Committee reports into institutional care and forced adoptions. The then-Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews, made a submission, noting the difficulty that restrictions on access to the electoral roll had caused organisations providing tracing services for families affected by past institutional care and forced adoption practices.
In March 2015, the Commonwealth Ombudsman advised the AEC that its policy on public access to the electoral roll was inconsistent with the law. In April this year, the AEC advised the Forced Adoptions Team at the Department of Social Services of the current policy:
- Members of the public may access the publicly available roll on Public Access Terminals in AEC offices without challenge as to the purpose which they are accessing the roll.
- AEC staff will still monitor public access to the roll to enforce the restriction on copying or recording the roll by electronic means.
- AEC staff will monitor public access to the roll in relation to the length of time an individual member of the public uses a terminal in order to ensure that other members of the public can also gain access in a timely fashion.
Electoral rolls (both current and historical) are a vital resource for individuals and organisations conducting family tracing. The shift in policy by the AEC means that the essential information in electoral rolls is again accessible to people wishing to search for and reconnect with family.