Firstly, thank you to the Electoral Commissioner and the Commonwealth Secretariat for the invitation to speak today to share my experiences and observations as a former member of the Commonwealth Observer Group to the Solomon Islands general elections in 2014.
From the invitation, I understand that you are electoral administrators from our region and other parts of the Commonwealth. When it comes to elections then,you arethe experts – you live it every working day.
The observations I offer to youis therefore from a bit of a different perspective –drawn primarily from myexperiences in the Solomon Islands general elections 2014 but also from other various professional experiences I have had over the yearsin different capacities.
The first key point about election observers, emphasised to us in 2014,is that we wereprecisely what we were stated to be – election observers. Not there to police or enforce electoral laws or to otherwise interfere in an election process but to learn and consult, observe, report and make recommendations.
I found the role of an election observer to be very important in the election process. As we can all appreciate, an electionis the mechanism by which the people choose their Parliamentary representatives.
It is critical therefore that the people have trust and faith in the election process – that it is free and fair. This is particularly so where elections have been preceded by periods of social or political unrest as had occurred earlier in the Solomon Islands.How then do election observers help achieve this?
I think from my observations, they can do so in a number of ways.
The first is voter turn-out. There aremany ways in which voters may be discouraged to exercise their right to vote or how they are to exercise that right to vote.
The mere presence of election observers I found can re-assure voters to go to the polls and to exercise their right to vote freely. In 2014, there were a number of election observer groups including the Commonwealth – and I felt our presence was reassuring and welcomed not only by the voters but also the election officials.
Secondly, the presence of election observerscan give credibility to an election process. In smaller countries in which many of us live, we all know many of the candidates and elections always generate a lot of discussion and interest, both before and after it are conducted, and often gossip.
In many smaller communities, these can sometimes start to take the word of gospel – the more people that say it, the more truthful it must be. Whether in a small country or in larger countries, I think the conclusion by independent election observers that an election has been free and fair or that voters appeared to generally cast their votes freely goes a very long way to reassuring the people about the election process that the country had embarked upon.
Thirdly, that same conclusion from election observersreassures the international community that the parliament formed following an election has been elected in accordance with democratic principles.
When election observers reach these conclusions, I think election administrators can be proud of having conducted elections that were free and fair and allowed people to exercise their rights to participate in the democratic process.
In the case of the Solomon Islands in 2014, this seemed particularly so to me given the considerable challenges faced by election officials posed by the geography of the Solomon Islands, the terrain, infrastructure and logistical challenges they faced in delivering thoseelections.
I also found that Election Observers have a very important role in providing independent advice and recommendations to the recipient countries about ways in which the electoral process might be improved.
This advice and recommendations can be at the very rudimentary procedural or administrativelevel to broader recommendations addressing greater female representation in Parliament, the strengthening of party systems and similar issues.
In observing the 2014 Solomon Islands elections, one of the striking features that I noticed was the enormous amount of work election officials carry out to deliver those elections.
Theseranged from the very small to the very large and encompassed so many things from the hiring of additional staff, transportation, the nominations of candidates, printing and distribution of ballot papers, setting up of polling booths to security – indeed, the list seemed endless andas an outsider looking in, potentially quite overwhelming for election administrators.
Election observers don’t have those challenges. That gave us what I felt was a unique opportunity to constructively observe, review and make recommendations on the electoral process and the laws – and which may not otherwise appear obvious to those at the coal face of the election.
I recall clearly the considerable amount of time it took for the Observer Group to reach the recommendations and conclusions that we finally made.
That Observer Group of 11 people consisted of eminent people from around the Commonwealth such as Sir MekereMorauta of Papua New Guinea, Senator Linda Reynolds of Australia, Mr HendrickGappy of the Seychelles and lawyers and others who painstakingly worked on a report whose collective views I felt would ultimately be very useful to the recipient country.
The conduct of elections and that of election observers must always consider the election laws of that country. It is needless to say I think, alongside inalienable rights such as freedom of speech, assembly, association and so forth –the principal document that election observers and election administrators must understand. For observers, it is particularly relevant to the observation process itself but subsequently, for the writing of the report and the recommendations that follow.
It is in fact important that all election stakeholders understand the election laws notonly for its proper implementation but also, where there are questions around the conduct of an election, to be able to challenge a result through an impartial and independent tribunal. It is also through that process that there can be further transparency and accountability.
For election administrators, that understanding of the election law is alsovery critical. Irregularities, even small ones, where they affect the outcome of a poll, have the potential to invalidate the election of a candidate.
For anyone who has been involved in election petitions, and I expect the jurisdictions heremay be quite similar – they are stressful, expensive and drain resources.
For people called to give evidence, election administrators, candidates and witnesses, they are subject to cross-examination – always itself stressful.From my various experiences, I cannot over-emphasise the critical importance of knowing the law and applying it correctly.
If a matter is challenged before the Courts or Tribunals, the law is by and large the start point.
Finally, I would like to touch on the importance of your roles as administrators in the broader context of the rule of law. I read with interest the opening speech by Mr Mariner that “election administrators are recognised as being at the frontline as custodians of democracy.”
That struck me asbeing a very apt description. But as custodians of democracy, and in many ways, you stand at its gate in the electoral process, that role is also critical to the continuation of the rule of law – that is the principle that all people, which includes government and elected representatives are subject to and accountable to the law and that the law is fairly applied and enforced to all.Election laws for example prohibit bribery and corrupt practices.
That prohibition in my respectful view is not simply about ensuring a free and fair election but ultimately about the continuation of the rule of law itself well after the end of an election. As David Hume, the Scottish Philosopher said over 200 years ago - “The corruption of the best things gives rise to the worst.”
To corrupt the electoral process is a challenge to democracy and to the rule of law, and unless the custodians of that democracy, people like yourselves are vigilant to those actions, those who engage in such practices may never be held to account.
Electoral laws must ensure transparency and properly facilitate these practices being challenged – that is part of transparency and accountability.
Thank you for your time and I wish you the best for the remainder of your workshop.