Michael Maley’s Remarks: 2015 Joe C. Baxter Award Ceremony
REMARKS BY MICHAEL MALEY ON BEING PRESENTED WITH THE INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION FOR ELECTORAL SYSTEMS’ 2015 JOE C. BAXTER AWARD IN CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA ON MARCH 1, 2016
President of IFES Bill Sweeney, Vice President of IFES Michael Svetlik, Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers, distinguished former colleagues, and friends. I should like to start by thanking Bill and Tom for their very kind and generous remarks, and both Bill and Michael for having travelled such a long way to be with us today. I would also like to thank you all for coming this afternoon and making this, for me, an occasion which I will very long remember.
Reflecting on years of working in the field of electoral systems, the best times were always those when great teams came together, frequently disagreeing vigorously but respectfully, and often producing remarkable results in that way. The sadness in that, however, was that the centrifugal force experienced by quality individuals always causes such teams to disperse, and one of the lessons I learned was to not mourn when the work of a team came to an end, but to start looking forward to the next great team. Every memorable moment was unique and could be recaptured only in spirit, not in detail; but today I see amongst us many friends who were with me at some of the best times; and that is a very great personal delight.
So I am deeply grateful to IFES not only for bringing us together but also for the honor which it has done me in conferring on me the Joe C. Baxter Award for 2015. My first contact with IFES was right back in 1990, not too long after the foundation had been established; and thereafter, working in cooperation with IFES became one of the real pleasures of my professional life. It is an organisation distinguished not only by great expertise in the delivery of electoral assistance worldwide, but also by the fostering of deep and subtle thinking about many of the complex issues which electoral administrators continue to face.
When it was announced late last year that I was to receive this award, I was especially touched by some messages from a couple of friends at IFES who had worked with Joe Baxter. It is one of the rare regrets of my life that I never met Joe, but I remember well the looks of sadness on many faces as word spread that he was battling the illness that finally took his life. He was a renowned election administrator, and his Strategic Planning For Election Organizations: A Practical Guide remains a classic in the field. But he was also a great human being, very much loved and respected. He reminds us all that we have stood on the shoulders of giants. And when I reflect on that lesson, I must without fail mention and pay tribute to the Australian Electoral Commission, one of the world’s outstanding election management bodies, which not only provided a wonderful working environment throughout my career, but was also especially generous in permitting me to take part in many overseas operations.
I should like to take the opportunity today to offer some brief and probably idiosyncratic reflections on just four points which have motivated my personal approach to international electoral work.
My first observation is about the primacy of principles. One of Australia’s great former Prime Ministers, Ben Chifley, used to make the point that in any situation, if you get the principles right, the details become easy to sort out. This wasn’t an argument against sensible flexibility so much as one in favor of clear thinking. In the electoral world, we have benefited greatly in the last 30 years from some hard analysis which has been done of principles which should apply to our work. But at the same time, I have been quite taken aback and indeed saddened by the number of times I have been told, especially in the context of election observation, that the now well-defined criteria for “free and fair elections” should be seen as “aspirational,” which seems to be used as a synonym for “able to be dispensed with if inconvenient.” I am reminded here of the comment G.K. Chesterton once made about Christian charity, that “it had not been tried and found wanting, but had been found difficult and not tried.” It is our principles that bind us together, and it is worth putting in a lot of effort to ensure that they are defended and realized in practice.
My second observation is that the massive logistical and operational complexity of electoral processes makes it very easy for people to think of elections as fundamentally a mechanical exercise. In Australia, it was popular at one time across the civil service to try to frame almost all activities within a paradigm of “service delivery.” I thought, and still think, that that was quite wrong: it implied a reductionist concept of an election as something delivered to the voters and candidates by the election administration, with the latter ultimately being almost solely responsible for success or failure, rather than as a societal undertaking, with responsibility for success or failure shared across a much broader range of players.
While the technical dimension is unquestionably important, the ultimate test of the success of an election is whether it is accepted by all important stakeholders as conferring legitimacy. In a country like Australia we tend to take this for granted, but it is actually a subjective matter, and is likely to be influenced not only by the way in which an election was delivered, but also by public perceptions of the honesty and integrity of the election administrators. That the public should take such an approach is entirely reasonable: for all that we proclaim a commitment to transparency as a core value of election administration, such a thing is extremely difficult to achieve fully in practice. The extent to which the election administrators can be trusted to act with honesty and integrity is therefore vital.
This becomes important when donor agencies are considering priorities for funding in the area of democracy building. There was a time when there seemed to be a distinct bias in favor of forms of assistance that would be visible at election time; that you could put a flag and a label on (this gave funding for information technology systems a particular appeal). That approach has been broken down to some extent by a better focus on the electoral cycle in the last 10 years, but it is still something that needs to be watched. Forms of assistance which reinforce the willingness of election administrators to do their work with honesty and integrity are often as important, or more important, than those focused on the mechanics.
My third and related observation relates to measurement. While communities have a right to expect accountability for their aid dollars, it needs to be emphasised that what is important is not always measurable, and what is measurable is not always important. I may work with friends in another country for years, seeking to encourage them to make a commitment to running elections to the highest standards of integrity. But the test of the success or failure of that endeavour will only come when a person in a position of power seeks to pressure them to do something wrong; and hopefully that won’t ever happen. Short of that, the ultimate impact of my efforts will not be measurable. But in the context of that country, my priorities may still be the right ones.
My fourth thought is that while many people willingly concede that working to reinforce integrity in this way is a long-term undertaking, it is still surprising how often one can be expected to produce short-term performance indicators. While that can be done, the testing of programs which they underpin is not really very meaningful. Small amounts of money invested over a long time in helping to maintain and sustain contacts and relationships between election administrators in different countries can sometimes bring better returns than large amounts of money thrown intermittently to introduce processes and systems which may or may not be sustainable.
With these thoughts, I come back again to the legacy of Joe Baxter. He is remembered not just for his technical achievements, but for the way in which he built relationships and friendships around the world. Technological assistance can rapidly be superseded; but as long as there are people in our field who, when faced with a difficult challenge, remember him and say to themselves “What would Joe have done here?” his influence for good will endure.
Finally, I would like to say that I feel a certain guilt at being honored for work which was, throughout my whole career, a privilege and a pleasure to do. Election administration is a wonderful area in which to be engaged: it gives one a unique opportunity to contribute to the life of one’s own and other countries; it is intrinsically interesting; and it seems to attract very decent people. In all of this, I was nurtured and supported by the Australian Electoral Commission over a period of 30 years, and by many dear friends and colleagues here in Australia and abroad, some no longer with us, who shared their knowledge and experience so generously. So from my perspective this award should be seen in fact as a recognition of all of them, who were part of my history.
So to those here this afternoon, and to those present only in my memories: I thank you all very much!