Covid-safe poll a ‘no-fail’ mission for Cantwell 

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HEADING up security in a war zone for the Afghanistan presidential election in 2009 is a far cry from the calm and order of an ACT election in 2020.

ACT electoral commissioner Damian Cantwell… “We are in a good place, we have a plan to ensure the covid-safe arrangements work, and we are on that path now.” Photo: Belinda Strahorn

But that’s the challenge for Army brigadier turned ACT electoral commissioner Damian Cantwell.

An illustrious military career spanning 37 years, including a high-profile appointment at the Pentagon and various deployments overseas, has taught him a thing or two about being prepared. But nothing quite like the challenge of running a pandemic election.

Weeks out from October’s poll, an unflappable Cantwell, 57, is moments away from his first test as the territory’s election boss, a mission he hopes to execute with military precision.

“In a combat situation someone is always trying to unhinge you, to bring you harm or death,” Cantwell explains.

“And here we are in an election year where no one is shooting at us or trying to blow us up, but the events that have transpired have been difficult and have challenged us in our thinking and planning.”

Public service is in Cantwell’s DNA. One of eight children, four of his brothers also served in the Army, as well as his wife Susan and one of his two children. 

His exceptional career includes appointments in Australia, the UK, the US and the Middle East. He was deployed to Bougainville in 1994, Kuwait and Afghanistan several times. He was a trainer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, and served as the chief of defence force’s liaison officer to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon. 

Despite his impressive CV, Cantwell is equally proud to be a cycling enthusiast and collector of funky socks. 

In 2017 Cantwell left the Army and succeeded long-time ACT Electoral Commissioner Phillip Green. 

“When I applied for the job my wife Susan asked: ‘What do you know about elections?’,” Cantwell said.

“Not much,” he replied.

“But I did organise the logistics and security support for the 2009 Afghanistan presidential elections, it was a huge undertaking in an active war zone.

“Whilst I didn’t know that much about the technical or legal aspects of an election, I did know about the logistical side of things, and I think that’s what they were looking for, someone with leadership and management experience.”

Cantwell, now three years into his five-year term as commissioner, has applied his military know-how to create a “contingency” plan he hopes will see the territory through its first pandemic election.

“When I took the job in 2017, I asked the question: ‘What contingency plan do we have in case what we have done before doesn’t play out?’,” Cantwell said.

The short answer was nothing.

“This wasn’t a criticism, but there was a reliance on what has been done before will work again, and here we are in 2020 with drought, fires, floods, a pandemic and economic turmoil… it’s been a hard year,” he said.

Figuring out how to conduct a pandemic-safe election hasn’t been easy.

“We developed a plan and now we are marching towards the sharp end of the endeavour,” said Cantwell.

That plan, among many things, involved changing legislation to enable all Canberrans to vote early.

As a result, 15 early voting centres – triple that of the last election – will open across the territory on Monday, September 28. 

Come election day on October 17, 82 polling booths will open for Canberrans to cast their vote. 

To cope with the expected influx of early voters, 300 electronic voting machines, three times the number of machines than last time, will be available – and wiped down afterwards. Traditional ballot papers are still on offer, with single-use pencils only. All electoral staff will wear masks and carry out social-distancing checks.

“We will also have on our website the peaks and troughs of where people are voting so they can make their own mind up when they think it’s best to vote and act accordingly,” Cantwell said.

With 99 per cent of Canberrans already enrolled to vote, Cantwell expects that four in five electors will exercise their democratic right ahead of polling day. Most will do so on the electronic touchscreen, which means the ACT’s result may be known sooner. 

“We have always been able to arrive at an initial distribution of preferences within an hour or two of polls closing,” he said.

“Of course, we have to wait till postal votes or overseas votes are received to do the final count, it’s then subject to the scrutiny process, following that I can declare the result officially, and seven days after that the new government is formed.”

But before then, there’s much work to do.

“We are in a good place, we have a plan to ensure the covid-safe arrangements work, and we are on that path now,” said Cantwell.

“This is a no-fail mission.”


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