Yesterday’s news today

Hold the front page! In a heavy-hitting exclusive headlined “Revealed: How the ALP keeps secret files on voters”, the intrepid sleuths at The Age have blown the lid off the political scandal of the decade. Labor, it turns out, has “secretly recorded the personal details of tens of thousands of Victorians – including sensitive health and financial information – in a database being accessed by campaign workers ahead of this Saturday’s state election”. Contained within this database are “profiles of constituents based on its communications with MPs, attendance at rallies, membership of groups, letters to newspapers and through polling and surveys”. Perhaps a moment of quiet reflection might be in order at this point, so that we can fully contemplate the debt of gratitude we owe The Age for its heroic vigilance on our behalf.

Small problem though. As the article eventually gets round to acknowledging, observers of electoral politics have known all about Labor’s Electrac database and its Coalition equivalent, Feedback, for years. All the way back in 2003, Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington published an academic paper which The Age’s breathless efforts have failed to displace as the definitive work on the subject. Shorter accounts by van Onselen and/or Errington were published in Online Opinion and Democratic Audit in 2004. More recently, in a column in The Australian, van Onselen reviewed the practice in light of the parties’ dissemination of postal vote applications to aid their information-gathering.

The Age’s front page report tells us that its investigations have “revealed how Labor is building profiles of constituents based on its communications with MPs, attendance at rallies, membership of groups, letters to newspapers and through polling and surveys … The system allows searches based variously on people’s names, addresses and their stances on issues such as gay rights and the environment.” Personally, when I encounter the word “revealed”, I await to be told something I didn’t already know. But the only substantial difference between the previous quote and the following from van Onselen and Errington is that it focuses on Labor’s database rather than the Coalition’s:

Constituents are tagged based on information gathered through contact with the electorate office, local newspaper coverage (letters to the editor provide good information about issues of interest to particular voters), doorknocking and telephone canvassing. Feedback provides specific tags for voting information (to identify swinging voters, strong or weak party identification), issues of concern, any history of party donation, ethnic identity, and alternative contact details.

None of this is to deny that the specific material The Age has accessed from Labor’s database is highly newsworthy in its right. However, the paper is blowing its own trumpet far too loud when it asserts that “little has been known until now about how the software is used”. Similarly, The Age is quite right to argue, as van Onselen, Errington and many others have done in the past, that the major parties’ collusion in quarantining their activities from privacy legislation is of very serious concern. But these concerns existed last week, last month and last year. What ultimately stands out from The Age’s exposé is its appearance four days out from a state election, in terms that would give the casual reader cause to specifically impute the practice to one party rather than the other.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

109 comments on “Yesterday’s news today”

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  1. Rod

    it is one of those strange facts of life: political parties are exempt from a whole range of rulings mere mortals like ourselves are subject to (food handling regs, for example – unless that one’s been fixed).

    It’s a mystery to me why this should be so.

    I also think that, public debate it all you like, like pollies’ superannuation it’s not going to change.

    Which may be defeatist of me, but I prefer to think of myself as a realist, who works for change in areas where I’m actually likely to be able to get some.

  2. z

    Doctors, lawyers, pharmacists etc are trustworthy and deal with lots of confidential material. And we have to act in accordance with the Privacy Act.

    No-one has mounted a single argument why the Privacy Act shouldn’t apply to politician’s offices.

    It’s worthwhile pointing out that politicians are considered very low in terms of being trustworthy by the public so the argument about them being so scrupulous and trustworthy is not going to fly.

  3. I’m pretty sure electorate office files, electronic or otherwise, are exempt from the FOI Act.

    I had one such case where a person who was embroiled in a neighbourhood dispute went through FOI to get a copy of their file, knowing full well that it contained not only a petition from his neighbours regarding his behaviour, but copies of letters from them plus numerous references to their phone calls. I did contemplate letting him have a copy of the stuff he had sent us and then everything else totally blacked out, but in the end received legal advice to not even do that.

    At the end of the day there was no way on earth we were going to let him anywhere near any of that information and, strangely enough, didn’t seem to fussed when we told him no.

  4. Yes Chinda, that’s right. From the FOI website:

    Freedom of Information
    The Victorian Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to request information held by:

    State government departments
    Local councils
    Most semi-government agencies and statutory authorities
    Public hospitals and community health centres
    Universities, TAFE colleges and schools
    The Act gives you:

    The right to access documents about your personal affairs and the activities of government agencies; and
    The right to request that incorrect or misleading information held by an agency about you be amended or removed.
    The Act does not apply to privately owned businesses. This site contains information about Victorian government agencies only. Commonwealth Government agencies and each State and Territory have their own freedom of information laws

  5. Yes, the FOI act allows “requests” for information. Regarding to health, in my experience of late, I am not allowed to have a copy of my medical file from my neurologist on the basis that I do not have the training/education to decipher the information. That would poses a risk to my health in my neurologist’s opinion. Nor could I ever have a hard copy of my file due to potential manipulation of information. So FOI act has it’s holes , how many I don’t know?

  6. So when is paper going to ‘expose’ the big (and little) retail chains that collect, store and use data on their customers through ‘loyalty cards’? What is the difference?

    These companies would say that they do this to be more able to meet customers needs and wants, to provide better service and products.

    If I was a cynic I would say it is to maximise the amount of money they can persuade people to part with in exchange for the lowest quality goods that can be supplied.

    Political parties collect information so they can persuade people to vote for them. Companies collect information so the can persuade people to buy.

    In return for paltry rewards, customers supply highly valuable data that will be utlimately used to manipulate them.

    So when will the expose’ begin?

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