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.