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. And before Electrac there were manilla folders, in which all details of constituent contacts were placed and filed – and, I am sure, accessed by campaign workers in the lead up to the poll.

    A good local member keeps details of contacts with their office and keeps track on which issues are of most concern.

    I used Electrac back in 2000. Although the instruction was to use it with discretion, there was no suggestion that using it was a dark secret. When I asked a constituent for their full name, I always said it was so that I could record details on their file – never a problem with that.

    As I said to start with, MPs have been keeping files on constituents forever – and so they should. Imagine how outraged you’d be if you’d rung your MP’s office last week on an issue and this week, in a follow up call, you get a different staffer, who apparently has no idea that you’ve rung before and makes you start from scratch. Or you never get the follow up letter, because the staffer you’ve been working with has left and no one else has a record of your previous contacts.

    So MPs should keep records of constituent contacts. These records need to be available to anyone working in the MPs office, some of whom will not be paid staffers but volunteers (we had some come in a couple of times a week to answer phones). Thus – although I’m not arguing against privacy restrictions, having been burnt by a local MP deliberately using my private correspondence to them for political purposes – any privacy restricitions are going to be tricky beasts to handle.

    MPs have the names and addresses of every single constituent already – these are given out by the Electoral commission and updated by them constantly. MPs offices have kept files on constituents since the dawn of time (and should keep files on constituents, in the same way your local insurance broker or lawyer or school does). They have also used these files in precisely the way Electrac is used – to target individuals according to issues they’ve raised. Electrac just makes it easier.

  2. The biase reporting in the Age had reached the “Australian” level

    All these biase reporters … how dare they report facts about the ALP …. it was only ok when they report on the Coalition … they should not report facts about the ALP

  3. dovif,

    Labor has been using Electrak for years. It’s well known, Labor doesn’t shy away from using it and there is absolutely nothing new in the story.

    It’s a bit like you are known to be an immature Liberal twat. It might be true, but it’s hardly front page news.

  4. funny though William that you choose to hold your front page and give this story even more prominence. And push the good newspoll for Labor down. Ironic, dont you think?

  5. Maybe, tomorrow they will have the scandal that the Liberals do the same thing, the day after that, the Nationals are using Manilla Folders and The Greens keep details of booth helpers so they can help at following elections. The night before the Election there will be the major exposè that the Australian Democrats have a database, thats out of date. Which of course is just the worst.

  6. Disasterboy,

    The article actually says that the Libs use Electrak. However, the headline imputes it is some Labor secret squirrel project.

  7. thanks GG
    that will make it easier to rehash the article tomorrow. Copy the name of the Liberal database from the draft document, then find and replace the name of the ALP DB. Find Liberal and remove that sentence.

    Headlines seem to selected to get attention rather than accurately reflect stories. The ABC online headlines seem tohave been distortions rather than selective misrepresentation lately.

  8. What makes Royce Millar’s work so blatantly an anti-Labor smear-job is the utter failure to “investigate” the Liberals and Greens Party databases.

    Every election, The Age and other papers trot out the “secret database” line. Unfortunately they can do this without consequence.

  9. That’s funny. When I wrote to my local member about my concerns I thought those concerns would be (a) ignored, or far less likely, (b) brought to the attention of that member. I never stopped to think that it would be (c) used to build a political profile of me for electioneering purposes.

  10. There are no controls over who can access and use people’s private data. No permission was given for this process to occur. And it has leaked to the press.

  11. If there is bias here it isn’t in the reportage of the data that the Age has been able to access.

    The bias is in the conclusion:

    [Exposure of these records raises thorny questions for Labor about how the information was gathered and the appropriateness of it being made widely available in the party.]

    The Age acknowledges that both major parties have such a system. It does not reveal whether or not it has asked the Greens or any other party if they have an electronic system – brand name or otherwise – for storing the responses/interactions that those parties have with Australian voters, or whether or not if they do have such a system they would be prepared to reveal what data is stored.

    Somehow this is a problem only for Labor.

    If, as Diogenes suggests, this is a problem, it is a systemic one. But systemic problems are harder to sensationalize, cue some guy and his reference to the KGB.

  12. Although you’re right that the Age is wrong to make this out as some sort of revelation, I’ll admit it was news to me the ALP (and presumably the Liberals) were recording details of people’s health. It’s one thing to mark people down as having political views, another thing to list diseases they may suffer from.

    Of course MPs have to keep records of what people track them about, but surely it is inappropriate for everything to be available to political parties? The health issues in particular seem to me a gross breach of privacy.

  13. freecountry

    So you thought your letter would just be thrown in a pile somewhere, with its contents not recorded in any way?

    Why did you write to your local member in that case?

    When you write to your insurance company, do you expect them to (once the issue you’ve raised has been dealt with) bin your correspondence? When you take out a loan with your bank, are you surprised/outraged/terminally upset when they then send you mail on matters not directly related to your loan?

  14. feral sparrowhawk

    If someone writes to their MP and says “As a cancer sufferer, I would like to draw to your attention….” then what are you suggesting? That the fact the person is a cancer sufferer – information they’ve freely given – shouldn’t be recorded? That when their file is copied for the records (as they have been from time immemorial, this is just an electronic version) that that information should be blacked out?

    Often the whole reason the constituent is contacting the office is because of problems related to their health issue. Why wouldn’t/shouldn’t the office record that information?

    Speaking from personal experience, knowing that a constituent was blind or deaf made my job much simpler when dealing with them. If other staffers had not recorded these facts, both myself and the constituent would have been put through unnecessary hardships.

  15. Diogenes@16

    There are no controls over who can access and use people’s private data. No permission was given for this process to occur. And it has leaked to the press.

    Geez Dio, you really are an annoying pratt……..get back to your clay modelling and stop being a nuisance….

  16. Diog

    As I said, define the problem.

    Is it a breach of the Privacy Act to send you information about a subject you’ve already expressed interest in? Is the bank breaching the privacy act when you take out a loan with them and they then send you a letter advertising a different product?

    Remember, your name and address – and a heap of other details – have already been given to the electoral office by the AEC, and this is updated regularly. The AEC sends each electorate office a monthly list of new enrollments, for example. Are you suggesting that there’s some sort of breach of privacy if the MP then contacts these people to welcome them to the electorate?

    A lot of the other information ‘The Age’ refers to is already in the public domain (e.g. newspaper reports of sporting achievements, birthdays, etc).

    As I’ve said, I’ve been bitten by an MP using a letter of mine against me. However, when I investigated, I could have taken it up as a privacy issue. I didn’t, because I thought up a much better way of dealing with it, but the avenue for recourse was there.

    So, Diog, what information shouldn’t be used in what circumstances? Define the problem.

  17. billy:

    [This is from the paper that Gerard Henderson describes as “a nest of lefties” proving what an astute observer he really is.]

    Well, without making any particular accusation, I’d say it’s possible to both attack Labor and be a ‘nest of lefties’. Indeed, some lefties would probably say it was positively required!

  18. I would also add that there is no suggestion anywhere that this information has been gathered secretly. In most cases, it has been volunteered by the person contacting the MPs office. In others, it comes from public sources.

    Are people here seriously saying that, when your MP sends you a survey asking what the most important issue is in the electorate, you fill it in and send it back, that you do so thinking that they will then NOT send you info on that subject?

  19. z

    Umm. I think I have defined the problem.

    [There are no controls over who can access and use people’s private data. No permission was given for this process to occur. And it has leaked to the press. ]

    There kind of is a reason for having a Privacy Act. It ensures that information is kept secure and only accessed by those authorised to use it in accordance with legal standards and the wishes of those who have provided the law.

  20. Sure, this is not news, but I think there is a problem when a constituent comes to their local member about a matter and they and up on a party electioneering database. I have no problem with a local member tracking and databasing constituent issues, but to then make that available for party electioneering doesn’t seem ethical to me. YMMV.

    On another note, these databases can’t be that great or being utilised that well. I still get personally addressed propaganda from both Labor and Liberal despite being an active local Green who has had their fairly uncommon name as the authoriser on local and online election materials.

  21. Let’s take this as an example.

    [Others are listed as having passed information to their MP about ”corruption in high security prisons”.]

    This person obviously went to some risk to inform the MP about the corruption. As it turns out, all the corrupt people need to do is have a party member look up their details and their complaint, any medical history or other problems the person has had and they can use it.

    Because the parties aren’t subject to the Privacy Act.

    It shouldn’t be hard to realise that that would be wrong.

  22. Now that people know that there are no controls over the information they give to MPs, I imagine they will be less willing to go to them with sensitive information.

  23. Diog

    given that people have been giving MPs sensitive information for years, I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

    As for ‘no controls’, these files have standard security protections – in other words, only those authorised by the MP can view them.

    It’s not as if you can log in to “XY, Member for Z” and download all the information there.

    It also isn’t as if they’re available to any party member who asks to have a squiz at them.

    I would assume (I can’t remember it ever being an issue, because in our office I don’t remember accessing these files for anything other than a record of how many complaints had been made in the last week about the local train service) that there are some restrictions on how the information is used.

    Certainly, I know that internally the Labor party treats privacy issues very strictly – we’re always being told to use ‘bcc’ on emails, for example, and there are protocols about what you email to who and under what circumstances.

    [all the corrupt people need to do is have a party member look up their details and their complaint, any medical history or other problems the person has had and they can use it.]

    No. They would have to get a party member who has access to that office’s files. At our office, that was three staffers, the MP and a couple of volunteers, none of whom would give out this information lightly.

    We often had people come to our office asking for contact details for individuals (they knew we had electoral rolls). The most we would ever do would be to contact the individual concerned, tell them that this person wanted to get in contact, then pass on the details. More often, we would refuse to even confirm or deny that that person was listed on the roll.

    As I’ve said, there’s no information that a pollie collects that isn’t either freely given or freely available.

  24. Diogenes:

    [there are no controls over the information]

    Well that’s just got to be wrong, sorry.

    What you mean to say is there are no legislative controls, but I think that’s also probably wrong.

    In the example you’ve used, it would still be illegal for a party member to access the information stored by a party to further corrupt activities, or to engage in measures to silence the whistleblower.

    You appear to assume that parties do not self regulate.

    You also appear to assume that the Privacy Act would prevent the use of the information in particular ways, when in fact it allows for use for both ‘primary’ purposes and ‘secondary’ purposes. Given the likely primary purpose here, and the vast array of ways another purpose could be legitimately be said to be related to that primary purpose, I think this assumption is flawed.

    If legislation could ever actually solve once and for all society’s ills, many people including me would be out of a job.

  25. As a former electorate officer, I regularly saw local constituents who came into the office to seek help with navigating one or another state welfare agency. As part of giving that help, the constituent gave me private information, such as medical details, housing status or basically any piece of information that was required to assist them.

    Those details were recorded – in front of the constituent – on a constituent record, so when/if the constituent came in again, or if I had to refer to details in a phone call with the welfare agency, I would have them on hand.

    Constituent queries were never used (by my office) for campaignign purposes.

    Constituents that contacted the MP I worked for about political issues, or wrote an email or letter about a Vic Govt policy, or something like that – this detail would be recorded so that the constituent could be followed up with additional information down the track.

    Hardly sinister.

    Shock headline: Out of touch ALP discards elector information over politically correct privacy concerns – an exclusive by Royce Millar.

  26. Zoomster, to answer your question, I wrote about education policy, and I didn’t expect it to go far because what I had to say didn’t fit the current ALP narrative, but I had to give it a try. To make my case I discussed my own educational history going back to an early age. I’ll be more careful next time about including personal information. And I am grateful to the Age for reporting it, because I don’t recall reading the 2003 story.

  27. Yes, Greensborough Growler, most of my views are pretty boring. I don’t choose my opinions of how we should be governed for their sensation value.

  28. freecountry,

    I was just trying to disabuse you of any concerns that anybody might be bothered keeping your personal details for wicked reasons.

    I see you are concurring.

  29. No, Greensborough Growler, you’re just attempting personal abuse to defend a practice which you know perfectly well would have you up in arms if the other side did it.

  30. [funny though William that you choose to hold your front page and give this story even more prominence. And push the good newspoll for Labor down. Ironic, dont you think?]

    Don’t be stupid. Posts appear in the order that I write and publish them. Besides which, my refutation of The Age’s front-page beat-up is infinitely more positive for Labor than a bland recounting of an opinion poll result, capped with the conclusion that its move to Labor should be treated with suspicion.

  31. z

    You do realise that whoever leaked the database to The Age almost certainly leaked it to the Liberal Party as well.

    That means the Libs have all that ALP data and they can use it as the information is not subject to the Privacy Act.

    All the letters sent to your electoral office are now in the hands of the Libs. As well as your constituency file.

  32. [In the example you’ve used, it would still be illegal for a party member to access the information stored by a party to further corrupt activities, or to engage in measures to silence the whistleblower.]

    It wouldn’t be illegal for the party member to access the information though would it.

  33. The Vic ALP were doing this back in the early 1990’s – as were the Libs.

    Is it wrong/right? Good question.

    Is it ‘new’ news? Nope.

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