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 thoughts on “Yesterday’s news today”

  1. Diog

    to clarify, and hopefully allay some of your concerns:

    Electrac files are only in the MPs office. They don’t go anywhere else.

    This is because, although the software is installed by the ALP, the computers and the network are owned by Parliament.

    So Electrac records don’t go outside the MP’s office.

    To my knowledge, no one has leaked files and I’m not sure where you get that idea from. ‘The Age’ has reported that MPs on both sides record data on constituents and use this to target mail and other services to them.

  2. As an experiment, I sent a letter of complaint to my local (ALP) member about gay marriage, specifically the perniciousness of those in the party who privately approve of yet publicly oppose – even condemn – the introduction of this important reform.

    I signed it Sponge Bob.

    Needless to say Sponge is now on the “watch list” at the local party HQ (an especially vigilant branch of which is populated by old, white, Catholic men, who despite their generosity in volunteering their campaigning services, are full of bitterness and myopia, and an implacable understanding of themselves as witty in a 1950s kind of way…).

  3. freecountry

    And the way your query would have been dealt with, regardless of whether the MP concerned agreed with your comments or not, should have gone like this:

    1. Letter received and referral to Minister’s office written.

    2. Both letter and referral photocopied.

    3. Letter and referral sent, with copies of both sent to constituent.

    4. Photocopies of letter and referral placed in file in ordinary filing cabinet. (Notes on letter and referral, with electronic copy of the latter, stored in Electrac).

    5. When Minister’s reply received, sent on to you with follow up letter attached. Both photocopied, filed, and noted in Electrac.

    In the olden days, nothing would have happened differently, except for the Electrac entry (which, I repeat, stays in the MP’s office and whose major purpose is to save staff having to physically look for files when someone rings up).

  4. IW

    as there would be no ‘Spongebob’ entry on Electrac (which uses the AEC roll as its starting point) no such surveillance would be set up.

    The first thing you do with Electrac is type in the person’s name. If it doesn’t come up, they’re not a constituent and the contact is thus treated differently (with the first question being along the lines of why aren’t they enrolled in the electorate).

  5. z

    [To my knowledge, no one has leaked files and I’m not sure where you get that idea from.]

    The Age says they have gained access to the database, ie it was leaked.

    [In a rare insight into personal profiling by the major parties, The Age has gained access to the database used by the ALP to tailor its telephoning and door-knocking of individual voters in key marginal electorates.]

  6. z

    And I’m sure if they were given to The Age to discredit Labor that they have also been given to the Liberals. After all, it’s not illegal.

  7. This would have to be the most stupid, dishonest and shameful piece of journalistic prostitution in Victorian history.

    Speaking of beat-ups…

  8. [This would have to be the most stupid, dishonest and shameful piece of journalistic prostitution in Victorian history.]

    I’m surprised at that comment. In this Gillard Age of open and transparent government when we have been exhorted to “let the light in”, I think it is wonderful that the public has been given a unique insight into the workings of politician’s offices and the role they play in our wonderful democracy. 😀

  9. Diog

    By the sounds of it, the most likely scenario is that someone in ‘The Age’ has seen one of these data bases in operation (there are some ex Age journos working as media advisers). The second most likely is that they have got a copy of the software, which would have nothing on it except names and addresses.

    As I said, the software was put in the office computers by the ALP. It was specific to the electorate (that is, the only data on it was the names and addresses of the constituents in that electorate).

    I would assume there’ s a master database at HO, but that would only contain info derived from direct contacts with Head Office. (Of course, computer systems are snazzier now than they were when I was working in an MPs office, but I would highly doubt the Vic Parliament IT guys would look blithely on while MPs sent vast amounts of data out of their system).

  10. z

    Read the article.

    They have the names, addresses and the personal problem that the constituent complained about.

    For example

    [Sam Waszaj, of Travancore, near Flemington, expressed dismay that his correspondence with a federal minister about Medicare funding for late abortions led to a database entry.]

  11. Oh GG, thank you for thinking of me as sensitive, but when it comes to my appraisal of your commentary, I have nothing but indifference…

  12. If you look at the box at the top of the article, the Age tells you what is in the file (eg has prostate cancer and is in pain with blood in urine) and then says the suburb and says it has removed the name to protect privacy.

  13. I don’t know if it’s just one electorate that is involved (as I don’t know Melbournes electorates or suburbs). The examples live in these suburbs; Thornbury, Bentleigh, Brighton East, Preston, East Malvern and Northcote.

  14. Diog

    OK, then not sure how they would have got it.

    It was so ringed around with security when I’ve been given the software I often have not been able to access it!

    But look, in essence no difference to someone stealing files out of an office – and anything on Electrac would exist in duplicate as a paper file.

    If anything, Electrac is more secure.

    I would compare the situation to hospital files ending up in a dumpster – yes it happens, no it shouldn’t, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have made the file in the first place.

  15. Late abortions!

    Now, which ALP-voting demographic would oppose, under all circumstances, taxpayer support for a suicidal rape victim who wishes to have her late-term pregnancy terminated?


  16. So the story shouldn’t be ‘shock horror, Labor keeping files on constituents’ but ‘how did this sensitive info come to be leaked’?

    It’s a bit like blaming the scientists whose emails were hacked into for writing the emails in the first place.

  17. Diogenes

    So unless the Liberals somehow got hold of the database, which I would assume, they do not have access to

    The ALP have given this database freely to their campaign directors/ advertisers, and they have given it so freely that a left wing newspaper managed to get a copy of it and decided to report on it


  18. IW,

    Better check the Greens.

    Eyebrows continue to be raised over Greens preference deals in the lead-up to Saturday’s Victorian state election, none more so than in the seat of Essendon where candidate Rose Iser is listing an anti-abortion advocate who was last year embroiled in a racist email controversy as the second pick on her how-to-vote card.

  19. Well then she should be thrown out of the party. That’s pretty straightfoward isn’t it?

    As all papal sycophants would know, there’s nothing progressive about anti-abortionism.

    Eh GG?

  20. z

    As I’ve said, I have no problems with keeping the files. I keep oodles of private files but I have to keep them according to the law (all our patients sign about what their files can be used for). But they should be kept according to the provisions of the Privacy Act. The fact that the leaker hasn’t done anything illegal is the problem.

  21. Diog

    well, there we disagree, because I’m sure that leaking this information IS illegal.

    There is a difference between using data for certain purposes (target mail) and releasing it generally.

  22. My knowledge of electrac is the same as Zoomster’s – each electorate office has one containing its own constituents, but no-one else’s (except when the electoral boundaries change, in which case there can be an extended version, containing both current constituents and “incoming” constituents).

    But I’ve got to say I’m with Diog on this one. As soon as I saw a list of suburbs, my first thought was whether they related to just one electorate and, if so, whether that would help to narrow down where the “leak” has come from.

    The bottom line is that very few people have access to each database. There is the MP, their staff (not sure of the number in Victoria, but in SA it is usually only 3 or 4 people) and the staff at Party Office (again, probably only a handful of people).

    Shouldn’t be too hard to work out from that who “helped” the information out this time. I just hope they are punished appropriately.

  23. z

    [well, there we disagree, because I’m sure that leaking this information IS illegal.]

    It’s not illegal because it’s not subject to the Privacy Act. I’m sure you could be sacked for it but you can be sacked for lots of things that aren’t illegal.

  24. Zoomster – again, I think it depends on the individual office, but some offices (like ours) would not allow volunteers to access Electrac.

    As far as we were concerned, it was a private database precisely because it contained sensitive information. One office I worked in actually made staff members sign a confidentiality agreement before they were allowed to work on Electrac.

    I also heard of a case where an office volunteer used their Electrac “time” to look up people they know; thankfully they got caught and were banned from the system forever more.

    So, again, it seems to depend on each individual office and their own views of the manner in which such information should be kept, which is sort of Diog’s point. It should be subject to specific guidelines, which need to be adhered to by all those who use the system.

  25. NBN vision

    Ben Chifley’s 1949 ‘Light on the Hill’ address to the Labour Conference about NBN Read

    “I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labour movement would not be worth fighting for. If the movement can make someone more comfortable, give to some father or mother a greater feeling of security for their children, a feeling that if a depression comes there will be work, that the government is striving its hardest to do its best, then the Labour movement will be completely justified.”

    Paul Kelly , eat your hart out

  26. I think one of the allegations in the Age article is that the ALP is collating information citizens have not necessarily approved for retention and collation and by any reasonable measure would not expect that information to be collected. For example, the newspaper mentions “membership of groups” and “letters to newspapers”.

    I think the question is of trust. Do we trust political parties to be exempt from privacy laws? I don’t trust any party to be exempt.

    Take the ALP, the real value of this database is not just in targeted electioneering but in dirt files on opponents and rival candidates. This is a party after all that authorises the filming, photographing and tailing while driving of opponents to the government, such as pipeline protester Jan Beer. If, after 20-30 years, they have a comprehensive database on most members of the public, any person that stands as a candidate or community opponent to the ALP risks the most personal details being put out there in an attempt to smear them. Remember the Lib’s smearing Wilkie when he stood against them the first time?

    I have seen on this very blog instances where active ALP members (possibly staff) have dismissed a person’s comments (not mine) because of something they wrote on the blog many moons ago, which has made me suspect some overzealous party members store data and comments about people in sort of “mini dirt files” for personal use. Obviously assume what you write on the Internet is stored for all time, but still I think it’s “poor form” to attack the poster not the content. Political parties, from my experience, are actually poorly run compared to companies (mostly due to amateurism and high turnover) and leak data like sieves to volunteers and non-professionals all the time.

    The idea that the ALP and Liberal and Greens databases are only used dispassionately and professionally is undermined by history, human nature and the evidence.

    Parties should have to follow the same privacy laws at small business, and people should have the right to know what data is being collected, when it is being collected and what it is being stored.

    The news is that the database has leaked, not that it exists. That is big news. As a previous poster pointed out, the Libs probably now have a copy. What next? Family First or the CDP getting a copy???

  27. Ron

    For most australian, it will bring quicker download of illegal movies and more porn …. just like the experience in Japan …. so I guess that is Ben Chifley’s lifetime accomplishment

  28. [ have seen on this very blog instances where active ALP members (possibly staff) have dismissed a person’s comments (not mine) because of something they wrote on the blog many moons ago, which has made me suspect some overzealous party members store data and comments about people in sort of “mini dirt files” for personal use. ]


    name names

  29. Royce Millar (A former one-eyeded staffer of Mike Hill) is well known for his anti ALP pro Extreame left groups. He has crossed the line of professionalism on more then one occasion. Just reading the artcile one noted that ytehre was only a single line about Liberal Party and none about the Greens and other organisaions.

    All parties have been using direct mailing campaign databases as do all Public Opinion polling companies and Advertising Agencies. The amount of information stored in Google and face book alone is far more intrusive. Millar’s articles should be filed in under the opinion pages not the news pages.

  30. SBH,

    Sear uses his blog to be the poorest mans’ Andrew Bolt.

    Play here, comrade the water is fine and you don’t get censored by a partisan host.

  31. GG

    I just had a look at Pure Poison. They’re more feral over there than we are. By quite a long way. We’re really quite nice. 😀

  32. Zoomster, fair point about why an MP might need information about a constituent’s health. I guess I was coming from the assumption that all this information was made available to the party for campaigning purposes. In which case I think the inclusion of data on someone’s health is a bit much.

    Now I know there are lots of staffers here saying “Oh this is all very tightly regulated and not available for campaigning purposes” but excuse me if I’m a tad sceptical. Three examples:

    Someone I knew was preselected as an ALP candidate for a seat and told me she’d been given a copy of the ALP’s database of voters in the seat (the seat was Liberal held at state level, but largely fell into a federal ALP electorate. Certainly sounded like the data must have come from the MPs offices to be as detailed as she said.

    Someone who was working for a lobby group which chose to support the ALP at a by-election had an ALP official drop them off a list of several thousand people with characteristics likely to make them sympathetic to that group.

    The fact that all this data has been leaked. The suburbs in question are not in one electorate, or even in two. Unless The Age made this up out of whole cloth, they must have received a leak of files from a bunch of seats, which suggests these were not being confined to the electorate offices at all, but down at ALP head office or somewhere similar.

    So if it is standard behaviour for MPs to make this sort of data available to the party for campaigning purposes I think its a very different thing to have “expressed concern about x issue” and “has life threatening disease” where campaigners can access it.

  33. Diogs,

    You’re on the trading block.

    Since you’ve given up mindless regurgitation of News talking points you’ve become too agreeable.

  34. This story is a complete over reaction clearly started by someone who needs to get out of his/her cosy world a bit more often.

    It is only natural that MP’s will over time build a profile of their letter writers and this is true of any business wanting to know its customers better.

    There is nothing secret and from my understanding there are mandated standards relating to information management as outlined by PROV in accordance with the Privacy Act.

    Clearly some people are forgetting that any letter sent to a Minister or MP is a public document.

  35. It could have been an FOI request.

    I have seen the media claim several times that something was leaked to them but was actually the result of an FOI request.

  36. Rod

    but an electorate office isn’t a political party organisation – staff are employed by Parliament and are quite often not party members.

    Electorate offices have to be very scrupulous when it comes to dealing with constituents. People have to trust you, you have all sorts of sensitive information coming in daily (not just from constituents but government briefings, etc); if you’re a ‘loose lips’ type you are going to get into trouble fairly quickly.

    From personal experience, one of our electorate officers had to resign (before they were sacked) because they used information gained in the office to attack an opponent.

  37. The act provides exemptions not just to MPs , but to contractors, sub contractors and volunteers, zoomster. It is a remarkably broad exemption.

    Yes, I’m sure there are lots of trustworthy people in such positions connected with all the parties. I’m also sure there are others who are not so trustworthy.

    I don’t for a moment think that this is an issue that should be used to beat Labor over the head with, but I do think that this exemption deserves general public debate in connection with its application to ALL parties. I doubt that until this kerfuffle many people were even aware that an exemption existed. I certainly wasn’t, and I don’t think I’m someone who is particularly ill-informed about political matters (though others will no doubt disagree aabout the latter! 😉 ).

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