Additional comments by Senator Natasha Stott Despoja
I feel compelled to add some additional comments to the
Committee's observations regarding the exemption for political acts and
practices in the Privacy Act.
In considering whether there is any justification for
this exemption, it is important to examine its practical effect. As the
Committee notes, the Government has sought to justify this exemption on the
basis that it fosters freedom of political communication and enhances the
democratic process. However, the evidence suggests that the opposite is the
This exemption has allowed some political parties to
develop extensive databases, containing information about their constituents,
the most notable of which are the Coalition's database, Feedback, and the Australian Labor Party's database, Electrac.
The practical operation of these databases has been
described in detail by Peter Van
Onselen and Wayne
Errington in their article, "Electoral
Databases: Big Brother or Democracy Unbound?":
The design and operation of electoral databases is fairly
simple. Access to commercially available
information, the Australian Electoral Commissioner (AEC) data and the telephone
directory provides the raw material of names and addresses of
constituents. That is where the hard
work begins. The purpose of these
databases is to provide parties with information about the policy and voting
preferences of individual voters, and to collate this information in ways
useful to political campaigning.
Van Onselen and Errington go on to
explain that the databases are enhanced in two different ways, the first of
which involves 'tagging' individual voters according to their voting
information, party affiliation, history of donations and ethnic identity. These tags are:
based on information gathered through contact with the
electorate office, local newspaper coverage (letters to the editor providing
good information about issues of interest to particular voters), door-knocking
and telephone canvassing.
The second way of adding to the databases is to collect
detailed information when constituents contact the office of a parliamentarian
or candidate. Office staff are trained to log the details of all telephone
conversations, correspondence and face-to-face meetings into the database.
A particular concern relating to the collection of
information by this means is that it blurs the line between members of
parliament as holders of public office on the one hand, and as members of a
political party on the other. Constituents may well need to seek the assistance
of their local member and, in doing so, they may need to disclose detailed
information about their personal life, welfare benefits, employment, or
involvement in community groups. Questions arise as to whether such information,
which has been provided to a public office holder for the purpose of seeking
assistance, should then be entered onto a database designed to advance the
interests of a political party.
There are a number of additional concerns relating to
the operation of these databases. The first relates to the widespread practice
of providing training courses on database operation under the Parliamentary
Entitlements Act, which amounts to the use of public resources for party
Secondly, the databases foster a preoccupation with
swinging voters at the expense of other constituents. While this understandable
in an electoral context, it raises questions about the democratic process, more
generally. As Van Onselen and Errington note, the primary
purpose of these databases is to identify and influence swinging voters. They
Do databases contribute to the marginalisation of large numbers
of voters on the basis that they can be identified as strongly supporting a
political party? Does the targeting of
campaigns towards swinging voters skew public policy towards the wants of a
tiny minority of the electorate...? These questions strike at the very heart of
Finally, constituents have no right to access the
information held about them or to correct that information if it is inaccurate.
This is particularly concerning given that these databases contain information
about the political views of constituents.
Some of the means by which information is collected and entered onto the
databases raise serious questions about the accuracy of the information.
However, the other obvious point to make is that political views are often
fluid and can change over time.
With these concerns in mind, the stated justification
for the exemption from the Privacy Act – namely, that it is intended to
encourage freedom of political communication and enhance the political process
– rings rather hollow.
On the contrary, the unregulated operation of political
databases has the potential to diminish public confidence in the democratic
process, discourage constituents from contacting their local Member of
Parliament and distorting the political process by skewing it further in favour
of swinging voters.
While it is true that these databases "would be
much less effective were political parties not exempted from the Privacy
Act", it is also clear that
they could continue to operate in a more regulated fashion, should the
exemption be abolished. Perhaps the most significant difference would be that
individual Australians would, for the first time, have a right to access the
information held about them by political parties and to correct any information
that might be inaccurate.
Natasha Stott Despoja
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