JOSH GORDON May 31, 2012
Lucas Eldridge ended up on a Liberal Party website with out his consent. Photo: Vince Caligiuri
Attacking the media runs counter to protecting the community's privacy.
LAST year Prahran constituent Lucas Eldridge emailed his local MP to express concern about an issue being debated in State Parliament. The MP, Clem Newton-Brown, never responded. Instead, Mr Eldridge found himself on the Liberal Party's electronic mailing list. This was annoying, but the clincher came when he received an email containing a link to a personalised page on the Liberal Party's anti-carbon tax website, wrongly suggesting he was against the tax.
Mr Eldridge was concerned his name was being misused and that his views were being publicly misconstrued. Repeated attempts to unsubscribe failed and the link is active to this day.
If you think this is a breach of privacy, or at the very least a breach of the federal spam act, you're wrong: political parties enjoy a special exemption. So do so-called political representatives engaging ''in the political process'' and registered volunteers for political parties.
Ring your local state or federal MP and whoever answers the phone will likely attempt to harvest as much information about you as possible, including your contact details, personal circumstances, general values, concerns and political preferences.
The information is then fed into sophisticated national databases that contain vast amounts of information used for election planning, fund-raising, advertising, policy development, doorknocking and targeted spending promises.
Swinging voters are of particular interest in the competitive race to woo a relatively small group of voters sitting on the fence, as opposed to the broad mass of the population with entrenched political views.
This sort of fine-grained, house-by-house analysis is a reality of modern politics. Labor's national database is called Electrac. The Liberal database is known as Feedback. Electoral offices are logged into the system, which uses data from the electoral role and cross references against the White Pages and other contract information to target advertising, doorknocking, direct mailouts and telephone contact.
It is valuable information, and political parties jealously guard the extraordinarily favourable treatment they receive under our privacy laws.
Earlier this month State Parliament's five-member Electoral Matters Committee accused The Age of refusing to co-operate with its investigation into the alleged unauthorised access of Labor's political database, calling the newspaper's behaviour ''offensive''.
Committee chairman and Liberal MP Bernie Finn went further, telling Parliament The Age's refusal to co-operate raised ''natural suspicions''. ''Offensive, dismissive, contemptuous are some of the words I would use to describe [the response],'' Mr Finn said. (Finn expressed further indignation later that day at a press conference called for selected media outlets.)
All of this followed a report in The Age before the November 2010 election, after the paper gained access to Labor's campaign database through a whistleblower. The report said the database contained the personal records of tens of thousands of Victorians, including health information, apparently obtained without their knowledge.
The committee's report said such information is merely used by political parties to ''better serve the needs of their constituents'', arguing that the allegations ''call into question the integrity of the electoral roll''. (Exactly what the integrity of the electoral roll has to do with it is unclear. The electoral roll is maintained by the Electoral Commission, although MPs have access to some of the information it contains relating to their constituents.)
As the committee report points out: ''All Victorians should have confidence that details about their electoral enrolment, and their personal information, are protected from misuse.''
It's difficult to disagree. But the question should be whether the major political parties are misusing personal information, given constituents are often unaware their details are being used for a wide variety of political purposes.
In a landmark 2008 review of the privacy act, the Australian Law Reform Commission concluded individuals should have the right to access the information that political parties have collected on them, and that individuals should have the right to correct it as they see fit.
The bottom line, as the commission sees it, is that most of the ''information-handling activities'' of political parties do not warrant an extraordinary blanket exemption from the privacy act, provided the constitutional doctrines of freedom of political association and parliamentary privilege are met.
The Victorian Privacy Commission agrees with this commonsense approach, as do many in the legal and academic community.
The widespread collection of information on individual constituents has far more to do with winning elections than it does with representing the interests of constituents, as suggested by the Parliament's Electoral Matters Committee.
Time for a rethink.
Josh Gordon is state political editor.