In early August, the Australian Law Reform Commission recommended, in its massive privacy report, that the current exemption from the Privacy Act enjoyed by our political parties should be removed.

Special Minister of State John Faulkner said the Government would think about it, next year, after it considers higher priority recommendations from the Commission. The ALP, in its submission to the ALRC, opposed any changes to the current exemption.

The reason? “The exemption for registered political parties under the Privacy Act is essential to the conduct of election campaigns and facilitates the effective communication of the policies, ideas and visions which underpin our democratic processes.”

Yep, you read that correctly — “visions”. Stop laughing.

The exemption allows political parties to maintain highly-detailed databases about voters. The ALP’s database is called Electrac and the Liberal version is called Feedback. Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington have written extensively about them (for example, here). These databases are based on electoral enrolment information, provided to the parties electronically by the Australian Electoral Commission or state electoral commissions.

Remember that electoral enrolment, under our marvellous system of coercive democracy, is mandatory, so there’s no legal way out of this for anyone wanting to protect their privacy. The enrolment information is supplemented by telephone number data and any other publicly-available information about voters like birth and death notices. Ever written a letter to the paper? Made a submission to an inquiry? Posted something on the internet under your own name? It’ll be there.

And every time you come in contact with an MP, whether by approaching their office for assistance, or if they come and doorknock you, further information is added.

In NSW and Queensland, MPs generally have access only to the database for their own electorates; party head offices have access to the whole lot. It’s an excellent tool both for handling the flow of constituent inquiries that come through MPs’ offices, and for targeting limited resources during election campaigns.

And because of the political exemption in the Privacy Act, there are no restrictions on the usage or handling of all that information. Kudos to former Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja for being a lone voice in arguing that the exemption should be dumped whenever the issue came up before Senate inquiries.

Don’t forget that the Howard Government also exempted political parties from the requirements of the Do Not Call Register Act in 2006, meaning they can use their databases to call voters, and from the requirements of the Spam Act 2003, meaning they can clutter your in-box with even more improbable claims than those of penile enhancers and Nigerian scammers.

As I noted (Crikey, Monday 11 August, “Right to privacy sends media into a spin“) back when the ALRC released its report, Australia’s big media sector is at one with the ALP on retaining the exemption. The “Right To Know” Coalition — in this case, presumably, the right to know about you — argued that its freedom to report on politics might be constrained by removal of the exemption.

The sanctimony of the ALP in claiming it has the interests of democracy at heart when it argues for its continued right to compile and use vast amounts of data about voters isn’t unexpected. Nor is the deliberate confusion of the legitimate task of serving constituent needs with that of spamming and calling them during election campaigns.

But electorate office staff, who have used Electrac, provide an additional perspective. One staffer tells of how the database was used to weed out “vexatious” constituents, who would not be provided with assistance if the MP decided that they weren’t worth helping or were too much trouble or they simply didn’t like them.

Milton Orkopoulos’s electorate office staffer Gillian Sneddon recalls that, when Orkopoulos was first promoted to the NSW Labor Ministry, his wife began receiving calls from a man claiming he had had an affair with Orkopoulos. Kathy Orkopoulos asked Sneddon to try to track down the man using Electrac by entering the phone number from which the calls originated.

And we are told by an electorate office worker in Queensland that Electrac was used by a female Minister to find out whether a man in whom she was romantically interested was married, by checking who else resided with him. It was also used to keep track of a former staff member with whom she had fallen out.

That’s the problem with the political exemption. Putting aside the systemic breach of privacy that a database like Electrac entails, it relies on the goodwill and maturity of MPs and their staff to ensure that such a database isn’t abused. Most MPs, one suspects, can be relied on not to. But some — particularly at the State level — cannot.

Peter Fray

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