Attorney-General Christian Porter
In a week that started with the governing class patting itself on the back and declaring “Mission Accomplished” in turning back the tide of third parties, Labor and the Liberals served up further evidence of why they’ve lost the trust of voters and generated growing disillusionment with our political system.
In Victoria, the rorting of taxpayer funds for political purposes by the Andrews Labor government was confirmed by the state’s ombudsman, elevating the Victorian Labor Party to the unenviable status of the country’s most scandal-plagued government — a status achieved within its first term, when the New South Wales Labor government took several terms to build up its corruption, although admittedly it plumbed far greater depths of criminality and personal venality when it did. No one is suggesting Labor MPs personally profited from electorate office staff funding being used for campaigning. But the cavalier conflation of public funding for the business of democracy with the party’s self-interest reflects a mindset of unaccountability — and a disregard for the responsibility attached to use of public resources.
Unluckily for Victorians, the electoral choice is between a dud government plagued by scandal and an opposition with links to alleged organised crime bosses.
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A separate but related mindset informs the equally cavalier disregard political parties have for the privacy of voters, which has come into relief courtesy of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Armed with access to the electoral roll (which should be strictly confined to the Commonwealth and state electoral bodies) and an exemption from the Privacy Act they themselves wrote into the law, the major parties have assembled colossal databases with individual profiles of every voter, and engage third-party contractors to supplement and exploit those databases to tailor their campaigns and advertising.
There’s strong support outside the political parties for their gratuitous exemption from basic privacy requirements to be ended — from the privacy commissioner, from the Australian Law Reform Commission, from the Australian Privacy Foundation. But the Attorney-General rejects the idea of change. Christian Porter claimed “this exemption is designed to encourage freedom of political communication and support the operation of the electoral and political process”.
That’s simply not true. The privacy exemption, in fact, hampers political communication, because it prevents voters from learning how parties target them, and what the parties know about them. The “communication” envisaged by Porter is one in which parties dictate how they will subject voters to marketing, and voters have no recourse. Nor is there any evidence the imposition of privacy laws, and the right for voters to see what information parties have accumulated on them, would harm the operation of the electoral process. Indeed, greater transparency about political parties’ targeting of voters would surely support the electoral and political process far more than the current conspiracy of silence between the parties.
As the Grattan Institute correctly noted in a recent report, voters’ sense that politicians can’t be trusted to act in the interests of voters, is a key driver of political disillusionment and the increasing willingness of voters to turn to non-traditional parties. This can only be remedied by political parties being willing to be more open and accountable and to display integrity. There’s no sign that’s sinking in in Canberra.