Image credit: Samuel Zeller

The Labor Party has a file on you. It contains basic information about where you live, your age and, possibly, your occupation — all provided by the Australian Electoral Commission in electronic form. The file also includes:

  • who you live with;
  • your phone number;
  • anything publicly available about you;
  • you Facebook profile;
  • your Twitter account;
  • your LinkedIn account, should you be so dumb as to have one;
  • whether you’re on the P&C of your kids’ school; and
  • any interaction you’ve ever had with Labor — from doorknocking, to a letter you wrote to a Labor MP, to a phone call during an election campaign.

And you have been tagged by your demographic, your location and, to the extent possible, what kind of voter they think you are. They’re most interested in you if you’re a swinging voter. If you’re a rusted-on Labor or Liberal or Greens voter, they don’t care as much, although they might be interested in you as a possible donor or volunteer.

The Liberals have a similar file, on a similar database. The Greens do, too. They’re expensive to maintain, particularly given the cost of scraping social media profiles, but they’re invaluable in campaigning and advertising.

You have no privacy rights in relation to these databases. You have no right to see what political parties have about you (thankfully for the parties, because people would be horrified). You have no right to correct false information about you. And you have no right to restrict to whom the information is given.

“Registered political parties” are exempt from the Privacy Act. And that means a very large number of people, because the exemption doesn’t merely include the parties, but contractors and sub-contractors who work for them (like Cambridge Analytica-type firms) and volunteers who work for the parties.

Trust your personal information to someone who has volunteered for Labor? Or the Liberals? Or One Nation?

The argument from the political parties is that it’s all about free speech — restriction on their ability to use your private information is a limitation on their constitutionally guaranteed right of political communication. Attorney-General Christian Porter continues to peddle this nonsense. Labor has even argued that if the exemption were removed, Labor would appeal the matter to the High Court.

The political parties are the only people who think this privacy exemption is a good idea. It was opposed when it was legislated in 2000 by the Howard government — then-privacy commissioner Mal Crompton opposed the exemption; Democrats senator Natasha Stott Despoja, a staunch privacy advocate, tried to reverse the exemption in 2006.

When the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) examined privacy laws in a lengthy report in 2008, it considered the “political exemption” and could find no reason to retain it.

In the interests of promoting public confidence in the political process, those who exercise or seek power in government should adhere to the principles and practices that are required of the wider community. Unless there is a sound policy reason to the contrary, political parties and agencies and organisations engaging in political acts and practices should be required to handle personal information in accordance with the requirements of the Privacy Act … the ALRC is not convinced, however, that all (or even the majority) of information-handling activities undertaken by registered political parties and those engaged in political acts and practices warrant legislative immunity.

Nor did the ALRC buy the argument put forward by Labor that somehow political party registration requirements magicked away any threat to privacy by political parties.

In the last decade, it’s hard to argue that public confidence in the political process and in politicians has grown stronger; quite the opposite. Moreover, the extent to which tools that can “scrape” social media for personal information can provide a far richer level of private information about individuals to parties able to pay for it, and the capacity of social media companies to micro-target users via their profiles, has only worsened the threat to privacy posed by political parties and the research firms they use.

The argument that political free speech requires that political parties be unfettered in the way in which they can accumulate and use personal information has always been a stretch. Political party databases are tools for campaigning, targeting and marketing, not free speech per se, which is unaffected by privacy requirements.

The retention of the “political exemption” is simply a “screw you” from major political parties to the voters they purport to care about.

Peter Fray

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