20/07/2004 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Digging dirt on databases

20/07/2004 - 22:00


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During the past few weeks the words ‘dirt’ and ‘dirt unit’ have been used rather liberally, most especially by Labor leader Mark Latham, a man who never hesitates publicly insulting anyone, from an American president to dissenting journalists.

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Digging dirt on databases

During the past few weeks the words ‘dirt’ and ‘dirt unit’ have been used rather liberally, most especially by Labor leader Mark Latham, a man who never hesitates publicly insulting anyone, from an American president to dissenting journalists.

Because there’s more than meets the eye to this Latham-inspired media frenzy, State Scene believed some background information was in order, which may assist voters to make a balanced assessment of his decision to highlight these terms.

Probably the best starting point is a just-published article by Edith Cowan University academic Peter Van Onselen, written jointly with Wayne Errington of Charles Sturt University in the prestigious Australian Journal of Political Science (Vol 39, No. 2, July 2004).

Titled, Electoral Databases: Big Brother or Democracy Unbound?, it is based on a paper they delivered during a politics conference held at the University of Tasmania last September.

What they revealed was that Labor and the conservatives have powerful computerised databases that are constantly fed with information about constituents by MPs’ electorate staffers.

“The electoral databases of the Coalition (called Feedback) and the ALP (called Electrac) store information on the constituents of each House of Representatives seat,” Van Onselen and Errington write.

 “The information gathered in the databases, such as the policy preferences and part identification of individual voters, are used by candidates for house seats to tailor correspondence to swinging voters, and to identify potential party supports.

“Party organisations aggregate the information in the databases and use it to conduct polls and focus groups of swinging voters, and to tailor policy development and campaign strategies.”

So, both sides meticulously monitor voters who contact MPs’ offices.

And both systems ensure that their nationwide sticky-beaking doesn’t break the law because they’ve exempted this monitoring from Federal privacy legislation.

In other words, George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ has arrived and using him isn’t unlawful.

The Labor and conservative computer boffin and analyst teams marry up Electoral Commission information with Telstra White Pages data and feed this, and more, into Feedback and Electrac.

“Constituents are tagged based on information gathered through contacts with the electorate office, local newspaper coverage [letters to the editor providing good information about issues of interest to particular voters], doorknocking and telephone canvassing,” Van Onselen and Errington write.

“Feedback also allows the compilation of a community database, which contains details on community groups, businesses and schools in the electorate.”

Labor’s Electrac boffin-analysts, were known as the ‘animals’ when Labor held power, presumably inspired by Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm. The Coalition’s operatives aren’t as colourfully described, known simply as the Government Members Secretariat (GMS).

Much of the above will be familiar to regular State Scene readers since the Van Onselen-Errington conference paper was highlighted in this column soon after they outlined their findings in Hobart.

What’s less well known is what both teams of boffins and analysts do in addition to monitoring voters.

Those listening to Mr Latham may gain the quite incorrect impression that only the conservatives’ GMS team is sneaky snoopers.

In fact neither they nor the ‘animals’ are involved in looking for so-called dirt, if one means by that MPs’ marital infidelity or similar sexual peccadilloes.

State Scene makes this perhaps surprising claim for several reasons.

The first and most important is that such conduct occurs on all sides of politics, so it has proven wise to steer clear of what is seen as a common occupational hazard of political life, especially in isolated and distant Canberra.

Recall some years back when the long-lasting liaison between former Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot and Labor minister Gareth Evans was outed by a Canberra journalist, not a Coalition MP.

Very few Canberra journalists and MPs weren’t unaware of it, yet it wasn’t highlighted until well after Kernot and Evans left politics.

More recently State Scene has learned of a case involving an MP whose spouse discovered protracted matrimonial infidelity and threatened to stand as an independent against that member, meaning two people – husband and wife – would have contested the same seat.

Soon after learning of this bizarre threat, which would almost certainly have ended that MP’s parliamentary career, I discovered most journalists and MPs knew of it, yet it has never surfaced in the media.

Mr Latham is therefore swinging the lead somewhat when trying to tag the GMS as a group of moral peeping toms or guardians.

However, what’s not beyond the GMS and Labor’s boffin-analysts is ongoing investigating of other possible misdemeanours by opposing politicians.

Both teams most definitely check an array of sources that carry details about opposing MPs’ financial, investment and other aspects of their private (not personal) lives.

They’re constantly checking MPs’ pecuniary interests statements lodged in parliament against information that may be found about MPs in local and other newspapers, company registers, stock exchange sources, land ownership, and wherever.

In other words, when Mr Latham so loosely dubs the GMS as a dirt unit he shouldn’t overlook that his side also monitors opposing MPs to ensure they on the straight and narrow.

Basically the successors of Labor’s ‘animals’ and the Coalition’s GMS are compliance investigative, not dirt, units.

And whenever they find evidence about opposing MPs being less than candid about their assets or something similar, and that’s judged to be potentially embarrassing if disclosed, they’ll ensure it is exposed either in parliament or by leaking to journalists.

Quite frankly, State Scene sees nothing untoward about this.

Our lawmakers should, after all, be whiter than white.

Moreover, any newspaper worth its salt has an investigative unit, a team of journalists working very much like Labor’s animals and the Coalition’s GMS.

How does Mr Latham think The Washington Post exposed Watergate?

The same eventually occurred here during the tawdry 1980s WA Inc day. Surely he doesn’t want investigative journalism outlawed.

If not then why shouldn’t political parties operate likewise?

Unfortunately everyone was too kind to Mr Latham after seeing signs of tears in his eyes, and so  never quoted to him Harry S Truman’s famous old one-liner about vacating hot kitchens.


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