21/10/2003 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny - State Scene: Orwellian vision rings true

21/10/2003 - 22:00


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MOST of us have either read or know about George Orwell’s prescient and terrifying novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which highlights Big Brother Government, an all-knowing, all-powerful overseer.

MOST of us have either read or know about George Orwell’s prescient and terrifying novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which highlights Big Brother Government, an all-knowing, all-powerful overseer.

Thankfully this political satire alerted those who cherish liberty of the dangers of all-embracing and technologically equipped governments.

But according to two University of WA politics post-graduates – Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington – who have just delivered a paper at a national political science conference, Orwellian Big Brother practices already operate across Australia and they’re being implemented by Australia’s two major political parties, Labor and Liberal. In other words, by the very organisations and people we may have assumed ensured Big Brother didn’t emerge here.

Van Onselen’s and Errington’s dramatic revelations are contained in a paper titled, Development and Operation: Major Party Voter Databases.

Labor’s Big Brother database is named Electrac. The Liberals call theirs Feedback.

“The unwillingness of the major political parties to publicly discuss their electoral databases is understandable,” Messrs van Onselen and Errington’s paper says.

They quote Labor Senator Robert Ray saying: “Yes, we operate a database on constituents but I’m not going to disclose what it does or how it functions.

“I can say it is an enormously valuable campaign tool, as I am sure Liberal Party persons would suggest theirs is, too.”

Their findings appear to have been made from the inside, since van Onselen and Errington were Federal Liberal MP staffers.

They reveal that Labor and the Liberals have acquired powerful software that refines and sorts the Commonwealth Electoral Commission computerised electoral rolls by linking MPs’ electorate offices to their respective parties’ central computers systems.

These hook-ups mean MPs’ offices input information about voters, especially those contacting them.

Van Onselen and Errington say: “[MPs’] staffs are trained to log all written correspondence into [the Liberals’] Feedback.

“In case of anonymous callers unwilling to give their names, the use of caller ID telephone technology [although not universally available] allows staffers to identify the number the constituent is calling from, and if that number is a home line it can be cross-checked with the Feedback system.”

There are many similar revelations about Feedback and Electrac.

For instance: “Ownership of Electrac is compulsory for [Labor] Caucus members.”

Both databases can, what they call, “tag” voters, meaning information put in about voters is promptly categorised and accessed.

“A summary of new contacts is added to the database so that the frequency and nature of contacts is tracked,” the paper says.

“These general tags build up a picture of individual voters and their suitability for party communication.

“It is this data that interests the party organisation, and can be used by individual MPs to tailor letters to small groups of voters.”

The crucial fact about Electrac and Feedback is that they’re used not only by MPs, but data obtained by their offices is down-loaded to Labor’s and the Liberals’ central databases for use in election campaigns.

The aim is primarily to identify swinging voters, to help win elections.

“Databases are used both by individual members and party organisations in their campaigns,” the authors say.

So, whenever you call your local Labor or Liberal MHR or senator, you’re also, and without realising it, contacting the Labor and Liberal parties.

Your details are going into their databases, so both parties can use them at election time. What do van Onselen and Errington say about such little-known practices?

“The use of political databases raises ethical and legal questions regarding the handling of information by political parties.

“Because political parties are private organisations, and because the major parties have no interest in public scrutiny of their data-bases, Electrac and Feedback have come under remarkably little scrutiny from parliament and the media.

“The very fact that private information, such as a health problem, becomes a small cog in a political campaign would no doubt upset many people were they made aware of it.

“Indeed, fear of media coverage of Big Brother-style databases ensures the subject is not publicly discussed by the party.”

They refer to two confidential documents about the Liberal Feedback database, one an internal party report.

Quoting one we discover it instructs MPs’ staffers to “ensure that constituents cannot read the computer screen if Feedback is open”, clearly elector feedback is something they don’t want.

Now, MPs of both major parties have ensured their databases are beyond legal sanction and oversight.

“Commonwealth privacy legislation is designed to prevent the misuse of personal information by private organisations,” van Onselen and Errington say.

But parties have exempted themselves from such legislative strictures where activities are “in connection with an election, a referendum, or other participation in the political process.”

In other words, Electrac and Feedback were specifically exempted from Commonwealth privacy laws by Liberal and Labor MPs who alternate in forming governments.

 That’s a cute Big Brother ploy – writing laws to suit their parties.

This prompted Privacy Foundation director Tim Dixon, to write: “This was a surprise inclusion in the legislation, as it had never previously been raised during the extensive consultations over the legislation”.

Party exemption, therefore, came right out of the blue. That’s hardly true.

Van Onselen and Errington conclude: “Further, attention needs to be drawn to the problems of MPs gathering personal information about their constituents, which is in turn used for party political gain.”


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