31/08/2004 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Playing politics with our privacy

31/08/2004 - 22:00


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Labor enjoyed watching Prime Minister John Howard searching for explanations after one-time Defence Department officer Mike Scrafton belatedly surfaced to claim the PM knew the so-called kids overboard claims were phony.

Labor enjoyed watching Prime Minister John Howard searching for explanations after one-time Defence Department officer Mike Scrafton belatedly surfaced to claim the PM knew the so-called kids overboard claims were phony.

The allegation seems that he’d deliberately chosen not to know the allegation was false.

Setting out to deliberately not know or pretend not to know isn’t an uncommon ploy for politicians.

In such circles it’s generally called ‘flick-passing’ or ‘letting it through to the keeper’ because an issue could put one offside with powerful interests within one’s party bureaucracy.

Take the question of the Liberal and Labor parties using powerful computerised databases in their Federal MPs’ electorate offices.

The key to operating these intrusive systems is the fact that MPs have ensured they have access to electoral rolls, so voters’ details.

Regular State Scene readers may recall that Labor’s Electrac and the Liberal’s Feedback database system were first exposed and analysed in this column, under the headline, ‘Orwellian Vision Rings True’, in October 2003.

Federal privacy laws are designed to prevent misuse of personal information by private organisations.

But politicians have shrewdly exempted themselves from such legislation “in connection with an election, a referendum, or other participation in the political process”, meaning they can operate Electrac and Feedback without breaking the law.

Last month two leading national newspapers, The Australian and The Weekend Financial Review (WFR), belatedly carried similar analyses.

Both papers warned of the dangers of the major parties’ commitments to permanently monitoring voters electronically via electoral rolls.

The WFR’s feature articles were headlined, “How Political Parties are Spying on the Voters” and “The Hidden Databases that Know which Way you Lean”.

One outcome of State Scene’s 2003 investigations was that Independent Liberal Phillip Pendal quizzed Premier Geoff Gallop on this secret monitoring by asking a six-part parliamentary question.

Part two read: “Is the Premier and the State Electoral Commission aware that that roll is combined with confidential data to produce programs called Feedback (to the Liberal Party) and Electrac (for the Labor Party) by which confidential information given to MPs’ offices is conveyed back to the party headquarters in a manner not authorised by, and unknown to, the constituents?”

Dr Gallop replied: “The Electoral Act 1907 (WA) and the Commonwealth Electoral Act (1918) both set out entitlements of MPs and political parties to receive elector roll information.

 “The enrolment form that electors complete contain advice about who has access to electoral information.”

Mr Pendal’s third part asked: “Does the premier accept that conveying of such data given to MPs in a confidential manner amounts to a break of confidence on the part of the political parties?”

Dr Gallop’s nifty answer was: “See above” – so, read answer two, again.

Mr Pendal’s fourth part asked: “Will the premier confirm that taxpayer-funded electorate offices of members of WA’s Parliament are not used to similarly pass confidential constituent data such as full names, date of birth, gender and home telephone numbers hack to party headquarters.”

Dr Gallop’s answer: “Under the Electoral Act 1907 the Electoral Commissioner must provide to members and parties specified information. This includes full name, enrolled and postal address, gender, and occupation.”

But that’s not what Mr Pendal asked.

He sought an assurance from Dr Gallop that “offices of State MPs are not used to similarly pass confidential constituent data … ”.

In another part of his answer Dr Gallop said: “I am not aware of any breaches of confidentially by State members.”

But did he bother inquiring?

That reply was to Mr Pendal asking: “Does it concern the premier that a database (the consolidated electoral rolls) of which the State of WA is the co-owner are being used, at least by Federal MPs, and possibly by State MPs, in a way that breaches common notions of confidentiality?”

Finally, Dr Gallop told Mr Pendal he was considering introducing privacy legislation and invited him “to make a submission to the Attorney-General and Minister for Electoral Affairs should he have any particular views about this”.

All very good, but what about Labor’s Electrac database that Dr Gallop’s Federal counterparts use to monitor voters, which involves downloading, weekly, enormous amounts of information about voters and transferring their details to Labor’s central computer bank.

Dr Gallop quite skillfully skirted the central thrust of Mr Pendal’s inquiries, namely the existence of Orwellian Lib/Lab Big Brother systems that Labor and the Liberals are operating.

His responses instead showed him resorting to the three-monkey trick – see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing. And all of this, of course, equally applies to Dr Gallop’s Liberal counterpart, Colin Barnett.

All Mr Pendal’s questions equally apply to the Liberals, who own the even more sophisticated Electrac system.

State Scene knows for a fact that State and Federal Liberal candidates, so not simply MPs, access information collected and produced by their Electrac database.

Presumably State and Federal Labor candidates have similar access arrangements to log in to information Labor electorate offices collect and pass to their party for Labor boffins to monitor and evaluate.

Although much of the information carried in the WFR’s articles had been highlighted by State Scene last year, they nevertheless broke some new ground.

For example one said outgoing Federal Privacy Commissioner Malcolm Compton claimed he stood by his earlier view that both parties should not continue being exempted from privacy requirements.

 “If we are to have a community that fully respects the principles of privacy and the political institutions [the Liberals and the ALP] that support them, then these institutions themselves must adopt the principles and practices they seek to require of others.” Mr Compton said.

But if that happened, using Electrac and Feedback would become illegal, so they would be inoperable.

Put differently, both systems would have to be junked and dumped and the suspect party monitoring of voters stopped.

Both Dr Gallop and Mr Barnett no doubt realise this, which probably explains their decision to opt for that age-old triple monkey trick.


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