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Monday, May 31, 2010

Trust me with your details, I'm a politician
Liberals' battle plan to win key marginal seats in The Advertiser last week reported that Liberal South Australian Senator Alan Ferguson had sought "personal profiling information" from up to seven local councils in Adelaide's north. One council helpfully passed news of the application to the former mayor who happens to be the Labor Federal Member for the area, who appears to have passed it on to the paper. Senator Ferguson is said to have used freedom of information laws to request details of all businesses in the area, including names, postal and physical addresses; lists of all citizens naturalised since January 2006; copies of all petitions lodged with council; names of all registered volunteers; data on all council buildings used for community activities and the people or groups who use them; and all committees connected to the council.

I agree with many of the comments that much of this is or should be in the public domain, available to anyone interested in knowing about local happenings.

But politicians "trawling" the record raises a broader issue - and no one is holding breath expecting action on this before the Federal election later this year, or ever - concerning the large hole in privacy laws for political parties and those engaged in politics. The gap permits collection of personal information not just from the public domain but from wherever they can find it, subject to little scrutiny, with no citizen rights to know or correct what is held, or limitations on subsequent use and disclosure.

The Australian Law Reform Commission recommended the exemption from the Privacy Act - enjoyed since Federal legislation was introduced in 1988- be removed. This would mean parties would be subject to principles concerning collection, security, use and disclosure of personal information. The Government has had the report for two years.This recommendation and others such as changes to the terms of the journalism exemption, is to be considered as part of the ‘second stage response’ to 98 recommendations that did not form part of the stage one response in October last year. Stage one foreshadowed the release of draft legislation on uniform privacy principles and a reference to a parliamentary committee early in 2010, but we're not there yet. As to stage two......

The ALRC concluded:
41.54 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 report details the access granted by law to political parties to electoral roll information and quotes Peter van Onselen [41.4] on some of what the major parties hold about you and me:
The ALP database is named Electrac, and the Liberal’s is named Feedback. These databases use electronic White Pages to incorporate telephone numbers where available … Identifying voting preferences and issues of interest is a valuable albeit time consuming practice for political parties. Effective database management results in any contact by a constituent with an electorate office being logged into the system. Contact can be made by telephone, writing or in person … Door knocking, telephone canvassing and letters to the editor are additional methods by which information is gathered … Voter preferences recorded in the databases include swinging voter status, minor party or independent leaning, as well as strong or weak Liberal or Labor voter leanings. This information is most valuable in marginal seats. The information can be used for a number of purposes. Party organisations upload data from all electorates to track key issues and voting trends for use in qualitative polling, advertising and strategy formation. For individual MPs, the most important use is direct mail-outs targeted at swinging voters … Strongly Labor or Liberal Party identifying voters can be targeted for political donation.
As the election preparations roll forward stand-by that phone, email and mail box - parties  and politicians are not subject to Do not Call or other restrictions on contacting us either.

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