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Sunday, July 02, 2006

Privacy - steps forward and backward in the national capital

A few strands from the last week of Federal Parliament sittings two weeks ago – pollies, as per usual have fled the national capital as winter draws on and aren’t scheduled to return until August.

The Government’s Do Not Call register legislation passed through Parliament unscathed despite an attempt in the Senate by Senator Stott-Despoja (Australian Democrats) and Senator Fielding (Family First) to remove the exemption for political parties and candidates. There are plenty of holes in the proposed register, including charities, research organisations, government organisations and politicians.

Senator Stott-Despoja also introduced a private member’s bill - Privacy (Extension to Political Acts and Practices) Amendment Bill 2006 - to amend the Privacy Act to remove the exemption political parties currently enjoy. She said that political parties have extensive databases that include names, addresses, date of birth, party affiliation, political donations, ethnic identity and other information relevant to voting preferences. Politicians apparently add details to these databases when constituents contact them in their capacity as members of parliament. The exclusion from the Privacy Act meant there was no limitation on collection and use of information for political purposes and the individual concerned had no right of access or right to correct.

The Second Reading Speech is at page 13 in the Senate Hansard for 22 June.

Although debate was adjourned, as both major political parties oppose the Bill, this is going nowhere.

The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill passed Parliament. The Bill, amongst other things raises the limit for donations to political parties that do not need to be disclosed from $1,500 to $10,000 – apparently to protect the privacy of donors. Apart from politicians there are few who saw this as a pressing privacy concern – most commentators suggest it is an unfortunate step in the direction of secret donations to the powerful or potential powers that be.

The Parliament also released the annual disclosure of all gifts over $350 received by parliamentarians. The list included freebies like airline upgrades and corporate box invitations to sporting events and gifts received by the PM and ministers from foreign governments. The irony seemed to escape our leaders that a gift worth $350 must be disclosed but a donation of money to political parties of up to $10,000 may be kept secret. As some commentators point out this means that a single donor can donate $9999 to all of the branches of a political party – totalling close to $70,000, without fear that this will become public knowledge.

No wonder concerns have been raised about potential for "secret" influence.

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