With a federal election coming up we’ll all soon be getting plenty of taxpayer-funded mail about members of parliament and candidates. Some of us will receive much more correspondence from their local MP than others. Living in a marginal seat is one way to ensure a full letterbox at this stage of the electoral cycle. With MPs’ postal allowances recently increased to over $100 000 a year, targeting swinging voters, particularly in marginal seats, with letters tailored to issues that interest them, is more important than ever to winning government.
On the other hand, if you have made it clear to your MP that you are a rusted-on voter for the other mob, they won’t waste scarce resources on convincing you of their merits. Political parties also don’t give much more thought to their own stalwart supporters (since voting is compulsory), except for donations and help at election time. Compulsory voting means that parties can ignore their own supporters and concentrate on the swinging voters in marginal seats. This is one major difference from the way electioneering is conducted in the USA, where, under a non-compulsory voting system, getting your own voters to the booths is as important as convincing swinging voters.
Most voters in marginal seats are not swinging voters, so political parties in Australia are always seeking new ways to help target the few thousand voters who decide elections. To do that, they need information about every voter in the country. It would surprise many Australians to know that they have the tools, resources and laws to do just that.
All the details of the letters and phone calls from voters to MPs form part of a sophisticated national database aimed primarily at winning elections. Both of Australia’s major political parties maintain such a database, storing information about every Australian voter. The ALP’s database is called Electrac, the Coalition’s is called Feedback. Even if you have never contacted your MP (estimates are that less than 10% of voters do so during each electoral cycle) they will know a fair bit about you courtesy of the Australian Electoral Commission, the local paper and through your participation in community organisations.
Oh, and you pay for it too. Because they are officially used for improving communication with constituents, voter-tracking systems are heavily subsidised by the Parliament. Indeed, the databases are really only useful when they have the full resources of MPs’ office staff behind them. Challengers struggle to make the databases work effectively.
They work like this: you call an electorate office to express concerns about, let's say, the recent war in Iraq. Those views are logged into the database against your name. Caller ID technology means even if you don’t give up your name they can look it up by matching the displayed number to your address (if that is where you called from). Or your local MP goes door- knocking. You think he or she has randomly chosen your house to visit. Wrong. They have likely downloaded you information from the database, and are coming by to find out more about you, logging it against your name when they return to the office. The databases allow them to print out names and addresses from one side of the street at a time, helping them navigate the neighbourhoods.
Ever had one of these conversations feeling that you really connected with you local MP? That is probably because before they door-knocked your house they read your database entry, identified issues of concern to you, and peppered the conversation with references to those issues.
If you haven’t heard much about these voter tracking systems, it’s because the major political parties don’t want any ‘Big Brother’ style headlines. Since they agree on the merits of the databases, they don’t publicly debate them. The funny thing about all this secrecy is that voter tracking systems have plenty to offer our representative democracy.
With a few reforms, databases could become as much about improving the flow of information from citizens to their elected representatives as they are about winning elections. The most important changes surround the safeguarding of personal information. People shouldn’t be discouraged from taking their concerns about Centrelink or the ATO to their local MP for fear their personal details will be used for partisan purposes.
The major parties have exempted themselves from the Privacy Act, making them much less accountable in their use of personal information than companies and community groups. The personal details of electors should not be available to the central offices of political parties (as they currently are.) Such reform shouldn’t bother the big parties too much, since the central office is more interested in the aggregated data about us than our individual profile. It is the local MP who uses the personal information in their mail-outs. The staff of MPs should be trained in the ethical handling of that information. As it stands, far from providing ethical guidelines, the Feedback manual offers tips on how to hide database information from nosey constituents.
We should all have the right to know what our elected representatives have on file about us. Not just to improve openness, but also to create accountability. The parties could very easily wrongly tag voters. Party databases should be subject to Freedom of Information requests just as the public service is. Applications for enrolment to vote should explain to us that information provided to the AEC can be used by political parties. This might make more people think twice before filling in the optional ‘occupation’ section of the form.
More contentious as far as the major parties are concerned would be a levelling of the playing field by making key sections of the databases publicly available. Your interest in the environment, for example, could be made known to all candidates if you so consent. This is only fair given the amount of pubic funding used in voter tracking systems. Minor parties and independents simply don’t have the resources to develop and maintain databases as sophisticated as Electrac and Feedback.
With the election approaching, both major parties will be using their databases to target the voters that matter. If you don’t hear from your MP soon, you’ll know it’s a calculated personal snub.
This is an edited version of a paper presented at the Australian Electronic Governance Conference at Melbourne University, 14-15 April 2004.