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The major parties' X-files are keeping odds stacked in favour of MPs

By Wayne Errington and Peter Van Onselen - posted Friday, 24 October 2003

Now that the opportunity to sign up new members for the Wentworth Liberal Party preselection has come and gone, many are asking how the little-known Peter King appears to have outdone the high-profile Malcolm Turnbull in the Wentworth membership drive. As the sitting member, King has the enormous advantage of being able to trawl the Liberal Party's electoral database, Feedback, for the details of voters in his seat likely to be sympathetic to him.

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 databases, which store information about the political interests of every voter.

Since the rancorous debate over the Hawke government's attempt to introduce a national identity card, most Australians have become resigned to the fact that governments collect and store all manner of information about citizens. The debate has now shifted to the regulation of the way personal information is managed by both government and corporations.


However, public discussion of political databases has been restricted for a number of reasons. Getting politicians to discuss their party's database on the record is very difficult. They fear sensational media coverage of the spectre of Big Brother, and well they might. They are also paranoid about revealing their campaign secrets to other parties.

The extent of party databases attracts little attention from press gallery journalists, since they conceive of them chiefly in terms of direct mail campaigns, not a sexy topic. This misses the point. Indeed, the media's almost total emphasis on the campaign photo opportunities of political leaders is a distraction from the growing importance of targeted political communication in marginal seats. Direct mail from the major parties to voters is the end point of a sophisticated political machine that brings together phone canvassing, focus groups, opinion polls and policy development.

At the centre of all of this are the electoral databases, the Coalition's Feedback, and the ALP's Electrac. The design and operation of electoral databases are fairly simple. MPs (or candidates) operate a copy of their party's database software in their office, into which they download data on each of their constituents from the Australian Electoral Commission. This is the raw material (name, address, phone number) to which staffers must add the details of all contacts with constituents as well as information from other sources, such as local newspapers (letters to the editor provide valuable information about issues of interest to individual voters).

In building up a picture of each constituent, the parties are interested in finding out two things in particular. Are you a swinging voter and if so, what issues concern you most? This information is aggregated by the central party office and used to conduct opinion polls of swinging voters, tailor policy development and design advertising campaigns.

It is this connectivity that makes the databases so effective and gives the major parties an enormous advantage over the Greens and the Democrats, both of whom operate smaller-scale databases. The majors are also in a better position to plug the holes in the AEC data caused when people move (or when they die - more than one MP has been forced to apologise for sending birthday or anniversary greetings to deceased electors).

Local MPs use the information on swinging voters to tailor correspondence about party policy. Voters who identify strongly with the MP's party are targeted for party membership, donations and assistance in campaigns. As for voters strongly linked to the opposition party, MPs save the cost of the stamp. This adds up to a considerable saving. Recognising the effectiveness of this method of communication, MPs recently increased their postal allowance to more than $100,000 a year.


Political messages delivered via mass media are by their nature restricted in scope. The modern electorate is too diverse for this method to be effective. Databases allow parties to develop targeted messages for small groups, depending on their favourite issues, and their attitude to those issues. An ALP candidate in a rural seat was once caught out sending a pro-conservation letter to greenies in his electorate at the same time as delivering pro-logging letters to forestry workers.

It gets worse. Despite the fact that electoral databases exist for partisan advantage, they are heavily subsidised by taxpayers through MPs' electoral office allowances, use of AEC data, and through the mysterious government Members Secretariat. This secretive taxpayer-funded body refused our requests for an explanation of its role, telling us "we don't speak to the public".

On the upside, the databases allow MPs to give better service to constituents by systematically recording their concerns. The databases allow parties to differentiate between noisy protest movements and genuine popular feeling and to test the strength and geographic concentration of any opposition to government policy. If people can be bothered to contact their MP (as opposed to taking a few seconds to sign a petition or forward a generic email), political parties take notice.

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 21 October 2003. It is based on a paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference in Hobart. Click here for the full text.

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About the Authors

Dr Wayne Errington lectures in politics at the Australian National University. His book, co authored with Peter Van Onselen, John Winston Howard: The Biography (Melbourne University Press), is due for release later this year.

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Wayne Errington
All articles by Peter Van Onselen
Related Links
Australian Labor Party
Australiasian Political Studies Association Conference
Liberal Party of Australia
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