Political Party Databases: Proposal for reform
Community Services, Education and Social Sciences
Communications and Arts, Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts,Technology, Education and Communications
A paper that appeared in an earlier volume of this journal (van Onselen 2003), examined the functioning of political databases. It analysed the lack of public accountability in their operation, as well as the implications their usage has on rights to privacy, concluding that a need for operational reform existed. As they are currently constituted, political databases operate as a 'repository' of information on constituents that parties can draw on in their campaigning. Not unsurprisingly the major political parties that operate these systems have been unwilling to canvass reforms, or even improved practices in their use. This however in no way reduces the need for reform. As the system stands, political parties, classed as private organisations under Australian law, operate databases in a way that is only legal because political parties are exempted from privacy laws that outlaw similar systems amongst private organisations such as telemarketing companies. Such companies have been banned from operating consumer databases without the knowledge or consent of the individuals whose details are logged. The compilation of such information is deemed to be a violation of an individual's privacy. Political parties are exempted from such limitations where their activities are 'in connection with an election, a referendum, or other participation in the political process' (Privacy Amendment (Private Sector) Act 2000). Yet unlike requests for information held by the public service, citizens cannot obtain Freedom of Information searches on their files within electorate offices, including database records. As the legislators, it is the political parties themselves that make each of the above rulings. As such they stand as the judge, jury and accused with respect to this issue. This situation is desperately in need of reform. Without reform the potential benefits of political databases as a tool for improving communication with constituents will be lost in a sea of negativity. This discussion paper outlines some practical measures for reform that need to be implemented expediently.