The Taj Mahal of Beat-Ups #vicvotes
I have been making fun — here and here — of the Age’s relentless attacks on the ALP (but never the Coalition) for engaging in the “crime” of electioneering with its series of non-stories in the lead-up to and during this state election campaign. The prissiness the paper displays towards activities such as opposition research and coordinated social media strategies strikes me as amusing, mainly because process stories like this don’t actually change votes even if they create a lot of noise among the political class.
This morning, the Age truly outdid itself. In the Taj Mahal of all beat-ups, it is leading with a so-called exclusive about how Labor (and the Liberals — but only a sidebar) maintain an electoral database into which they input data about voters. Or, in their frenzied terms:
THE ALP has secretly recorded the personal details of tens of thousands of Victorians – including sensitive health and financial information – in a database being accessed by campaign workers ahead of this Saturday’s state election.
For the uninitiated or easily startled, here is some reassuring background.
- Like most organisations, political parties keep databases of their key customers (or voters in this case). They pull together publicly available information into a format that is useful for the purposes of communicating with these people — i.e. the electoral roll, broken into state and federal electorates and local government areas.
- When voters contact candidates or MPs with issues or concerns, rather than keeping the information in separate manila folders or strewn on the floor in post-it notes, they enter this data into the database. This means that when the same person contacts the office the next time, the staff will be able to deal with them efficiently. It also helps electorate staff keep a record of the many interactions they have with voters for the purposes of follow-up and so on.
- When voters contact an office and make clear that they are strong supporters of the MP or candidate, a record of this is kept so that campaign volunteers may later offer to assist with providing postal vote applications or assistance on election day.
- Political parties also undertake canvassing to gain a better understanding of their electorate, and have been doing so in various forms since political parties existed. This is simply an automated process of the oldest campaigning technique there is.
- Members or candidates may send out a survey to voters to find out about what local issues concern them the most. Rather than discarding these responses or simply placing them in dust-gathering piles, these responses are entered into a database so that the MP or candidate can communicate with these voters on these issues.
- When voters indicate that they oppose the candidate or MP’s political party (and, as a former electorate office worker, I can attest that this is often the case) a record of this is also made so that campaign volunteers don’t waste finite energies or the voter’s own time trying to win their vote through door-knocking or other methods of outreach.
In summary, electoral databases are nothing more than online filing systems that allow political offices to operate as efficiently as possible, and not just during campaigns. They also help campaigns keep track of elderly and disabled voters who need transport on election day or who may need assistance with postal votes. In my experience, most campaigns use these databases primarily for the latter purpose. It has never occurred to me, in the 23 years since I first laid eyes on an electoral database program, that they are something to be hidden from the media in the first place.
All parties use such software, as quietly conceded by these two sentences from the Age non-story.
The Coalition has a database capable of similar profiling of voters, but has refused to comment or to divulge any details.
Liberal state director Tony Nutt refused to comment when asked about the Coalition’s database and its profiling of voters.
I can guarantee that the Liberal software is all but identical to Labor’s and used for precisely the same purpose. It is hardly rocket science. As Poll Bludger has irrefutably demonstrated over at Crikey, this is also — in the most literal possible sense — very old news. If the issue a is broad one about political parties and privacy, then have the debate, by all means. But don’t pretend it’s actually a new development, four days from an election, and don’t promote the fiction that only the ALP is doing what all serious political parties do.
There are only two explanations for the Age’s remarkable campaign against campaigning, and neither is flattering:
- They are genuinely shocked that political parties actually seek to win voters through various electioneering activities, in which case it is very naive journalism
- They are feigning shock in order to wound the ALP as part of a deliberate partisan strategy, in which case it is not really journalism at all.