There’s no justification for taxpayer dollars being used to fund party political activity by governments, argues Greg Barns
THE NEXT TIME you ring your local federal member of parliament’s office to talk about an issue of concern to you, consider this. Your name, address, and the nature of your call will be noted by the MP or his or her staff, and that data will then be entered into an electronic database. If you ring a Liberal MP your details will be fed into a software system called FEEDBACK and if you call a Labor MP those details will be housed on the ELECTRAC database.
And let’s say you are a community activist in your neighbourhood and you have frequent dialogue with your local MP’s office. You get to know them and they get to know you. They know you hate four wheel drives, that you read broadsheet newspapers rather than tabloids and that you listen to and watch the ABC. You might tell them you have three kids all of whom attend private schools and that your partner is a self employed businessman. All that information will also get filed away in the computer database.
Oh, and you have had your fair share of arguments with the MP and his or her staffers. Sometimes you are fiery and you do have a tendency to thump the table when you are trying to get a point across that you think is important. You tell them you met last week with the local mayor and the chairman of the local neighbourhood watch. And most importantly, you tell them you are swinging voter. All that valuable knowledge gets fed into your file.
Your valuable file is then fed into huge databases that the Liberal Party and ALP keep at their national headquarters in Canberra. These databases contain information on almost every voter in Australia. In an era when a handful of seats and voters turns elections, these databases are the jewel in the political strategy crown.
By the way, you can’t see your file. Five years ago, the Howard government and the Labor opposition combined to ensure the defeat of a suggestion by the Australian Democrats and the Commonwealth Privacy Commissioner that political parties should be covered by the Privacy Act.
But while you have no access to your file, it’s your taxes that are paying for MP’s offices to build political databases. Taxpayer funded staffers operate the Liberal and ALP electronic databases and for Liberal MPs an organisation called the Government Members Secretariat assists electorate office staff in their utilisation of the electronic database.
The Government Members Secretariat, or GMS as it is known in the trade, operates from Parliament House in Canberra. It’s a small unit of taxpayer funded staff who are overseen by the chief whip for the government. Because the chief whip is not answerable to parliament, the activities of the GMS are not subject to scrutiny by parliamentary oversight, even though it is expending over $1 million of taxpayers’ money a year.
The GMS is the latest incarnation of one of the staples of Australian politics over the past thirty years - what we might term taxpayer funded propaganda units. The need to control the media’s ‘spin’ on stories, to ensure that all MPs in the government are consistent in their communications with the electorate, and to ensure the media and the public knows about the Oppositions gaffes and flaws, are why these units exist.
And while opposition parties rail against their existence, as soon as they are in government they create their own propaganda machine, courtesy of the taxpayer.
The ALP complained bitterly about the Fraser government’s media unit but one of its first actions when it was elected in 1983 was to create what would be become known colloquially as the aNiMaLS, a well oiled Hawke and Keating government media and political tactics unit. The aNiMaLS was the subject of the Liberal Party’s ire for 13 years but this did not stop the Howard government from creating the GMS as soon as it assumed office in 1996.
Collecting data on voters, churning out political propaganda on behalf of the government and running campaigns against your political opponents are all part and parcel of modern Australian politics. But there’s no justification for one cent of taxpayers’ money being spent on these exercises because they serve the interests of the political parties and not the community. And for political parties and MPs’ offices to hide behind a wall of secrecy about their voter databases simply fuels the unhealthily high level of cynicism about our democracy. •
Greg Barns is a former Howard government adviser and a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement. A member of the Australian Democrats, he is author of Selling the Australian Government: Politics and Propaganda from Whitlam to Howard, published in APO’s Briefings series by UNSW Press.