Big Brother really is watching

The SMH/Age carries an article this morning that deserves close attention by anyone who really considers him/herself a student of Australian politics. It’s by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen and it deals with political party databases.

Update – Jozef Imrich has kindly provided a link to the full Errington and van Onselen conference paper.

Here’s an extract from the SMH article:

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.

Party databases, along with qualitative “focus groups” as a cross-check and propaganda test-bed, largely control Australian politics today. They heavily influence if not dictate the messages that will be delivered in “macro-campaigning” in the mass media and the form in which they’ll be delivered, while also controlling “micro-campaigning” via a multitude of means including direct mail and telephone “canvassing” (the non-emotive term the ALP now uses to describe “push-polling” and similar techniques).

One point that Errington and van Onselen missed (at least in their SMH article if not the conference paper from which it was extracted) is that information for party databases is also gathered and logged both from quantitative telephone opinion polling (they’re not just trying to generate percentage support figures; they’re also recording what you as an individual think) and doorknocking by candidates and local Members (any responses that may illuminate attitudes to issues are recorded and entered). I suspect that even quite politically-sophisticated observers (like political bloggers) would probably be surprised by the detailed information on their attitudes and opinions that the 2 major political parties have been able to assemble about them, especially if they live in a marginal seat.

Modern politics is not unlike an iceberg, conducted on multiple levels with most of them out of sight. The public (media and parliamentary) performance is only the most visible, and in some respects least important, level. Hawke and Keating’s success at the 1990 and 1993 elections respectively can partly be explained by the fact that the ALP at that time enjoyed unchallenged mastery of political databases and associated direct mail techniques. Howard’s subsequent successes, especially in 1998, derive from the fact that the Libs caught up with the ALP and then surpassed them by successfuly adopting and adapting a variety of US Republican “wedge politics” techniques. There were some signs that the ALP had managed to bridge much of that gap by 2001, but that effect was swamped by the massive tidal wave of the Tampa/September 11 effect. That’s one major reason why, despite the ALP bearing the handicap of Simon the Unlikeable, I expect the next federal election to be very close (in the absence of another Tampa or 9/11-type event).

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

The real US innovation we should worry about is their bipartisan effort to use voter databases to write electoral boundaries. The result is electorates with almost exactly equal numbers of voters that are dramatically skewed in favour of the sitting member, so much so that it is now almost unknown for a sitting US representative to be defeated.

Wayne Errington
Wayne Errington
2022 years ago

Ken

Big Brother watches Armadillos, too.

No surprises that the APSA paper isn’t on the web a month after the conference, it’s a university effort, after all. I’ll send a copy to anyone who wants it. Hit the link on my name below.

Alan, I’d love any details you have on what the Yanks get up to with their databases.

Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

Wayne, see Monopoly Politics 2004: Even Less Competition Than in 2002. Congressional redistributions are carried out by the state legislatures almost entirely to the benefit of sitting members. By using voter databases you can gerrymander to your heart’s content while avoiding any hint of malaportionment. The recent Texas redistribution is the classic example although it happens in most US states.

Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

I’d refer you to The Soviet Republic of Texas but that would be blogslutting.

Wayne Errington
Wayne Errington
2022 years ago

Ken

Your analysis of recent electoral history is probably right, but would be difficult to prove. One pointer towards the effectiveness of marginal seats campaigns is that in two of the cases you cite (1990/98), the winner received a minority of the two-party preferred vote. I don’t know of a case where an opposition party has fallen over the line with a TPP minority. Marginal seats campaigns are easier from the treasury benches.

I like your iceberg analogy, although it invites rejoinders about the fate of the Titanic.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Wayne,

Having now read your full paper, I see that you do indeed argue that it’s easier to maintain a database and make effective use of it from the Treasury benches. You may be correct, but I don’t see logically why that should necessarily be true, especially for federal Labor at present. It holds government in every state and territory, so it DOES enjoy many of the benefits of incumbency. Moreover, and obviously subject to funding constraints, oppositions can just as easily commission opinion polling and telephone canvassing whose results feed into the database, and just as easily conduct doorknocking whose results may also feed into the database.

I take your point that it may be more difficult to get untrained volunteers and candidates (not yet MPs) to understand the importance of recording useful information about voters and then actually do so. However, unless there’s a massive disparity between government and opposition numbers of elected members, the differences in resourcing and professionalism shouldn’t be huge. With the federal Coalition enjoying a margin of 12? seats or so over Labor, it may be that some elected Labor pollies have to maintain database info over a bit of extra territory than their own electorate, but the difference shouldn’t be huge.

I suspect the real difficulty with maintaining databases from opposition stems from the increased factionalism, dispiritedness and ill-disciplined in-fighting that may occur in opposition, especially when party members in their heart of hearts think they can’t win. It’s a failure of will rather than lack of resources.

Wayne Errington
Wayne Errington
2022 years ago

Ken

I suppose we need to tease out the notion of incumbency in future. Databases certainly help sitting members fight off pre-selection challenges but a smart opposition could compensate for incumbency advantages as you describe. Labor is in a better position to do this from opposition because they are more professionally organised at the federal level.

However, the scale of resources and allowances available to sitting members is now enormous. Throw in the fact that senators help out in marginal seats, and a matching intelligence effort by an opposition candidate becomes very expensive.

The problem with relying on state colleagues is that one needs a rare combination of overlapping marginal seats, factional cooperation and issue overlap (eg Health) for it to be effective.

Much of what we describe in the APSA paper is best practice. Not many MPs are really swithed on to this method, much to the frustration of their central offices.

Winning close elections is a matter of a handful of votes in a handful of seats. Of course, Simon could yet surprise us all and win in a landslide, in which case all the mailouts in the world will count for nought, as they did in 1996.

Regards

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2022 years ago

The Drover’s Dog

Ken Parish picks up on an interesting article about how political parties profile we-the-people, and makes the following, somewhat tangential…

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2022 years ago

The Drover’s Dog

Ken Parish picks up on an interesting article about how political parties profile we-the-people, and makes the following, somewhat tangential…

trackback
2022 years ago

Careful, he might hear you!

It must be a sign of the times, but in Australian blogging circles, bloggers are finding that they are discussing

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2022 years ago

The Drover’s Dog

Ken Parish picks up on an interesting article about how political parties profile we-the-people, and makes the following, somewhat tangential comment: That’s one major reason why, despite the ALP bearing the handicap of Simon the Unlikeable, I expect t…