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.
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).