41.1 In Australia, as in other western countries, the major political parties compile sophisticated databases containing a great deal of information about the contact details, concerns and preferences of individual voters. This assists the parties in ‘election planning, fundraising, advertising strategy and policy deliberation’.[1] The New Zealand Privacy Commissioner, Marie Shroff, reportedly has noted that businesses and governments increasingly rely on ‘information-rich databases of personal information’ in order to provide more efficient services and to market in a more targeted and effective manner.

Political parties are no exception in hoping to gain extra mileage from collating and accessing details about voters and constituents.[2]

41.2 Under s 90B of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth), the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) provides (electronically) registered political parties, members of parliament (MPs), candidates for election and state and territory electoral authorities with information and certified lists of voters from the electoral rolls. This includes such details as name, address, age and occupation (optional). Under s 91A, such information may be used by politicians and political parties for a variety of ‘permitted purposes’, including: ‘any purpose in connection with an election or referendum’; ‘research regarding electoral matters’; ‘monitoring the accuracy of information contained in a Roll’; and the performance by a senator or MP ‘of his or her functions in relation to a person or persons enrolled’ in the relevant electorate.

41.3 Information obtained under s 90B is ‘protected information’ under the Act,[3] and disclosure other than for a permitted purpose, or use for ‘a commercial purpose’, is an offence punishable by a fine of up to 1,000 penalty units.[4]

41.4 In addition to the raw data supplied by the AEC, political parties go to considerable lengths to augment the information:

The ALP database is named Electrac, and the Liberal’s is named Feedback. These databases use electronic White Pages to incorporate telephone numbers where available … Identifying voting preferences and issues of interest is a valuable albeit time consuming practice for political parties. Effective database management results in any contact by a constituent with an electorate office being logged into the system. Contact can be made by telephone, writing or in person … Door knocking, telephone canvassing and letters to the editor are additional methods by which information is gathered … Voter preferences recorded in the databases include swinging voter status, minor party or independent leaning, as well as strong or weak Liberal or Labor voter leanings. This information is most valuable in marginal seats.

The information can be used for a number of purposes. Party organisations upload data from all electorates to track key issues and voting trends for use in qualitative polling, advertising and strategy formation. For individual MPs, the most important use is direct mail-outs targeted at swinging voters … Strongly Labor or Liberal Party identifying voters can be targeted for political donation.[5]

41.5 The Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) does not apply to registered political parties or to political representatives engaging in certain activities ‘in the political process’.[6] This exemption is usually referred to as the ‘political exemption’. Australian Government ministers generally are required to comply with the Privacy Act only when they are acting in an official capacity. Parliamentary departments also are excluded from the operation of the Act.[7]

41.6 In this chapter, the ALRC examines the arguments for and against retention of the political exemption in the Privacy Act, and recommends—subject to relevant constitutional limitations—removal of this political exemption, as well as the exemptions applying to Australian Government ministers and parliamentary departments.

[1] Canadian Press, ‘Tory Database Draws Ire of Privacy Experts for Including Constituency Files’, CTV (online), 18 October 2007, <>.

[2] T Watkins, ‘Voters Can Access Database Files’, Dominion Post (online), 26 March 2007, <www.stuff>.

[3]Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth) s 91A.

[4]Ibid s 91B.

[5] P van Onselen, ‘Political Databases and Democracy: Incumbency Advantage and Privacy Concerns’ (2004) Democratic Audit of Australia <>.

[6]Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) s 6C(1). Neither are political parties covered by the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth), since they are private organisations.

[7]Parliamentary Service Act 1999 (Cth) s 81(1)(a).