To paraphrase, hell hath no fury like a politician scorned. Dennis Jensen, MP for the seat of Tangney, was not preselected by the Liberal Party to recontest the seat in Parliament. He is running as an independent. Jensen recently claimed Liberal MPs use database software to profile constituents and decline requests for help from decided voters, even their own supporters
. The system is apparently called “Feedback”.
Let’s be realistic here, Feedback is a form of Customer Relations Management. It the same concept as you scanning your ‘Woolworths Rewards’ card at the supermarket or disclosing your frequent flyers number when making a travel booking. Companies use this information to target their information to convince you to purchase more from them, rather than their competition. To convince you to allow them to track your purchases, there is a reward of some form. It could be a discount on your petrol purchase if you spend a certain value in the supermarket, a ‘free’ flight from Sydney to Melbourne or access to a marketplace where they offer various trinkets (sorry ‘quality merchandise’) for the points you have accumulated.
That is why if you do use a Woolworths Rewards card, you occasionally get emails with ‘specials just for you’. It also explains that if you are searching on the internet because you need to purchase a new vacuum cleaner, all the advertising on the internet sites you visit for a while afterwards seem to have advertising for vacuum cleaners or retailers selling vacuum cleaners. Basically, it’s profitable for retailers and manufacturers to pay for a system to track your interest in various items and present options to you — hopefully convincing you to purchase their item rather than the option presented by the competition. Rather than sticking an ad on the side of a bus and hoping someone who is in the market sees it, they target ‘qualified’ consumers.
It’s the same with ‘Feedback’. The Liberal Party tracks your interactions with them. So, for example, if you choose to write a letter to Immigration Minister Dutton protesting at the inhumane treatment of refugees in the concentration camps located on Manus Island and Nauru, your name and address details together with some information on why you contacted the Minister will be recorded on ‘Feedback’. Now, say you live in a seat that the Liberal Party deem to be at risk — either one of theirs they think they will lose or one held by another party they think they can win — they use this information when the election is called. The system will ensure that the ‘tough on border protection’ personalised material is mailed to others around you but you are more than likely to get some marketing about (again for example) how some grant to an Indigenous community is assisting them to break the poverty cycle.
The logic is simple. Sending you a letter boasting how tough they are on border protection would in the normal course reinforce your existing opinion of the Liberal Party and why you would not vote for them. The alternative on a ‘closing the gap’ initiative would, in the opinion of the marketing experts, demonstrate to you that the Liberal Party does have a concern for the standard of living of those that are less well off in the society we live in and make you more likely to vote for the Coalition.
If you’re an ALP member and read this far saying ‘we wouldn’t do that’ — well you’re wrong. The ALP version of the customer management software is called ‘Campaign Central’ and the same decisions are made by a different group of marketing experts for exactly the same reasons. The ALP purchases a third party solution (in other words, someone else develops and sells a customer management system which is probably customised for the ALP’s needs). An internet search on the ‘Campaign Central’ suppliers name, Magenta Linas, has their official site at the top of the listing.
ABCTV’s 7.30 program reports
Feedback is owned by a company called Parakeelia, which is wholly owned by the Liberal Party.
Its directors include federal party boss, Tony Nutt, and former minister, Richard Alston.
Former Melbourne Lord Mayor and Liberal figure Ron Walker is listed as a major shareholder on ASIC documents.
Mr Walker told 7.30 that was a mistake and he was involved in the company's establishment but resigned in December 2002.
He said party figures confirmed to him he had resigned, and his remaining on the company documents was an error.
There also doesn’t appear to be a website for the company which is strange considering the company writes software and apparently understands how to market to potential customers.
Jensen claims that he was ‘requested’ to pay $2500 to Parakeelia along with all other Liberal MPs
. It is alleged that usually the payment comes from the funding provided by the parliament for the operation of the Member’s electorate office. The company, wholly owned by the Liberal Party, then provides software and training to electorate office staff on the operation and data mining abilities of the system to determine the political preferences of those who contact the electorate office. The electorate office staff are instructed to assist those who are more inclined to be an additional vote for the Coalition to a greater extent than those the system determines would vote for (or never vote for) the Coalition anyway.
So we have federal MP’s being told to use a particular software system to manage enquiries to the electorate offices that has been designed and developed by a firm wholly owned by the political party the MP represents. Furthermore, the MP is told to use taxpayer funds to make the ‘mandatory’ payment to use the system. While it’s probably legal and some software to manage your customer relations is probably more efficient than going through paper files to see where you are at — that’s not all. It seems that Parakeelia is the Liberal Party’s second biggest source of funds.
Last financial year, Parakeelia transferred $500,000 to the federal Liberal division, making it the party's second-biggest single source of funds. The year before it came in fourth with $400,000; before that $200,000.
While it all may be legal, what part of it is morally or ethically correct?
Gabrielle Chan wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian
recently that commented on the morals and ethics of the Liberal Party owning Parakeelia and then accepting large donations. She also points out that during the current election campaign you can meet the ALP Shadow Minister of your choice for a ‘measly’ $10,000. Tony Windsor (candidate for the federal seat of New England currently held by the Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce) has released the records of political donations by a mining company to the Nationals around the time the Coalition government was trying to expunge legislation relating to water use. The mining company rejected the allegations pointing out their (publicly reported) donations to Labor were actually higher than to the Nationals since 2011
. While it may be numerically accurate, that’s hardly the point is it?
While Dennis Jensen dumped on the Liberal Party over the use of Feedback, to be honest his motives were not exactly honourable
Jensen said: “Labor is no better. The company they use for Campaign Central doesn’t donate to the party but they use their tool in exactly the same way.”
Jensen complained that since he lost preselection he no longer had access to the Feedback database.
“The fact they pulled this from me, and the Liberal candidate will now have access to it, tells you everything you need to know about the extent to which it is a tool for constituents versus a tool for party political purposes,” he said.
“The taxpayer paid for my constituents’ information to be put into Feedback and yet the Liberal party and Parakeelia think they can pull it from me.
Clearly there is some information in Feedback that Dennis Jensen ‘needs’ or ‘wants’ to give him what he believes to be a good chance of retaining his seat in Parliament as an independent. It is probable that the information isn’t how his office processed his electorate’s gripes with government services or payments.
Under federal law, donations to political parties under $13,000 do not have to be disclosed to the authorities. During May 2016, the Liberal Party in New South Wales finally provided a list of donors to the NSW Electoral Commission after the Commission withheld $4million in taxpayer funds ordinarily given to political parties after an election based on the votes they received. The dispute was over the bona-fides (under NSW law) of some donors who chose to provide funds through a related identity to the political party totalling some $700,000
Arthur Sinodinos, the party’s treasurer and chairman of its finance committee at the time, has denied knowing that a “substantial” amount of the $700,000 donated by the foundation had come from property developers.
Arthur Sinodinos is the current federal cabinet secretary and while no ICAC corruption finding has been made against him, ICAC has yet to release its final report.
When the presumptive prime minister stands behind a lectern on the night of 2 July, he will no doubt tell us all that he will work for all Australians. That may well be the intent, but while anyone can buy access to a shadow minister for $10,000 or Liberal Party MP’s have to spend $2500 of taxpayer funds (provided to run their office) purchasing a licence to a particular piece of software owned by the Party’s head office as well as clearing donations through related entities, there is going to be some doubt as to who they really represent.
It seems that there is a competition between political parties for donations so we all can be bombarded with the respective travelling roadshows and glossy advertising come election time. While the particular winners in the 2016 ‘campaign arms race’ may claim to represent us all, the acknowledged acceptance of donations gives the impression that the donors interests will take precedence — even if the politicians personally are the model of independence, morals and ethics.
The bigger problem here is politicians and political parties are exempt from privacy laws. When you tell your local MP that Centrelink has miscalculated your entitlements, Child Support has misunderstood your circumstances, the Tax Office is picking on you or anything else that is somewhat personal, according to Jensen the information is apparently punched into the customer relationship management system, regardless of it being Feedback or Campaign Central. It stands to reason that political operatives employed by the party also have access to the system and its cross referencing to the electoral roll — otherwise how would those personally addressed missives get to you so quickly after an election was called (and the one that you get is different to your neighbours)?
The popularity of the ‘frequent flyer’ type customer relationship schemes for airlines and supermarkets is undoubted and we all happily give up some privacy for the potential free flight or $10 off our grocery bill. It seems not to matter to most that using the pretty card will disclose that they regularly fly from Brisbane to Sydney or buy a particular brand of Corn Flakes. Really, while the information may be useful for the business (it needs more seats on the planes or to keep a particular brand of Corn Flakes in stock to keep you coming back), some of the information given to MP’s when they are asked to help you is somewhat more confidential, and the information is shared with the political party’s headquarters without your knowledge or approval.
"It was a very clear understanding that there's Feedback training provided to staff members and basically the training is to use it as a database politically rather than to assist constituents," he said.
"Indeed, the instruction given by Feedback trainers is if there's not a vote in it, don't do it."
It seems your call is important – as your call will tell the politicians your social grouping, your politics, your belief system, maybe your income and determine if they really do give a damn about your problem.
We elect Members of Parliament to represent us without judging if we are on their side or supportive of their financial donors. If ‘computer says no’ and that leads to nothing happening to assist you, there is a problem.