Slings and Arrows: Will Big Brother run local government elections?

Councillor candidates’ social media activity and data-heavy campaign tools used in the the state election could play a big part in the City of Adelaide’s November poll, says Ash Whitefly.

The iPhone has it

Some South Australian elected members occupying the political machinery of local government a few months from now could be subject to a period of Big Brother monitoring. At least two matters became obvious recently. They are of relevance to current councillors or mayors who plan to run again, as well as voters likely to communicate with these candidates. Given that only about 30 per cent of eligible ratepayers or tenants bother to vote, any voter who intends to take an interest will be enthusiastically pursued by candidates.

There’s a local government poll in November. Councils in SA have increasingly become training grounds and warehouse parks for the politically active. For candidates who have already served a term, a second go can be defining in terms of building a political career. The old days of letterboxing and door-knocking are now being overwhelmed by timely use of email ‘direct mail’, as well as the rich menu available via social media. The ‘introduction’ routine to potential new supporters can be done without leaving the office, and screen-based conversations can grow from there. Less shoe leather to wear out.

The rules some candidates never read

Close to the poll, a caretaker period kicks in, defined as the ‘election period’. This year’s postal poll runs from 22 October to 9 November. But the ‘election period’ begins earlier and runs longer, from 18 September, the day of the close of nominations to 9 November.

The city council’s caretaker policy makes interesting reading. For time-poor elected members, many of their constituency communications are transmitted using email or social media. However, the council policy reveals that during the election period those eight weeks leading up to the poll “all correspondence addressed to council members will be answered by the CEO or his delegate’. It’s not clear whether that includes emails to councillors via the council-funded server — or how that could be done beyond metadata only — but it hints at a potential invasion of privacy. It also suggests that vetting attempts would have to be repeated if the correspondence with voters extends over days and weeks leading up to polling day.

There may also be consequences regarding social media. The policy says: “Monitoring of council members’ social media sites by council employees will continue through the election period, insofar as to ensure business-as-usual requests are captured. These will be actioned through normal administrative channels, and responses will be provided by council employees only, through one of the council’s social media sites or other means”.

How a council employee would objectively separate “business-as-usual requests” from councillors’ social media ideas, comment and electioneering is not made clear. It also doesn’t comment on staff who might be tempted to pressure the candidate to amend their social media content to comply with some interpretation of election period policy or law.

Confusingly, the policy also features clauses that appear to contrast all this, stating that “…council staff must not undertake any activity that may affect voting in the election, except where the activity relates to the election process and is authorised by the CEO.”

And another: “Council staff must not assist council members in ways that are or could create a perception that they are being used for electoral purposes.”

A Liberal dose of advantage

This time the poll could deliver a few surprises. A Weekend Australian article published on state election day (17 March 2018) by Chris Kenny, South Australia result could rewrite the rules … , revealed the Marshall team had used a powerful, new targeting campaigning tool, an i360 app, over the year leading to election day. The newspaper followed up with a more detailed exposé on 21 April, labelling it a “data trump card”. It helped profile voters’ genders, ages, voting intentions and policy interests. Kenny tagged it, “Big Brother meets grass roots campaigning,” and claimed it had not been used before in Australian electioneering. The Libs won, vindicating the high cost of the app.

Collected data could be of relevance to 2018 SA council candidates who have strong links with, are Party members of, or likely applicants for membership of, the SA Branch of the Liberal Party.

SA Labor also uses digital targeting tools, but keeps its cards close to its chest. The fact that Labor experienced a slight swing towards it in some electorates indicates that it also was capitalising on the big campaigning advantages that digital analysis provides.

Those data would still be relatively fresh in October and of great assistance to candidates friendly to either side of the political spectrum seeking to identify and woo potential new voters.

It seems that the caretaker policy might aim to monitor some mechanisms and opportunities some of the time, but it won’t be able to monitor all of the mechanisms and opportunities all of the time. And that would be just how the party data masters, whose services and voter data may prove to be decisive in November, would prefer it.

Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

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