The Liberal Party's election campaigning tactics are under formal investigation by communications watchdog the Australian Communications Authority after complaints were made with the regulator alleging persons with silent telephone numbers were contacted by an automated messaging systems authorized by Prime Minister John Howard.
During the 2004 federal election campaign, tens of thousands of electors were besieged by automatically generated e-mail and voice messages authorized by the Australian Liberal Party with the Prime Minister extolling the virtues of voting for local Liberal candidates. The messages were not always welcomed.
One firm known to have participated in the marketing onslaught, NetHarbour, included the Prime Minister's son Timothy Howard as a as a director.
News of the investigation was revealed after ACA executive manager of consumer issues John Haydon came under questioning during a the Senate estimates committee hearing into the Department of Communications IT and the Arts (DCITA) courtesy of Labor shadow Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.
The Labor Party has lodged two complaints with the ACA over the Liberal Party's campaigning tactics that utilized both unsolicited bulk e-mail from the Prime Minister in his capacity as the Member for Bennelong (NSW) and automated recorded voice messages that were aimed at electors' private telephones.
Other complaints, over the same tactics, are understood to have been lodged by estranged former Liberal Party members known as the "Not Happy John" coalition.
According to evidence tendered by the ACA, the agency is currently investigating complaints from people who allege they were contacted via telephone despite having a silent number.
Subsequently, Haydon told the committee he was checking whether the Liberal Party accessed the integrated public number database (IPND) - the mandatory central repository of all telephone numbers that carriers are required to provide information to.
"That investigation is in its final stages now... The issue for the ACA is whether again the IPND has been used in that spamming, in that calling, process," Haydon told the Estimates committee.
However, Haydon was quick to send the the electoral albatross to the Privacy Commission under Attorney General's portfolio, telling the committee despite the investigation, his agency had no legal authority to take matters further.
"If the IPND was not used in the process then the ACA has no jurisdiction ... it becomes a privacy matter."
However, in a fortuitous piece of timing, the ACA recently announced it would be clamping down on access to the IPND
On February 2 2005, ACA consumer group executive manager John Haydon told Computerworld new guidelines were being introduced in conjunction with the Privacy Commission all users of the IPND, with businesses the main target.
"What concerns us is that this is open to abuse [and] we want to make it clear what constitutes proper use. The issue is compounded because a lot of information about people is put into the IPND," Haydon said at the time.
The Senate estimates hearings continue.