The Australian Greens have renewed calls to scrap Privacy Act exemptions for political parties in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The party’s digital rights spokesperson Senator Jordon Steele-John this week said political bodies needed to be “open, honest and transparent about the data they were using, or paying to access, and in particular about any links with Cambridge Analytica”, adding that the exemptions were against the interests of Australian democracy.
The Privacy Act regulates how an individual’s personal information is handled by companies, with restrictions around the data being disclosed to third parties and overseas, and being used for direct marketing purposes.
The act includes the Notifiable Data Breaches scheme, which obliges organisations to notify individuals whose personal information is involved in a data breach, in certain cases.
However, the act does not apply to registered political parties and political representatives.
“There is need for ongoing review of privacy regulations in Australia, including the collection, storage, and use of personal information by government, corporations and other entities particularly with respect to its impact on the integrity of our democracy,” Steele-John said.
Speaking on ABC Radio this morning, Greens leader Richard Di Natale said political parties shouldn’t be “let off the hook” regarding privacy.
“All political parties use databases to engage with voters, but they’re exempt from privacy laws so there’s no transparency about what anybody’s doing and that’s why it’s really important that we go back, remove those exemptions, ensure that there’s some transparency and allow people to decide whether they think it’s appropriate,” he said.
“Allow people to decide whether they think it’s appropriate that the activities political parties are undertaking in terms of getting information about voters and engaging with them…whether they believe that political parties should have access to that info and use it the way they do.”
The exemptions for political parties have been long contested. On their introduction they were defended by then Attorney-General Daryl Williams who said the exemptions were “designed to encourage that freedom and enhance the operation of the electoral and political process in Australia”. The Privacy Commissioner at the time, Malcolm Crompton, said the exemptions were inappropriate.
A number of private member’s bills have been introduced over the years by the Greens and independents to scrap the exemptions, most recently in 2006.
The Australian Law Reform Commission recommended in its 2008 For Your Information: Australian Privacy Law and Practice report that politicians and political parties should be subject to the Privacy Act, given the public and private sectors are expected to abide to it.
Privacy laws in countries including United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand do not include any exemptions for political parties.
“When we’re talking about data mining on this scale and its application to voter-targeting, we’re talking about a very real threat to the integrity of Australian elections,” Steele-John said.
“Political parties and members of Parliament might be exempt from the privacy act and its consequences, but that does not mean they should be allowed to use private data collected unknowingly or without permission to advance their own interests,” the senator added.
The major parties have defended the exemption. A Senate motion by Steele-John to scrap it was this week voted down by Labor and the Coalition.
Attorney-General Christian Porter said the exemption was “designed to encourage freedom of political communication and support the operation of the electoral and political process”.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus argued the exemption “does not in any way allow parties to access illegally harvested data”.