When the Coalition quietly changed the regulations to enable access to millions of unlisted mobile phone numbers for ‘political research’, the Liberal Party’s pollster Crosby Textor was quick out of the blocks with an application to access the database, writes Jommy Tee. Now, the lobby group closest to Scott Morrison has access to 27 million phone numbers heading into the next Federal election.
The Liberal Party’s pollsters, the Crosby Textor Group (CT Group), tried to access 27 million unlisted mobile phones before last year’s May federal election.
Access to unlisted numbers only became possible from 14 December 2018, when the then communications minister, Mitch Fifield, very quietly changed the regulations. Michael West Media can find no media release by the minister detailing the significant regulatory change.
The regulations give “researchers” carte blanche to access the unlisted numbers as long as the research relates to federal, state and local government electoral matters.
While there was no media release heralding the changes, the CT Group was nonetheless quick off the mark, filing an application to access the government’s Integrated Public Number Database in February 2019, according to documents obtained by Michael West Media under Freedom of Information.
The move coincided with the winding down of the covert pro-coal campaign dubbed “Project Caesar”, which the CT group had been involved in. According to the Guardian, Project Caesar was a sophisticated attempt at using digital and social media to “shift public sentiment towards coal, using messaging informed by research, focus groups and polling conducted in multiple countries”.
The CT Group’s application then went through three further iterations over the next three months. The regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), finally approved the application in early May – which effectively thwarted efforts by the Liberal Party to use the unlisted phone numbers for “political research” before the May election.
On all iterations, the application stated that the “direct beneficiaries of this research will be the Liberal Party of Australia and its associated State and Territory Divisions, including the Party’s current elected representatives and candidates”.
Despite this, a partial phone script included with the original application stated that if a respondent asked who the end client was, the response should be as follows:
[MUST READ OUT:] Your participation is on the understanding that both you and the end client remain anonymous.
[IF ASKED WHO THE END CLIENT IS RESPOND:] I simply don’t know, we are not informed of that.
Subsequent amended applications did not include the phone script within the body of the application.
Michael West Media has confirmed with ACMA that the CT Group has not yet accessed the database.
As part of the approval process for access to the database the CT Group was required to provide strong commitments to preserve the privacy of the information obtained.
This included de-identifying individual data, protocols for the secure storage and handling of data and complying with Australian Privacy Principles, abiding by the Australian Market and Social Research Society guidelines – the marketing industry’s voluntary code of practice, and complying with the Telecommunications Amendment (Access to Mobile Number Information for Authorised Research) Regulations 2018.
The applications went on to detail that the public would be well served by the research that CT Group was conducting on behalf of the federal Liberal Party as it would “most accurately inform the formulation of public policy”.
More three-word slogans ahead?
Somewhat more ill-defined was the application’s assertion that the research would include “Australians’ views on public policies, opinions on political parties, incumbent Members of Parliament and Senators and candidates”. A pointer to poll-driven policy and more punchy three-word slogans perhaps?
In return for access to the database and its unlisted phone numbers, there is no obligation on the researcher to make either the survey questions or the end research publicly available.
Unless they are contacted by a researcher, the public has no visibility as to whether the questions and views sought by political researchers are balanced and neutral or couched in the negative and pejorative (also known as push polling) – especially when discussing the views of political opponents.
We approached the CT Group for comment but it has yet to respond.
The regulations only allow access for the purposes of making phone calls – text messages are not allowed.
A quirk of the regulations is that the 12-month access period starts when the database is first accessed. It appears there are no other regulatory provisions that would cause an authorisation to expire.
Ducks in a row
As the CT Group has yet to access the database, it has not triggered the authorisation, so is well primed to take advantage of the database during the next election campaign.
Political parties are able to obtain unlisted mobile phone numbers via other means, as Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party so annoyingly demonstrated during the last election campaign when the party spam texted the public.
CT Group and its in-the-field affiliate, Enterprise Marketing and Research Services, remain the only companies to have been approved to use the database for research into electoral matters.
A salient point for other political parties wishing to access the database is don’t leave it too late because it may take several months to satisfy the approval conditions.
The long-suffering public may beg to differ on whether access should be granted.
Jommy Tee is a long-time career public servant, having worked in the policy development field for 25+ years as well as an independent researcher interested in politics, current affairs, and Nordic noir.