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To win, the Liberals need a new attitude, not a new database

Opinion

Elections are won by people with ideas, not by databases, no matter how sophisticated, writes former Liberal minister Mark Brindal.

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While the Liberals are to be credited for bringing their campaigning into the twenty-first century, tools are just that. It takes an architect and skilled tradespeople to create a building.

The i360 database now being used by the Liberals in SA – as revealed by InDaily last week – might be a revolutionary campaigning tool. It might help to avoid the mistakes of the 2014 election. It might even be the “step change” that leader Steven Marshall is hoping for. But it won’t win the election for them.

Despite the most favourable electoral boundaries since Playford, despite a state of the art database, the Liberal Party will, once again, lose the unlosable election if all it has learned from 2014 was that its campaign was “too centralised”.

The Liberals did not lose in 2014 because they did not have a database. They had one which, if properly used, was more than adequate. However, it required effort to be effective. Its benefits were proportional to the time that was put into entering and retrieving data. Consequently, in some seats,  it was as useless as tits on a bull.

The Liberals, in 2014, failed to target critical seats in the right way: that was not about databases, it was about attitude.

For centuries the wise have understood that you never count your chickens before they hatch. Yet there was a feeling among many senior MPs that the election was a necessary irritation on their way to the white car. There was a feeling that, by making themselves as small a target as possible, they could not lose.

Instead of picking the best and most suitable candidates for seats, powerbrokers more interested in shoring up factional power in the party room ensured that some critical marginal seats went to someone they thought they could later rely on. Potentially excellent candidates were overlooked.

But it went further. The late Dr Bob Such was considering retirement. When Sam Duluk was preselected for Such’s seat of Fisher, a number of Liberal MPs convinced Such of Duluk’s unsuitability. Such decided to re-contest the seat. Duluk now sits in the Parliament (in a different seat). What, then, made him so unacceptable? He was simply from the wrong faction.

The loss of Fisher cost this state four years of Liberal government. One can only hope that, since it also cost some of those involved approximately half a million dollars in lost salary, they might have learned something.

Chances are they have. In fact, if Steven Marshall is to be remembered for only one thing, it would be his ability to lead and maintain a parliamentary party more united that it has been for decades.

MPs have always made notes as they doorknocked. Toys in a yard are a fair indicator that the residents might be interested in education. A walking frame might indicate that that elector has a strong interest in health care. Noted in the database, such observations allow parties to target communication with specific electors. The i360 will automatically input a more comprehensive breadth of data than could normally be collected. It’s infinitely more efficient.

It’s not new. It’s no invasion of privacy. It will provide MPs with the ability to understand their electorates better and to target individuals precisely, but to what purpose?

If it is to shamelessly pork barrel critical seats – using public taxation to buy government – that’s hardly a step forward for democracy. If the tailored script tells you what you want to hear, deliberately fudges or ignores the issues that might lose your vote, that’s misleading and dishonest. If parties think our lives are so empty that we need yet more automated polls which “just take a minute of your time” or yet another recorded call from some political luminary talking at me, frankly, I’d rather the technology wasn’t used.

Elections are won one vote at a time. One elector, who does matter, casts every vote. Databases can give our politicians a better understanding of each of us and our individual values.

However, we don’t exist in splendid isolation. We live as a collective, as families and communities. Governments should try to govern in the best interests of the collective with as little intrusion into our individuality as possible.

We are attracted to policies that benefit ourselves, but that attraction is counter-balanced by what we see as good for our families, communities and those for whom we are building a legacy. Hopefully, it is circumscribed by our deepest values – a fair go, equity and compassion.

If i360 is used to inform us on matters that are important and relevant to us, it will improve our ability to make wise choices. But it’s a party’s policies and vision that will ultimately determine our choice.

Let’s hope the Liberal Party has not forgotten that we elect governments to take us towards a better future. South Australians are looking for a party of leaders with competency, integrity and vision.

If i360 is another power tool in the Liberal kit, good. If it’s a case of the media is the message, they will lose again.

Mark Brindal was a Liberal member of the South Australian Parliament from 1989 to 2006, and was Minister for Water Resources, Local Government, Youth and Employment and Training during the Olsen and Kerin governments.

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