Government use of political campaign tool ‘regrettable’ but not ‘meaningful’, Ombudsman findings reveal

The South Australian Ombudsman found that the use of the NationBuilder campaign tool by the former Prime Minister’s office was “inadvertent” and any information collected “most likely could not be used in a way significant”.

The use of NationBuilder was the subject of several exclusive ABC stories last year, which revealed that visitors to official government websites were redirected via a link referencing the Liberal Party’s NationBuilder.

The Campaign Tool can be used to build a database of individual profiles by collecting email addresses and phone numbers, and tracking a user’s behavior on third-party websites.

Former prime minister Steven Marshall denied at the time that the link redirects were collecting data, and an investigation by the state privacy committee later concluded it was “likely” the government did not facilitate the collection of unauthorized data from users of the government website.

Ombudsman Wayne Lines launched his own inquiry last October, to determine whether there was “sufficient evidence” of maladministration or misconduct to warrant an investigation.

In a statement on Monday, Lines said “employees from various agencies” had copied and pasted hyperlinks from press releases “without understanding the potential implications”.

SA Premier Steven Marshall has approved exploratory drilling on Lake Torrens.(ABC News: Michael Clements)

He said the former prime minister’s office ‘inadvertently’ continued to use his media email distribution list, run by the SA Liberal Party’s NationBuilder, once he formed government in March 2018.

“Although it appears that clicking on the relevant hyperlinks produced some form of data which was then sent to the NationBuilder platform, the data itself was a mixture of data from separate users,” a- he declared.

“Given this…it was highly plausible that these hyperlinks were copied and pasted by public officials who had no knowledge or understanding of the implications of the data.

“It would be very difficult to assess whether the data was used.”

a woman in a blazer smiling in a garden
Cybersecurity expert, Dr. Vanessa Teague.(ABC News: Kyle Harley)

Mr Lines has engaged Dr Vanessa Teague, a cybersecurity expert from the Australian National University’s College of Engineering and Computing, to provide advice on the technology.

He said that “noting the expert advice” he did not believe it was in the public interest to take further action.

But he said the use of a NationBuilder email distribution list by the former prime minister’s office was “regrettable” and “created the perception that public information is being used for partisan political purposes”.

“The South Australian Public Sector Code of Conduct recognizes that one of the four pillars of public service is impartiality from political influence,” he said.

“The Ministerial Code of Conduct also requires ministers to adhere to conventions of public service neutrality, respect that the public service is a public resource, and refrain from asking public servants to work on partisan political issues.

“I have issued this statement to raise awareness and remind all political parties of the importance that government resources are not used, or appear to be used, for partisan political purposes.”

The software served a purpose

South Australia Liberal Opposition Leader David Speirs said it would not be in the public interest to go ahead with an inquiry.

“The ombudsman basically said there was nothing else to look at here and there were no concerns arising from it,” he said.

“The hyperbole and the anger and the exaggerated mispronunciations of (Labour MP) Tom Koutsantonis, saying this was the biggest problem, that there was hidden criminal behavior here, that this was corruption at the highest level – quite clearly this has all turned into hyperbole.

Mr Speirs said the software ‘served a purpose for the Liberal Party in opposition’ and had been transferred to the government.

Asked if the use of the campaign tool should have been transferred to the government after the 2018 election, Mr Speirs replied: “It is what it is.”

“It was a system that worked for us at the time…the ombudsman said there was nothing wrong with it,” he said.

“It’s a fair comment, and I’m sure all political parties will take a look at it and make sure they have their houses in order.”

South Australian Prime Minister Peter Malinauskas said the government would ensure that all of the mediator’s recommendations are carefully considered.

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