REVEALED: Marshall Govt’s pandemic spin

EXCLUSIVE | Women and older couples are being targeted by the SA Liberal Party in a scripted blitz designed to sell the Government’s COVID message on health, education and the economy to concerned voters – while recording their feedback for the party’s election database.

Jan 19, 2022, updated Jan 19, 2022
Premier Steven Marshall and Health Minister Stephen Wade. Photo: Tom Richardson / InDaily

Premier Steven Marshall and Health Minister Stephen Wade. Photo: Tom Richardson / InDaily

A script titled ‘Living with COVID’ is understood to have been distributed to various MPs’ offices and candidate campaign headquarters yesterday.

The document, which has been seen by InDaily, targets both “Hard IDs” and “Soft IDs” – and contains instructions to MPs and their staff on how to keep a “permanent record” of their interactions with constituents.

The Hard IDs are based on a “key word search” of terms used by constituents in correspondence with MPs, understood to include direct and social media correspondence.

Those words include “Ambulance”, “Health”, “Hospital”, “Nurse”, “Doctor”, “Beds”, “COVID”, “School”, “Education” and “Business”.

The document states that the term “Health” tags the constituent as being “supportive of more funding and public health beds etc”, while the COVID tag excludes people who are against vaccination.

The “Education” and “School” tags indicate the target is a parent, the script says.

The phone script is directed to two broader demographics – or “Soft IDs” – couples aged 65 and over, who are to be canvassed during the day, and women aged from 35 to 54, who are to be contacted at night.

An excerpt from the script delivered to MPs by Liberal Party HQ.

It’s understood the Hard IDs are processed using the Liberal Party’s controversial ‘Feedback’ campaign tool, which is developed, run and maintained by the party-owned company Parakeelia.

According to the Commonwealth Auditor-General in 2016, “the Feedback software enables parliamentarians to develop profiles of their constituents, using a range of information including electoral roll information, and to generate tailored communications to constituents”.

At the last state election, the SA party also used a campaigning tool produced by the Republican-aligned US data mining company i360, although it’s understood it was deemed too expensive to continue with.

The leaked document suggests the Government is concerned about how its messaging on the health system, its hybrid schooling solution and the broader economy is being received, particularly amongst women and older voters.

The script tells the caller to say: “Hi, my name is (Feedback User Name) and I am calling on behalf of (Members name), your local member for (electorate)/your local Liberal candidate for (electorate) in the upcoming State election.”

Upon establishing the target’s name, they say their MP “has asked me to call you to check in given the current situation with COVID and to see how you think things are going”.

“Did you have the time to chat now? It will only take a minute,” the script details.

“(Members name) wanted me to see that you are okay and whether you wanted to share any of your current concerns about COVID-19?”

Depending on the answer to that question, the caller is then prompted to say: “Out of the following, what do you think the biggest issue is in regards to COVID.”

They then recite three options – “reducing and removing restrictions to allow businesses to thrive, ensuring that our health system can stand up to the pressures from COVID and ensuring that our schools are safe places for children and teachers”.

Depending on the choice selected, the caller is then prompted to scroll down to a scripted spiel on either the economy, health or education.

The former states that “ensuring our small businesses have the greatest opportunity to trade is one of the Marshall Liberal Government’s biggest priorities”.

“Re-opening our borders has been one step towards normality – we simply can’t stay isolated from the rest of Australia and the world forever, which is what the Labor Party is suggesting we did by keeping our borders closed,” the script states.

“Omicron was a game-changer though and has meant that unfortunately extra restrictions had to be put on businesses to reduce the spread whilst we address this extra transmissible variant.

“With new modelling for Omicron the Marshall Liberal Government is working hard to reduce the spread so that we can remove some of the restrictions to businesses and further return to normality.”

The script insists that “despite challenges to some industries, overall our economy is actually going very well with our state unemployment rate at its lowest rate in a decade of 4.6 per cent”.

It argues “this is much better than Labor’s average rate of 6.8 per cent in their last term and Labor’s lowest rate of 5.6 per cent for the same period (2014-2018)”.

“SA also currently has the fastest growing economy in the country,” the spiel continues.

It then details the State Government’s recently-announced business support packages, with cash grants of up to $22,000 for tourism, hospitality and gyms and grants of up to $8000 for other impacted businesses, and urges the caller to say: “I can send you some details on this if you like? What’s the best email to use?”

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There are similar spiels for Health and Education, with recipients to be told that “the Marshall Liberal Government is continuing to strengthen our health system so that you and your family can be confident that there is a hospital bed if you need it”.

“We also have the capability to provide our intensive care for 60 patients [while ] locally, the LOCAL HOSPITAL has increased its capacity by ####,” the script suggests, urging the caller to ask: “Did you have any questions about our COVID-Ready plan at all? I can email you some information about this if you like?”

On education, correspondents are told that “ensuring that children and teachers are kept safe whilst being at school is extremely important [but] we also need to ensure though that our children’s education is not disrupted”.

“Because of this we will be returning to a hybrid model which will see certain years go back to school whilst others learning from home for the first two weeks,” the document says, before detailing the plan, including mask-wearing recommendations for all year levels from Grade 3 up.

The callers are urged to keep notes of all responses and “please convert any Notes Taken into [subcategories] Local Issues or National/State Issues”.

“Any ‘Notes Taken’ which you want to keep a permanent record of should be copied and pasted into ‘Additional Notes’ as ‘Notes Taken’ will not be saved,” the document warns.

It suggests the user employs “Relevant tags” including: Coronavirus (COVID-19) – general (Health), Coronavirus (COVID-19) – economic recovery – general and Coronavirus (COVID-19) – state school closures – for or against.

One other matters have been canvassed, the caller is prompted to say: “Now you certainly don’t have to answer this question if you don’t want to but can I ask, do you always vote for a particular party, usually vote for a particular party or change your vote from election to election?”

“If no answer is given, simply leave blank and click ‘Next’,” the prompt continues.

The revelation comes just 59 days before South Australians go to the polls, and just a day after Premier Steven Marshall insisted the state election was not on his radar.

“Look, the reality is my focus at the moment is 100 per cent on this Omicron wave,” he said when asked about the forthcoming campaign.

“I know we have an election in 60 days but actually my focus every day between now and the election – and hopefully every day after the election – is going to be on keeping SA safe and recovering our economy as quickly as possible.”

Liberal state director Sascha Meldrum did not answer questions about the ‘Living with COVID script’ today.

Party insiders have told InDaily that in-person phone canvassing has become a central part of campaigning for all politicians amid the Omicron outbreak, which has put face-to-face campaigning off-limits.

One insider said the targets of the surveys were “based on where you need to generate votes from”, suggesting the party is concerned about its messaging with women – especially parents – and older couples.

“That doesn’t mean we’d necessarily be losing that demographic but they’ve identified [we need] more work done on it,” they said.

Another source said the party was “clearly worried about the groups they’re now targeting”.

But another insider said the messaging would be “aimed at the most receptive demographic”.

Some members have suggested they won’t use the script, with one saying it was not “a great idea to pester people in their own homes about COVID”.

The Liberals were last year dogged by allegations of data harvesting, after revelations state government websites had been redirecting users through a domain operated by the SA Liberal Party, with Ombudsman Wayne Lines referring the matter to the Office of Public Integrity for investigation.

One source said people were “obviously concerned about the way both major parties use constituents’ data”.

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