23 August 2018

How to win a college election: part II

Communication Political

When I  first started doing verification on aspects of  the RACP emailgate story I was warned off it by nearly everyone.

The word was, and I do not make this assessment myself, that the RACP was something just short of the Trump administration when it came to dysfunction (on the bright side of such an assessment, at least they didn’t say “as dysfunctional as the Australian parliament”).

TMR did not write the story (Read the original article here) to help one side or the other. We were well aware the likely source of documents we obtained was from one side seeking to gain some advantage over the other.

We wrote the story because:

  • It was an interesting evolution of medical college campaign electioneering tactics and the parallels with the recent RACGP election were interesting
  • It did seem entirely feasible that the people branded as the “good guys” in the RACP election might have done the wrong thing, either knowingly or not. Email law is complex.
  • We figured that right or wrong, the Reform Candidates, who campaigned on reform and integrity, quite possibly had won the election using an email database parts of which were not legal to use. Writing this was awkward, but certainly in the public interest.

Subsequent to publication, TMR has been contacted by both sides, and we feel there are aspects of the story that need clarification. Indeed, we may have got some aspects wrong. We seek to correct any errors or misinterpretations here.

  1. The KordaMentha report

We were provided only with a copy of the interim report. We quoted from that report and drew some conclusions from it. We are now informed the final report was available three weeks ago to the board, endorsed, and that the final report draws some conclusions which are not necessarily the same as those which we drew from the interim report.

The following is from a communication the current board released to members regarding the findings of the final KordaMentha report.

The Board advises its Fellows and trainees that no evidence of improper access or use of College databases, assets or property by any candidates during the 2018 Board elections was found. Nor did the investigation make any finding of wrongdoing against any Board candidate or any other person.

 “The Board also advises its Fellows and trainees that no evidence was found of any breach of the College’s Constitution and Nomination and Election Process for the Board of the College and its College Bodies By-Laws occurred.

 “The Board is unanimous in this resolution.”

That sounds like great news. Let’s get that report out there and finally get clear air here. Alas,  no one can see the actual final report according to the board for reasons outlined below.

  1. The email database in question

TMR has been contacted by Dr Paul Komesaroff, who is a current board member. Dr Komesaroff told us the email database used in the election by the Reform Candidates was his, that it was not the same database referred in our story, which current President-elect Professor John Wilson has been alleged to have used in his research on RACP member attitudes prior to the election.

Dr Komesaroff said that his database was 7,000 members only, not the 21,000 thought to make up that used by Dr Wilson in his research, and that it was indeed collected entirely via publicly available sources of information. Dr Komesaroff also pointed out that other candidates had what he believes were big databases, possibly near the size of his. He asked me why, if the provenance of his database was being called into question, were not other candidates databases called into question?

He quoted the above findings of the KordaMentha report, said he was sent written questions by the auditors, was forthright and honest in his responses to their questions, and that they found nothing wrong with how he collected and used his email data on behalf of the Reform Candidates.

Dr Komesaroff has not yet submitted his database for forensic examination. But when TMR talked to him he sounded like he was considering doing it to really clear the air.

Not withstanding, neither the board summary which exonerates themselves and all other election candidates, nor Dr Komesaroff’s statement to either KordaMentha, or TMR, constitute actual forensic evidence of the provenance of the databases.  So far all we seem to have is statements which I guess we are just meant to accept.

Is that nitpicking? Should we just trust everyone?

Personally, I trust Dr Komesaroff after talking to him. He sounds very genuine to me and by all reports he has been very open in the investigation by KordaMentha. But after all this fuss, why not just clear the air entirely, especially given that the forensic tests required to clear this mess up aren’t expensive or hard.

Is this likely to happen?

In their communique to members the new board says:

“It is our view that that report contains material that, if publicly released, may legally expose the College, and cause distress to persons named in it and to staff. In addition, members should be made aware that the emails used in the Reform campaign were generated from personal databases collated over many years and their use, we consider, was legitimate and compliant with all relevant College election rules.”

The problem with this stance we suspect is twofold:

  • There is an interim report in the public domain that does not match up to the summary provided by the board of the final report and which casts some shadow over what is specifically has been changed in the final report or said in that report that is different to the interim report. If as the board summary claims, no one is at fault, what is the issue with releasing the report. Surely the interim report is more damaging, and that is public.
  • As we have suggested above, nothing is proved forensically still about the provenance of anyone’s database . We note that Dr Komesaroff rightly points out that if his database is to be the subject of some examination, so should all the other candidates. After all he didn’t start this messy affair, the previous board did, and if he is subject to formal examination, so should all the other candidates be. That might be interesting perspective for any candidates in the camp of the old board.
  1. Who owns which database?

If we assume Dr Komesaroff is being entirely above board (no pun intended), and that his list is entirely legal in its provenance, then what of the 21,000 database that was allegedly used by the current president-elect to do his research prior to the election? It doesn’t feel like we are quite to the end of emailgate yet. Or, are we OK to let that loose end slide for the sake of peace and quiet? One thing for sure, if you read the interim report, the security of data inside the RACP does not seem great. The access points for USB sticks are many and varied according to the report. Or they were at the time of the interim report.

  1. Who is in charge at the RACP?

 Another enquiry TMR received about our initial article was from a board member, who questioned us about our process in asking the RACP a series of questions prior to publishing. At the end of our article we said we had put all the questions we raised in the article to the RACP in detail and, after some deliberation, it officially got back to us and said, effectively, no comment.

This board member told TMR they had no knowledge of the questions and who might have authorised the no comment. They said the fact that the college was asked to provide answers or comment was never raised at a board level, as far as they knew. We subsequently asked the people at the communications department of the RACP the same question and the answer was as follows:

“Any media enquiry to the RACP which requests comment is referred to the CEO to discuss with the President as Chairman of the College Board. That’s our normal media process. The relevant decision makers were aware of your questions.”

That seems pretty clear. The board does not seem to be involved in decision making at this level. That’s fine. But is it fine not to let them know what the executive and the president decided on the college’s behalf on a matter like this? That’s for the RACP to sort out.

  1. Where to from here?

It feels to TMR like the intrigue and issues at the RACP are more systemic and complex than the provenance of email database used in an election and perhaps one used prior to the election to do some research.

As a small specialist medical publisher, TMR does not feel it is in a position to jump into the potential vortex that all those complex issues are swirling around in. It feels very complex.

We hope we have corrected (or updated at least) the record on our original story in terms of the Reform Candidate database provenance. And raised some awareness around medical college electioneering tactics, emails, marketing, and the tricky issues that surround the use of email databases.

One person I interviewed asked me, “If no one complains, what is the issue with where the emails actually come from? Aren’t they tacitly providing you with permission to use their email data by not unsubscribing or complaining?”

I think that’ the “if a tree falls in the forrest, does anyone hear (care)” question.

It’s a good question, and a common one, but the answer is clear. It’s not legal to use emails without express or implied permission. And implied permission can’t be obtained after the fact, per the question above I received. If you’re interested, the rules are HERE. Oh, and for the pedants out there (Im one), no, the RACP would not be exempt from the Spam Act based on someone classifying them soly as an educational institution.