Tessa Feinberg Large was sitting on the couch in her inner-Brisbane home last September when a curious email appeared in her inbox.
The email congratulated the 34-year-old on joining Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP).
“I thought, hang on a minute, something weird is going on here,” said Ms Feinberg Large, who never signed up to the party and has no affiliation with it.
“I’m really quite morally opposed to a lot of what they do, so I was pretty outraged” she told the ABC.
Just a few days later she received another email, this time from Mr Palmer, announcing that the party had reached the milestone of 40,000 members.
“It was only three days after receiving my ‘membership’ I got that email, so I wonder how many of those new members were like me?” Ms Feinberg Large said.
She emailed the UAP twice demanding to be removed as a member, writing “this is my second email asking to please be removed from your membership list. I am appalled you have fraudulently used my details to increase your membership numbers.”
Ten days later, she received a curious response saying her membership had been cancelled.
“Be assured that we have not and do not use anyone’s information ‘fraudulently’ as you put it? How would we even get your information?” the email, signed by the UAP’s membership team, read.
“The only explanation we can offer is that someone completed that form with your details, perhaps for a joke or some other motive,” the email said.
“We hope you have success in discovering who that was.”
“It was quite sassy … I felt like they almost mocked me,” said Ms Feinberg Large, who still has no idea how she was signed up as a member of the party.
Ms Feinberg Large is not alone. In Victoria, Grant Turner also received an unexpected email confirming his membership of the party, also in September last year.
As a writer with a strong interest in politics, Mr Turner said he was opposed to what Mr Palmer and UAP federal leader Craig Kelly stood for.
“I have never contacted [the UAP] in any form,” Mr Turner said.
“My political views could not be more unaligned with their politics,” the 61-year-old told the ABC.
The email included his first and last name, an assigned membership number, along with a message thanking him for joining the UAP and “standing up for Australia”.
It also called for each new member to recruit five more members, from friends, family and colleagues.
Mr Turner said he felt used and annoyed to be included among the tens of thousands of new members, and doubted he was the only one who had been signed up to the party without their consent.
As a New Zealand citizen, he is not enrolled on the Commonwealth electoral roll or any state or territory roll, and therefore is not qualified to be a member of UAP, according to the party’s own constitution.
The ABC understands it is currently free to join the UAP, despite the fact the party’s constitution states that membership fees are applicable to all new members.
Anyone who wishes to join only needs to fill out an online form and a confirmation of membership email typically arrives in a matter of hours.
Graeme Orr, an expert in electoral law at the University of Queensland, said the Commonwealth electoral law did not define what it meant to be a party member.
“The act says to be registered as a political party you have to have 1500 members … but the act doesn’t guarantee a member will have any particular definition or rights or obligations,” Professor Orr said.
“As long as there’s a party constitution and you as an individual say, ‘yes, I agree I am a member’, that’s enough.”
Last year, Liberal senator Eric Abetz also received an email saying he had signed up as a member of the UAP.
A fourth person, a member of the Labor Party, told Guardian Australia they too were signed up as a member without their consent.
When Grant Turner complained to the Australian Electoral Commission, it told him the issue of unsolicited party membership fell outside its scope.
In an email response to the ABC, an AEC spokesperson said the Electoral Act did not provide the AEC with the power to investigate or audit the UAP’s membership.
“We only audit memberships as part of the party registration process for non-parliamentary parties. UAP has a federal MP (Craig Kelly) and as such we have not, and will not audit their membership list,” the spokesperson said.
“It is important to understand that an individual can request a party to remove their membership if they do not want to be a member, or never requested/applied.”
By joining forces with Kelly, Palmer buys into a movement
The UAP has claimed an “unprecedented surge” in membership since former Liberal MP Craig Kelly joined it and became party leader in August last year.
Mr Palmer said in a press release in September that the party had gained 30,000 new members in less than two weeks after Mr Kelly joined.
By November, Mr Palmer claimed the UAP’s membership had reached 80,000, which he said was more than Labor or the Liberal Party.
Mr Kelly grew a massive following on Facebook before being banned from the platform last year for allegedly breaching its misinformation policies with posts promoting unproven COVID-19 treatments.
Prof. Orr said by joining forces with the former Liberal MP, Mr Palmer had “bought himself, literally, into a movement”.
“It may be chaotic, but it definitely is a movement,” he said.
The UAP is fielding 159 candidates for Senate and House of Representatives positions in the upcoming federal election.
But the rights or role of the party’s many new members is unclear.
“At the moment [the UAP] is more like a disorganised and smaller version of something like GetUp! with a huge mailing list,” Prof. Orr said.
“That’s what every party wants to do these days, is send this propaganda to people.”
And that’s exactly what unwitting members didn’t sign up for.
Grant Turner became increasingly annoyed in January when he started to receive more targeted emails from UAP’s local campaign team in the electorate he lives in, calling for more “boots on the ground”.
“I still want to know … how they would choose me, not even being an Australian citizen, to sign up for their crazy party,” he said.
“I would love to know how they came to get my number, and the fact that they are sending me these electorate-specific stuff. They know where I live.
“I am very annoyed, to be honest. It is wrong. It is corrupt. It shouldn’t be happening.”
Justin Warren from digital rights advocacy organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation said the current laws did not offer any privacy protection if it was a political party collecting and using the information.
“When it comes to registered political parties, privacy laws do not need to apply,” he said.
Privacy laws generally enable individuals to demand access to personal records at companies and agencies, but political parties are also spared from this obligation.
Privacy experts, including Mr Warren, have been calling for political parties to be stripped of these exemptions from the Privacy Act.
“Because you’re a politician doesn’t mean privacy doesn’t matter,” Mr Warren said.
“It does matter to us.”
Brisbane woman and one-time involuntary UAP member Tessa Feinberg Large says she’s particularly concerned about the amount of personal data political parties have access to.
Her fight to remove herself as a member came as the UAP sent tens of thousands of unsolicited texts about COVID-19 last year.
“They said, ‘how would we even get your information’, and I thought, um, well they just texted however many hundreds of thousands of people with COVID vaccine misinformation — of course they can get my details.”
“It feels like the UAP really depend on Clive Palmer being super rich and using his money to thwart other parties and spread misinformation for political gain.”
The ABC asked the United Australia Party a detailed series of questions, including about how many requests for removal of membership it had received, but did not receive a response.
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