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ALP Entering A Brave New Internet World

The online world was abuzz yesterday afternoon with discussion of the Laurie Oakes question to Julia Gillard at the National Press Club.

Labor Connect?What really happened at the now famous meeting in Rudd’s office on the night of June 23? Oakes’s question indicated someone had been talking.

Political aficionados on Twitter speculated as to the identity of his source. Journalists opined on the dangers of making assumptions about leaks. Partisans defended Gillard or decried her treachery. The twitterati revelled in one of those made-for-social-networking moments.

In the midst of this anarchic discussion, as conversation threads came and went, the General Secretary of the NSW ALP, Matt Thistlethwaite, posted a tweet that said: “Check out Australian Labor’s new social network space, an Oz political first.

It was tempting to dismiss this brave attempt to distract us all. It seems typical of Australian political parties that their idea of engaging in the “social network space” is to disengage from the big stadiums that they can’t control in favour of building their own gated communities. Building the Social Networking Revolution?

The ALP initiative is underpinned by Campaign IQ, touted as “Australian Labor’s digital infrastructure”, and is the work of C and C Campaigns and Communications, an organisation which counts the well-known ALP strategist Bruce Hawker amongst its “senior Australian and international campaign people”.

Apparently open to all, the web portal is named Labor Connect. In many respects a cut-down Facebook, the site draws heavily on Barack Obama’s online strategy in his 2008 presidential campaign.

An email address is all that’s needed to join although a raft of data can be extracted from willing subscribers. Upon registration, users can immediately update their profile and begin making “friends”. Users can send messages to one another, similar to writing on each other’s Facebook wall.

Labor Connect allows users to join and create groups on particular issues. ALP Abroad, the Labor Women’s Network, The Labor Environment Action Network and the Chifley Research Centre are prominently displayed as examples of available groups. As a perverse Victorian, I opted to join the New South Wales Supporters of Australian Labor. Users have already created An Australian Republic group and a Disability Action group, amongst others.

Users may also create events and upload information about them. They can discuss policy issues in an area called ThinkTank. Contact with local members and candidates can be initiated. Campaign literature can be downloaded and printed or photocopied for local distribution. “Grab the leash, the dog and off you head,” is the cheery encouragement offered to potential letterboxers.

Labor Connect provides an on-site letter and email-writing facility where users can locate newspapers in their electorate and submit an epistle on an issue of their choice. A similar system to call talkback radio is also provided.

The potential in all this for engaging politically interested people is obvious. The 2008 stories of Obama supporters who organised online on the My Barack Obama site are legion. Campaigning, fundraising and volunteer activities can be coordinated in this so-called “community space”.

But what will the ALP do to promote this new portal? Can it possibly reach a tipping point of usage that leads to genuine engagement and empowerment? Whilst its potential is profound, it is hard to avoid the impression that it’s all just a touch patronising, an attempt to pander to the online world without really understanding it.

For instance, I clicked on the link to the Labor ThinkTank on Health Reform, wondering what had happened to the ALP policy committee on Health. Will the online forum ever see the light of day in the byzantine innards of the party where decisions are really made? Is this slick technology, replete with pictures of “Julia” smiling down on doting hospital patients, designed to empower its users or merely occupy them? When a user comments on the policy statements posted on Labor Connect, who will ever read it, let alone act on it?

And will Labor Connect permit genuine, authentic debate? Will it tolerate full-throated disputation on asylum seekers, climate change policies or an internet filter?

The way the ALP approaches Twitter and Facebook is not encouraging. Communication is one-way. Broadcasting, preaching and lecturing dominate. Gillard’s 11 tweets since July 4 do not contain a single interaction with a real person.

Still, the ALP is streets ahead of its main political opponents. The Liberal Party’s website contains the usual collection of speech and press conference transcripts, links to YouTube videos and images, and a sad little portal called My Liberal in which enthusiastic members and supporters can comment on blog posts from shadow ministers. But that’s about it. Elsewhere, Tony Abbott hasn’t tweeted since July 3.

The Nationals’ website is no better. There’s a link to a YouTube page with four videos on it, all posted three months ago, and a podcast page with three items, the last one also posted three months ago. What the Nats call blog posts are merely parliamentary press releases. There’s a handful of comments from unidentified posters.

The Australian Greens have by far the best online presence. The smell of a (non-)oily rag has produced a more vibrant site. Candidates and MPs have livelier and more personal blogs and there’s a sense of a frequently updated and topical site.

The Greens are also much better marketers: there are frequent and prominent calls to action sprinkled throughout the site. On Twitter, the Greens are much better respected participants.

So, all credit to the ALP for offering a potentially powerful medium of interaction with the electorate. But I’d feel a damn sight more optimistic that they know what they’re doing if I had some evidence of previous compatibility with digital communication tools.

When Labor Connect doesn’t run away from discussing the question Laurie Oakes asked Julia Gillard yesterday, then we’ll know the governing party has the fortitude to make its way in the abrasive world online.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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