Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New media, independents and change

I was off-line yesterday with the internet connection down. Really very frustrating at this time when Australian politics is providing such great theatre. So this morning has seen a hasty run-round just trying to catch up. Now I want to make just a few disconnected comments, really reflections to myself.

 Supermarket Politics

Prior to the last NSW State elections, I complained that both sides were engaged in supermarket politics, the presentation of a bundle of somewhat disconnected goodies that we, the voters, were meant to choose between. Now I see that Mr Katter is describing the Lib/Lab as the Woolworth and Coles of Australian politics.

One of the very interesting things about this election campaign has been the way in which cynicism about the two main sides' approach to policy formulation suddenly burst forth. I accept that my scanning is unrepresentative; I have a bias towards blogs and these are (by definition) unrepresentative. I have also been arguing for a long time that current approaches to policy development do not and cannot work, so I am biased. Still, its been interesting.

Exposure: Q&A, Twitter and the role of alternative views

To my mind, one of the reasons why the current approach to policy development hit the wall in such a spectacular way this time lay in the emergence of the new media. I don't want to overstate this, just point to three interconnected features.

The first and perhaps least important feature was the role played by bloggers. Quite a few blogs, Catallaxy and Larvatus Prodoe are example, essentially talk to the converted. This is not a criticism, but part of the pattern. You can rely on them in posts and comments to pick apart the other side of the intellectual debate. This is actually important, because they are part of the of the information flow. Then there are other more independent bloggers who try to take an alternative view.

I have suggested that blogs and bloggers are the least important mainly because I don't know how to judge our influence.

I have been campaigning on the need to improve our approach to policy development for a number of years. I have a limited reach measured by visits and by links. Yet my feeling is that the cumulative effect of all those like me is not insignificant. We just can't measure it.

The second and still embryonic feature was the role played by new media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

I have now been monitoring the use of Facebook for campaign purposes for several years. Here I want to focus not on the use of Facebook by the big end, but on the way that Facebook provides a vehicle for minority groups including small but important local causes. Like blogs, their direct impact is small. However, their cumulative influence is not insignificant, because they provide a focus for smaller issues that then feeds into the total impact. Further, the impact grows as people learn how to use them.

This links to Twitter.

To my mind, this was the election that Twitter came into its own in two quite distinct ways. The first, and this is the way I mainly used it, is simply as a quick source for information and developments that interest me. However, the second way is the way in which Twitter comments provided short, often sardonic, immediate reactions to speakers and events that were then picked up elsewhere.

This links to my third point, the emergence of new types of programs and events such as the ABC's Q&A. I do not know whether this type of program is unique to Australia. Presumably not. But the idea of exposing panelists to unscripted questions including Twitter feedback is quite powerful. This then links to other ideas such as the Village meetings, forcing the leaders to face groups of voters in an unscripted, uncontrolled, format.

Both Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard did pretty well here at a personal level. Yet the shallowness in their policy positions also came through.

I could not finish this section without a reference to Get-up. I do not support many Get-up causes. I ended up this time on the Get-up email list because there was one issue, mental health, that I could support what they wanted to achieve. Since then, I have watched the emails they sent me.

No-one could deny that Get-up has affected this election, although none of us could be sure just how. Get-up's action in the High Court to force the admission of voters excluded under the Howard Government's anti-democratic legislation may well have affected the results of such a tight election, although we may never know just how. Certainly, Get-up has written a small place for itself in Australian history.

The Power of Hope

One of the most interesting things about the outcome of this election lies in the nature of the response to the possibility of a hung parliament. To voters disillusioned by the major parties, and at this point, the possibility that a hung parliament might force change is been greeted almost with joy. Suddenly, the possibility that things might change is on the table, leading to a burst of new ideas.

The country independents all deserve credit here, as do the Greens. Of this group, Tony Windsor is (I think) the most important, simply because he has come across as so sensible and re-assuring. It is hard to take the presented threats of a hung parliament seriously when Tony keeps talking about the need for stability.

I have been especially interested in the responses of Labor supporters where the responses to the country independents has been remarkably positive. Of course, this may change if the country independents end up supporting the Coalition, as they may be forced to do, but it holds for the moment.

It is also interesting that right around Australia commentators and reporters alike are being forced to address new issues - not new in the sense that they weren't there before, but new in the sense that they were not politically relevant before.

Reforming the System

Suddenly, reform of the current parliamentary system is on the agenda in a way it has not been for years. Some of the ideas are not very sensible, while many of us struggle with the idea of a more sensitive and cuddly Tony Abbott!  

I think that the single most important issue, one that has been picked up by others (here, for example) is the need to provide more and better information independent of Executive control.

I have complained about this a lot. I am reasonably bright and have had a lot of experience, but I struggle to make sensible comments on some policy approaches because of the way they are presented. I simply cannot make any form of judgement as to what might actually happen without weeks of work. I don't have time to do this.

Many of the reform initiatives focus on the information question. The key is to make objective data available. Without this, we are back to spin and presentation designed to sell, not explain.

Here, as a simple example, I was interested in Tony Windsor's comment that both Labor and Coalition should now provide their programs to Treasury for revised and independent costing. How, Mr Windsor argued, can we make judgements if we don't know what the budget position is?

Managing Expectations

There is so much frustration about the current system that the possibility of a hung parliament has unleashed a wave of new ideas and optimism. Yet we have to be realistic. Some groups must be disappointed with the result.

To my mind, if we get improved access to independent sources of information, that will (of itself) be a major advance. I think that we can get this. If we do, I will be happy. Beyond this, every advance such as an improved question time would be an added bonus.                  

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