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The Queensland Election - Campaign websites 1.0 in the Web 2.0 world

06 September, 2006
By Stephen Dann

In the 2006 Queensland election, the battle for the e-hearts and minds of voters boils down to a two party website contest between the ALP and the Queensland Coalition.

The champ: TeamBeattie.com

Team Beattie is a brand unto itself in Queensland and the website reflects the Beattie brand name almost to the exclusion of the team's major sponsor - the ALP. It's a website that has grown with experience, serving in its second election campaign and boasting a web design parentage that's part Fox News Channel and part A4 campaign newsletter.

The scrolling bar news coverage of the site content at the top of the page threatens to let you click on the news item, but never delivers through with a URL. Then there's the eight-panel front page which looks like it was designed to be a comforting reminder of the old days of printed campaign brochures with a multiple-panel page layout reminiscent of a school newsletter, complete with the link to the human interest story (Heather's cookie recipe) inside, and the obligatory opinion poll.

Digging into the meat of the site brings up Peter Beattie's PDF library of policy statements. Each policy abstract exhorts you to download Peter Beattie's Policy on “stuff”. In fact, the TeamBeattie site only gives away the presence of other members of parliament on the Candidates page. Otherwise, it's the all singing, all dancing, all policy endorsing Peter Beattie show.

It's hard to put a date on the site, but the design feels like late Adobe Pagemaker to early Dreamweaver. Clean and clear lines of hyperlinking that can take you up, and across a set of very linear pathways through the site. This is clearly a Web 1.0 site, and even with the slightly Flash heavy frontpage of banner marquee and embedded video, there's no sign of the Web 2.0 features many of us have come to expect. No Beattieblog, no Beattietags and no real sense of interactivity.

But wait, there's more. In a triumph for things not on the Internet, TeamBeattie offers a 1-800 number to hear a prompt-driven premier tell you his policy (1900HOTPOLICY for the future?), SMS updates, and an interactive section which lets you download TeamBeattie wallpapers for your mobile. But sadly, no ringtones. Marks for effort, but really, no ringtone? No stirring rendition of TeamBeattie singing the ALP club anthem?

It's a move into the brave new world of mobile commerce, but really, will a mobile phone wallpaper convert into a vote at the ballot box? How to vote SMS might be the way forward for this strategy, until the Electoral Commission of Queensland (ECQ) bans mobile phones in the voting booth. Otherwise it's clearly a toe-in-the-water exercise to see if people will give over mobile phone details to a political website in exchange for a few jpgs.

The contender: QldCoalition.com

The Queensland Coalition website is late to the party, partly because of the political machinations required to run as a combined force and partly due to the Internet not being a top priority for their campaign machine. The site's design says late Microsoft Frontpage and early student assignment with the static menus, mouseover colour changes and a totally inexplicable sidebar menu that distracts from the site. Why does a state campaign have a side bar with a lead link to the Prime Minister's website?

Content wise, the site is the epitome of push media brochure ware with press releases, video releases and virtually all one-way traffic. In a nice touch, the owner of the press release gets their photo banner at the top of their press release page. It puts a face to a policy so-to-speak. However that's about the only thing going for the information clearing house approach the Coalition has taken to their site. While they admit there's more than just one person in their campaign (and that person isn't Peter Beattie), the site drops the ball in just about every place possible.

As a push media site, it contains Quicktime clips of adverts, PDFs of policy and media releases. Each video clip for the campaign is numerically labelled rather than having a thematic label. Why name a downloadable file "19.mov" when "healthpolicy.mov" makes more sense? The Quicktime movies could have easily been replaced by hosting the content on Youtube or GoogleVideo or even embedded in Flash files like on TeamBeattie.com. Instead you're marooned in a long index page of links to Quicktime files that load in place of said index. Poor design that doesn't have to be there when video hosting services are widely available.

It gets worse at the policy page. First, the policy link is shuffled off to the corner of the top navigation menu (fourth item, far right side, about where you'd normally look for the least important item). One single page of bullet point links to PDF files, which, unsurprisingly are numbered. Not "Health policy 1" or "Press statement 2-9-06" but "72010.pdf" Thankfully the PDF does launch to a new window but that just makes the video page more embarrassing.

Visually, technically and politically, this is a campaign website that needs five fab web designers and a makeover. The unspoken message from the site is a political campaign nightmare - the design is old, the reference to the PM makes it seem like qldcoalition.com isn't really a state website, and placement of the policy link as the last on the page says volumes about the party's priorities. None of this is probably intentional, but it's all harmful to the political message. This site looks marginally better than you'd expect at Yahoo!Geocities but is definitely is getting beaten at any point in the web design spectrum by the TeamBeattie site.

The technology: noticeable by absence

The two big parties in the Queensland election have embraced Web 1.0 in a bearhug, and they're not letting go without a fight. Neither site used anything that could be possibly related to the Web 2.0 platform format. If anything, tags would come into their own in directing the visitor to key content, policy and press releases. Sure, tag clouds are going to be the blink tag of Web 2.0 when Web 3.0 rolls in but, for now, what better way to show what's important in this election than a series of appropriately tagged policy and press release statements?

Blogging is noticeable absent from the two areas and justifiably so. Campaign blogging would provide little content that's useful to the parties. And if the comments are left open it could create a localised breeding ground for fights between impassioned supporters from both sides, plus ads for casinos and poker.

That said both sites have a stream of press releases flowing from their site. Why not just use a Typepad or Blogger infrastructure to manage the process? Calendars, tags and headlines with abstracts would certainly clean up the current press release process. Of course, this does assume that the press releases section was really meant for the public rather than as an online backup for the media to pick up a lost fax.

Political marketing and the Web 2.0

Political marketing on the Internet in this campaign is one-way traffic. Context is given to you and for these offerings the webpundit is grateful. Politics is an area where very passionate people can and will do a lot to make life difficult for their opponents and to be blunt the Web 2.0 infrastructure just makes life easier for those planning on causing grief for a political party.

Imagine for a moment a political party Web 2.0 website with RSS feeds, candidate blogs, issue wikis for policy, and creative common remix licensed videos and podcasts for download. How long would it last before spammers destroyed the blog's comment capacity? You'd have to run sweeps on how quickly a podcast of political promises was remixed and reloaded to the wiki as "official" content. Even the wiki would be a constant battleground between the campaign owners and the volunteer corps trying to put "the truth" about each policy into the site.

Even something as basic as providing an RSS feed for policy and press release is not necessarily a good political platform. Your feed will be automatically added by your opponents, and they will be able to go straight to work on picking apart your policy the moment the feed delivers it right to their inbox. Without the feed you rely on your opponent having to dig through your site to find the content they want to use against you.

In the same way, campaign blogging looks great on paper as a way to let individual candidates have a voice for their local area but in political reality it's a nightmare where someone will contradict their leader's party line, if not in the post then definitely in the comments section. Similar nightmares of online interaction will occur when candidates try MySpace, Livejournal or Vox and learn quickly that what they write in the informal voice of comments or posts will swiftly overpower the official policy documents.

Brandwise, the TeamBeattie political marketing juggernaut attributes every PDF file, policy statement and press release to Premier Beattie. If they go to the multi-candidate blog, vox and Myspace they'd have to end every post with "This is the word of Team Beattie (Thanks be to Peter)". Having a single site with a single voice is a political marketing strategy that is more valuable than multiple voices even when those voices are in unison.

In review

These sites are from your parents' dotcom era. There are no revolutionary new media techniques, no adoption of the cutting edge, and that's probably for the best. Political campaigning as we currently recognise it is incompatible with the open platform "spaces people use" approach of Web 2.0, and far more at home in the Web 1.0 "place you go" style. If you were looking for a revolution in Internet politics at the state level, you'll have to wait for the next election. Or run for parliament with your own website.

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