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The Australian federal election online

13 December, 2007
By Allison Orr

Australia has recently had a federal election and a change of government.  In one of the most closely watched elections in many years, the Internet, along with technology and telecommunications generally, proved to be a crucial issue, both as a political tool and a policy area.  Both sides emphasised their broadband policy as a way forward for Australia and several days after winning the election, the new PM Kevin Rudd highlighted "commencing work on building 21st-century infrastructure including high-speed broadband" as one of his early priorities.

The Internet played a greater role in the campaign than it has done in previous elections with all parties seeing its potential in getting their message across, particularly to younger voters.  But of the two major parties, it was definitely the ALP who made best use of the Internet for political communication and campaigning. The Kevin07 website was launched in August, and included forums for online discussions on campaign issues, and had links to ALP content on YouTube and Rudd’s profiles on Facebook and Myspace (with over 24,000 friends at the time of the election).  This differed significantly from the Liberal Party’s online campaign, which did not engage as much with the electorate through YouTube or social networking sites. 

It would be an exaggeration to say the Internet played a crucial or determining role in the election, but the ALP’s online campaign definitely increased Kevin Rudd’s credibility as the more "modern" and forward thinking candidate.

Use of the Internet does not always translate into positive results however, with a few candidates discovering that a lack of understanding of how the Internet works can bring real life political costs.

In one example, a candidate learned the hard way that it is difficult to ever really remove content entirely from the Internet.  After cyberscrubbing all references to nuclear power from his website, Peter Lindsay, MP for Herbert in Queensland, found that the original document had been retrieved through the cached page and was at odds with his current stand on the issue.

Another example of online content causing embarrassment was the story of the 13 ALP candidates who were apparently ineligible to stand due to their failure to resign from positions of profit under the crown, which is required by the Constitution.  But it was later revealed that the information had been gained via webpages that had not been updated since the individuals had resigned.  Andrew Robb, the Liberal backbencher who said legal advice showed these candidates would face bi-elections if elected, was labeled the "Google Assassin" by Peter Brent of Mumble.

After the election, content changed very quickly on the Internet, with the Prime Minister’s own official website taken offline the Sunday after the election and replaced with one explaining the outcome of the election and directing people to the Kevin07 website for further information.  It didn’t take long for the pranksters to also get moving online after the election, with one putting Kirribilli House up for sale on Domain

Below is a roundup of some of the online initiatives and campaigns we saw during the election campaign.

Election content on YouTube

In September, video sharing portal YouTube launched a new Australian website that features content created in Australia or for an Australian audience.  It is similar to local websites that have been developed in other countries such as Japan and Brazil.  As with these sites, all content is still available to YouTube users around the world, but the site allows Australian users to more easily find local content.  In addition, YouTube has entered into content partnerships with Australian media organisations, such as the ABC, Sky News and Fairfax media and this content will be promoted through this site.

Australians embraced YouTube during the federal election campaign, and political parties and individuals made use of it to get their message across.  Both the ALP and Liberal Party used YouTube during the election – see the ALP and the Liberal Party websites to see their campaign ads.

Political satirists and comedians also came to the fore, using YouTube to make humorous or satirical videos supporting one side or another.  For example, Bennelong time since I rock and rolled and You are not my friend, John Howard.  While many were critical of the government, particularly their stand on industrial relations, for example this workplace relations ad parody, others took a more creative approach, for example one YouTube user who cleverly spliced together film footage to make several videos, including this spoof of a Chinese propaganda film, Kevin 007: the man with the golden jaw, and in the final days of the election, the Star Wars-Election edition.  Another lampooned Rudd’s tendency to ask and answer his own questions in The 7.30 Report with Kevin Rudd.  And possibly the most popular political video of the campaign, downloaded nearly one million times, was the now infamous ear wax video, Kevin Rudd gets an ear full…., that triggered some amusing questions for Rudd during the campaign.

During the election campaign, Fairfax media used their YouTube channel to invite users to send in video questions on issues that they considered important, and then promised to line up politicians to appear in moderated sessions to answer the questions put forward.  They described it as "the election’s first interactive debate".  A total of only 15 video questions were put forward, but the site doesn’t appear to include answers by politicians.

Fairfax media also produced their own videos for the election, including teaming up with Axis of Awesome to produce the Rappin' Rudd vs Hip-hop Howard, described on the site as "Australia's answer to Obama Girl".   In this satirical video, the two leaders are portrayed as rappers, with "Howard" saying, "I’ll hit Rudd for six, I’ve got all the tricks", while "Rudd" says, "I’ll crush Howard with ease, now sit back relax while I speak Chinese".  "Costello" also gets a short solo in at the end.

Crikey produced a YouTube video during the final week as a review of the campaign on film: Crikey election – final week.

Political Blogging and Citizen Journalism

While mainstream media remains crucial to politicians and is the main channel for political news for most people, political blogging and citizen journalism projects played a part in the election for the first time.

Bloggers such as Possum Pollytics, Poll bludger and Mumble provided ongoing analysis and discussion of opinion polls throughout the campaign, while sites such as YouDecide2007 and Club Bloggery provided forums for individuals to have their say during the campaign.

From the politicians’ side, no other politician has been as committed to using blogging as a means of communicating with the public than Andrew Bartlett.  Bartlett has been blogging consistently for several years (see our previous story here), giving updates on his Senate work, policy deliberations and engaging in debate with readers.  Andrew Bartlett, an Australian Democrats senator, was not returned to the Senate at the election.  The Greens also blogged consistently throughout the campaign at Greensblog.

Soapbox website

For a roundup of political ads, speeches and policy launches, check out a new website called Soapbox, developed by Sally Young from the University of Melbourne.

As well as current electoral material, it is an archive of documents and audio-visual material of Australia’s electoral history since 1901, so it provides an historical perspective for researchers, journalists, students and the general public to see the electoral process as a continuum.

The website was set up prior to the election, so that people could use it to look back to past elections and see what parties and their leaders have promised in the past.

Says Dr Young, "Regardless of how you vote in this election, see for yourself whether John Howard and Kevin Rudd employ the same tactics as their predecessors and check how the promises and rhetoric of the major parties have changed from their last campaign to now”.

Senator On-Line

The election saw the launch of Australia’s first Internet-based political party, Senator On-Line (SOL). 

The party ran two upper house candidates in each mainland state, and promised to bring Australian voters into the ongoing workings of the political process via the Internet.  SOL developed a website that would provide updated information on every Bill put forward in the Australian Senate.  Those on the Australian electoral roll would then have been able to have their say by voting on bills and issues via the website, and the Senator would have been obliged to vote in line with the clear majority of the SOL online voters.

The website also planned to provide commentary on the Bills put forward, including the pros and cons of each bill, the SOL senators’ views and expert opinion. 

The candidates themselves were very enthusiastic about the possibilities the Internet offered for Australian parliament.

"It’s the age of the internet and it’s about time it was embraced by politics and politicians alike, as a way of implementing democracy", said Robert Rose, SOL’s candidate for Victoria.

Ben Peake, the candidate for Queensland said, "I believe SOL will revolutionise Australian politics and drive increased awareness, understanding and interest in the political debate".

We will not know the results of how this experiment in "direct democracy" would have gone, as SOL did not get any senators elected.  The ABC's election analyst, Antony Green, said Senator On-Line was "utterly impractical".

Election Results

A number of sites provide an overview of election results. Psephos is an archive of elections statistics going back to Federation, and also includes comprehensive information and statistics on other elections around the world.  Another good place to start is of course Antony Green’s excellent Election Guide, which includes all the stats, Green’s election blog, a glossary of election terms and much more useful information.  This site streamed the radio and television coverage of election night and also provided an SMS update service. OzElections has a comprehensive database of elections in Australia since 2001, and provides details of candidates as well as seats, including statements entered by candidates themselves.  For the official 2007 election results, see the Virtual Tally Room at the Australian Electoral Commission website.  It has all the results as well as comprehensive info on preference flows, results by candidate and polling place, and lists all seats which have changed hands.

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