A Net Opportunity: Australian Political Parties on the Internet

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

In recent years, some elaborate claims have been made about how the Internet can revolutionise politics. While the Internet is not a panacea for all problems, it does present a number of opportunities. It is fast, inexpensive, flexible, personalised and interactive. Political parties are in complete control of their own websites and, unlike traditional commercial media, there is no limit on political content. Parties can provide quality information, communicate directly with citizens and use the interactive features of the Internet to encourage participation. While in theory, the Internet does offer the potential to enrich our political system; the real test is how it is being used in practice. Over the past few years, a range of uses and principles for effective political Internet sites have been suggested but there has been little systematic empirical analysis of the quality of political party websites. In this article, an assessment of the two major Australian political parties' websites-the Australian Labor Party (www.alp.org.au/) and the Liberal Party of Australia (www.liberal.org.au/)-reveals how they rate.

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Several commentators have recently suggested that the Internet is the key to revitalising political participation in Australia (Latham, 2000; Suter, 2001). In particular, these commentators are excited about the prospect of using the Internet to facilitate actual voting. This, they predict, will bring an end to representative democracy and a return to 'direct democracy' (Morris, 1999). However, 'electronic voting' is a long-term prospect which poses as many concerns as it does potential benefits (Jaensch, 1999; Hull, 2000; Jaensch, 2001). This article focuses instead on how the Internet can be used right now to advance political participation through more effective political communication. It is in this respect that the Internet truly has the potential to become 'the most powerful political medium since the invention of the printing press'. (1)

Political parties are well placed to drive movements to revitalise political participation. Many already have websites and they also have broad support, established infrastructure and resources. It is an appropriate role for them to take on because traditionally, political parties in democracies do playa major role in encouraging citizens to participate through party membership of allegiance, by educating, by facilitating communication, measuring public opinion, designing public policy and stimulating debate and discussion.

The major political parties in Australia have the greatest motivation to use the Internet effectively because they are currently losing the most support through declining party identification and rising support for independents and minor parties. (2) They will probably focus on the Internet as an electioneering tool. (Indeed, it has been suggested that 'in the next ten years, the Internet will become the central vehicle for political campaigns' in Australia) (Miller, 2001). However, the Internet also presents a number of other opportunities. Parties can use the Internet to recruit new members, encourage voter registration, measure public opinion, explain their policies, ease citizen access to elected officials and educate citizens about the party and its role in the broader political system. While some of these uses could be interpreted as cynical attempts to win votes, many also have broader democratic value in terms of improving political participation.

POLITICAL PARTICIPATION IN AUSTRALIA

'One of the most important requirements for the functioning of representative democracy is the existence of informed and knowledgeable citizens' (McAllister, 1998: 8). However, surveys have consistently found that Australians are far from knowledgeable about politics. Indeed, surveys suggest 'a high level of political ignorance' in Australia (McAllister, 1998: 14).

Research suggests that many Australians are angry, cynical and dissatisfied with politicians (Young, 2000). …