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To tweet or not to tweet … Vic parliament trades blows over Twitter

Albert Park MP Martin Foley has made a forceful intervention in the Victorian parliament’s debate over Twitter use in the chamber, calling on MPs to take  “the high road of creative engagement and prevent low road of grubby censorship”.

In a colourful submission to the Standing Orders Committee published online late this morning, the ALP stalwart calls on the Liberal-dominated committee to ensure rules around Twitter do not prevent scrutiny of the Baillieu government.

Foley courted controversy in the parliament last year when he accused Liberal speaker Ken Smith of “abandoning any parliamentary standards in Spring Street” through his rulings on questions relating to the savage undermining of dumped Victoria Police chief Simon Overland. He later apologised privately to Smith who had protested that Foley’s missive negatively “reflected on me and my position as the speaker”.

But in his latest submission, Foley said the Twitter issue was irrelevant to existing rules protecting the speaker’s standing.

The speaker should be perfectly capable of defending himself against questions on his performance through the normal rules of the House,” he said. “The House will judge him by his observance and appreciation of the pillars of impartiality and his use of his special powers.” Currently there are no specific rules pertaining to Twitter use in the upper and lower houses.

Foley says the inquiry presents a golden opportunity to clarify its social media rules and enhance communication beyond the current cabal of political advisers and gallery hacks to pique the interest of the Victorian public. He likens onerous controls to the re-emergence of authoritarian rule.

To fail to grab this opportunity and to instead allow the dead hand of notions of control and media management of the technology is to lock the parliament into the low road of growing digital and social media irrelevance,” he said.

Tweeting is a popular activity in the Victorian parliament, both among MPs and the press gallery who tag their output with the widely-followed #SpringSt tag. The social media service is also an established element of federal parliament question time, with scribes often contributing background information that cannot be spied on TV.

In their submission, ABC  journalists Frances Bell and Alison Savage also objected to any ban, noting sagely that parliamentary proceedings are already broadcast live — any Victorian with an internet connection can tweet to their heart’s content.

Another submission made by the Herald Sun said Twitter was “an extremely useful tool in allowing journalists and parliamentarians to communicate directly on issues as they unfold”.

The committee will consider the submissions before reporting its findings to parliament. It will consider possible restrictions on public and gallery Twitter use in addition to MPs’ and will decide whether the existing suite of archaic rules require modernisation.

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