Victorian Liberal frontbencher Victor Perton was reading in the Legislative Assembley on his laptop the other day, but the man who hated Jeff Kennett isn’t the only over-excited polly when it comes to the net.
The US Presidential election has turned up the heat on the Net. Internet politics is the flavour of the month. There’s a rush on to be first (or at least effective) in using the Net to campaign, and this is having some amusing results.

There are murmurings in many quarters about the availability of government services online, not least from the state of Victoria, but so far nothing has materialised. And this is one of the problems with the phenomenon of Net politics. We’ve all heard of Gore, McCain and Bradley’s use of the Web to promote their campaigns. We’ve heard George Dubya complain there ought to be limits to freedom. We saw Jeff shoot himself in the virtual foot last year. But so far none of the hype has translated into real, effective use of the Net by any mainstream political party or candidate anywhere.

Steven Clift of Minnesota publishes the Democracies Online Newswire, a collection of press releases, announcements of various kinds, perky comments, links, and job ads packaged each week as an email newsletter. The material is generated through Clift’s Web site, where he advertises his services as a lecturer and political consultant. It’s a handy roundup of what’s going on in the world of epolitics, useful despite my early misgivings. The first post I received was titled “More Buchanan” and began:

“Dear Brigade,

Shall I permit the team of “professionals” to run Pat’s campaign into the ground or not? Thousands of you have requested that I fire up my old website and run it as the “Official Internet Brigade” headquarters. I’m still mulling this over.”

But that turned out to be an aberration, or perhaps even an indication of democratic intent – only a gesture towards the eRight. Anyway, there was no more of that.

In mid-April I received an email, through Democracies Online, headed “Work for a Weos – MP Victor Perton”. It sounded like an unusual job advertisement. What are you if you work for a WEOS? What is a WEOS? The name, though, was vaguely familiar. Curious, I read on.

The top of the email provided a partial explanation:

“Victor is one the world’s leading ‘Weos.’ Weos stands for ‘Wired Elected Officials’ – the idea is that they are a new generation of politicians who use the Internet themselves as their primary strategic communication tool. There are only a handful of Weos on the planet.”

Duly impressed, I scrolled down the page to discover where this rare creature lived. If “there are only a handful of Weos on the planet” then maybe there was a story here.

It turns out this Weos lives nearby. Victor Perton, Victorian State Shadow Minister for Multimedia and the Environment and Liberal member for Doncaster was advertising for an assistant. Poor Victor had been relieved of two of his former staff members. “Within the space of two weeks, both my staff have been wooed by attractive offers from the e-commerce/IT industry” he wrote. And then the clincher: “The salary starts at around $37,000. I need an energetic person with a genuine interest in ongoing developments in the IT sector and substantial interest in the Environment.”

It’s hard to knock back such an attractive offer. One can just imagine the excitement in Minneapolis or Helsinki at the prospect of working for Victor for A$37k.

And this is part of the problem. Victor is grossly exaggerating his situation, as a quick look at his Web site will attest. And Steven Clift, in encouraging this sort of puffery, is not doing the cause of epolitics or online democracy any favours either. The expectations of greater transparency, accountability and participation through Internet politics are real enough, but the ignorance or greed of boosters and politicians will kill any chance of actual democratic progress in Net politics.

Over the last six months Victor has lamented the Labor government’s neglect of the Multimedia portfolio and highlighted the progress made under the last government. Predictable stuff. But his own contribution to the cause of new media technology and online democracy in Victoria is hardly spectacular.

At the same time the Labor government has announced a couple of familiar initiatives while cutting funding to Multimedia Victoria. So what’s going on?

What’s going on is nothing very much at all. We’re still waiting for the promised online government services, though we’re not holding our breath, we’re still reading about the virtual US Presidential campaign, but only Victor Perton – the first man of Australian Internet politics – is waving the flag of online democracy in Australia.

Victor’s Web site carries his speech as shadow Minister, a few press releases, a long bio, the job ad (since removed), and a discussion board for his constituents most of whom don’t appreciate quite who their representative is judging by the lack of correspondence. In amongst this material is the claim that Victor was the first Australian member of parliament to have a Web site. Unfortunately this claim sits alongside the preposterous “Weos” title as nothing more than hot air.

And this is the problem with so much that’s described breathlessly as Internet politics or online democracy. Yes, there are terrific possibilities for civic participation and policy formation, perhaps even for policy implementation. But the problem at the moment seems to be that no one in a position of influence has the first clue about what they should be concentrating on. The Victor Pertons of this world do understand, though, that they can bamboozle with bullshit. Hey, the first sitting member with a Web page must know a lot about the Internet – give him Multimedia. For that matter, what the hell does multimedia mean?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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