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Hugh Martin responds to Victor Perton’s protest over claims he is a wired wanker.
I have offended the Shadow Minister for Multimedia and ICT merely by suggesting there is a gap between the claims made in his promotional material and the substance of policy planning in support of those claims. In actual fact, I said this was a problem with e-politics in general, Mr Perton just happened to be the best local example. Still, in order to sweeten this storm in a teacup, I feel obliged to address a couple of points the shadow minister made in these pages last week.

“What gives you the right?”

Mr Perton rang me at midday on Monday May 8, minutes after the issue of Crikey carrying the piece labelled “Wired Wankers: Pollies Online” had been published. The shadow minister’s first question was: “Have we met?” He was rightly incensed that someone he had never met would call him a wanker. Well, that matter has now been settled. Stephen Mayne has admitted responsibility for the appellation. And Stephen has, I understand, met the shadow minister.

Mr Perton’s second question was: “What gives you the right to say these things?” Now, I accept that a critic should support his or her opinions with as much research and demonstrated experience as is necessary, but in this case I thought the shadow minister was playing the man rather than the ball. He was so mad at the wanker charge that, as far as I could tell, he hadn’t actually read the article.

He wanted to know if I was researching multimedia. I said no. The fact is my research interest is in comparing the ways governments, community organisations and NGOs use Internet technologies and I believe this well qualifies me to write the piece I wrote. As far as I can see multimedia is a largely outdated term that served a purpose in an earlier period of technological development but which, in the context of e-democracy, should give way to something more appropriate. Governments that want to do business online, and communicate with their constituents online, will not be in the multimedia game.

A Fatal Mistake

So, having established that I was a … critic, the shadow minister proceeded to ask me what I thought he should do to improve his Web site. Now, just as there is a rule book for politicians who want to express their annoyance with the media, so there is a rule book for writers dealing with said politicians and other complainants, its subtitle: “Well What Do YOU Suggest, Dickhead?”. The first rule is don’t answer that question. I broke the rule.

Mr Perton, bless his heart, would have you believe I didn’t, but I feel so stupid that I have to admit it. When the shadow minister asked me what I thought he should put on his Web site I didn’t answer petulantly, “I don’t have to tell you that, I’m a critic”. (It’s exactly what I should have done though, and it’s very nice of Mr Perton to say I did.) No, I actually made a suggestion. But I can’t say whether this was out of sympathy, or whether it was because I had a student in my office with a problem that needed my attention and a peeved politician on the telephone and in a moment of weakness it seemed the easiest solution.

I suggested to the shadow minister that it might help generate local traffic to his site if he included a breakdown of his speeches, by issue as they pertain to his electorate. He has acknowledged that his site has had trouble engaging voters in his electorate and I suggested that this might help show voters how he is working on issues concerning them. But Mr Perton wasn’t interested. He dismissed the suggestion as a “meaningless statistic”. Perhaps it is (or would be), but for a WEOS with an admitted problem generating enthusiasm online in his own electorate, surely this might be a good place to start. Then again, if you hold a safe seat …

Contradictions Abound

The shadow minister’s article (“Vic MP Rejects Web Wanker Charge”) contained a number of contradictions, which in sum, tend to support the thrust of my original piece. He coyly claims not to have heard of the description WEOS before reading about it in Crikey three weeks ago, but then goes to great lengths to describe what one is and explain how the description applies to his work. He is happy to be called a WEOS in company with Al Gore and George Bush – remember, the promo guff said there were only a handful on the planet. But at the same time he wants us to be clear that the effectiveness of a WEOS is limited. Most of his constituents are not Web literate so in reality he can’t be a WEOS and therefore criticism is inappropriate.

This sounds to me like having your cake and eating it too. Either you are a WEOS or you aren’t. You can’t have it both ways. If Mr Perton is a WEOS then his own description of his job contradicts the claim. If he’s not one then he needs to be careful of allowing publicity material to mislead potential employees as well as his constituents.

WWW Sites for Self-Promotion

Mr Perton claims to be the first Australian MP with a Web site. If possible, this is an even more meaningless claim than the title of WEOS. I put this to the shadow minister during the course of our telephone conversation and an enraged Mr Perton accused me of having “an animus against firsts”.

“Would you say that if I had been the first person to climb Everest?” he asked (I kid you not, he actually asked this).

Unfortunately that analogy won’t work. Posting a Web site is more akin to using the telephone than climbing Everest. Somehow I don’t think future historians will equate Edmund Hillary and Victor Perton in terms of firsts. In fact to illustrate the point I did a bit of digging for the name of the first Australian MP to own a telephone. No luck. I even tried to find the name of the first Australian MP to do a radio interview. Same result. I’m inclined to think that history will be equally cruel to Victor Perton’s first Web site.

And while we’re on the topic of building Web pages, Mr Perton assures us he taught himself “HTML mark up”. This is admirable, but the description is a bit like an Australian football club president talking about the AFL league – it doesn’t inspire confidence. Anyone who really knows HTML (hyper text mark-up language) wouldn’t make that sort of mistake.

Global Wankers

Last week Mr Perton quoted Baroness Thatcher from a speech she gave at the 1998 World Congress on Information Technology. This placed us well inside irrelevance territory. Apart from the fact that Maggie has not been an elected official since 1990, and isn’t wired (well, err … ), the WWW was still a twinkle in the eye of Tim Berners-Lee when she retired from parliamentary politics. It did, however, give the shadow minister the opportunity to cut and paste twenty percent of his article from a speech given at the Victorian State Library in May last year. (For anyone who thinks Maggie Thatcher’s opinion about the Internet represents a picture of the future for online politics you can find the rest of the transcript of Mr Perton’s May 1999 speech at his Web site.)

As critics of George W Bush and other US politicians (eg. see – http://gwbush.com/) have pointed out, voters must challenge their representatives to be even more transparent and honest in their online dealings. Simply having a Web site is not enough if the politician isn’t engaging constituents through electronic communication. The Web is a pull technology, it is not simply a broadcast medium. A Web site has absolutely no value unless people visit it. Pollies who do not understand this, who try to bully their way through cyberspace ignoring the imperative of interaction, are merely exposing themselves as reactionary.

Peter Fray

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