Modern political campaigning, it is often suggested, began with the first televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Twelve years later, Gough Whitlam’s It’s Time campaign, with its glitzy celebrities and catchy pop song, signalled the arrival of American-style campaigning in Australia. Thirty-five years on, the 2007 federal election will introduce nationally the beginning of a new type of campaigning in Australian politics — new media campaigning.

Up until now, the major Australian political parties have been slow to invest in new media because they believed this kind of media was mainly targeted at getting people to vote — and, therefore, unnecessary in our compulsory voting environment. Now they are beginning to understand that new media has a much broader role in political campaigns, incorporating participation, accountability, breaking news and fundraising.

New media isn’t just a big challenge for the political parties. This election will also test the ability of the mainstream media to adapt to a changing environment in which audiences are no longer satisfied to rely on journalists and familiar political commentators telling them how they should think and vote. So what can we look out for? There are plenty of leads from overseas.

Given last week’s G8 Summit and deteriorating US-Soviet (sorry, Russian) relations, it was telling that Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire Russian dissident living in Moscow by the Thames gave his first interview since he purportedly affirmed his support for armed resistance to Vladimir Putin not on a regular news channel but on the UK’s internet political news channel, 18 Doughty Street.

The advantage of the internet option for Berezovsky is it bypasses the state-run and state-dominated Russian media and allows him to go directly to the Russian people. Unfortunately for Berezovsky, Russians prefer Putin to oligarchs past and present.

Russian politicians have in many ways embraced new media more than Australian politicians. Even Putin, in October last year, held another multimedia conversation with the Russian people where Russians could even text questions to him.

Meanwhile the United States, Barack Obama continues to develop his online presence. While Labor politicians in Australia are jumping all over George Pell and comparing him to Sheikh al-Hilaly, left-liberal darling Obama is doing the opposite in the US.

He is doing whatever he can to secure “faith-based” voters in the United States including a dedicated section of his site complete with podcasts, videos and testimonials.

On the Republican side, Fred Thompson has decided that the internet is a clear way to differentiate himself from his competition. Given that he has only just entered the race, and that according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released on the weekend he is already third behind Giuliani, watch out for his aggressive use of new media.

He recently made a clever YouTube riposte to Michael Moore’s sympathetic portrayal of Castro’s Cuba in Moore’s new movie Sicko. Like all potential presidential candidates, some of his key hires are not the traditional lunch-box carrying apparatchiks but smart new media types.

Given the increasing interest that mainstream journalists and politicians have in political blogging in Australia, it’s worthwhile reading the Joe Klein article entitled Beware the Bloggers bile in Time last week.

To quote the widely read Klein: “But the smart stuff is being drowned out by a fierce, bullying, often witless tone of intolerance that has overtaken the left-wing sector of the blogosphere.”

Sound like any blogs you know in Australia?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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