Thirteen years ago I was helping a friend produce a radio show. We had a hilarious yarn – an interview with a couple who’d just got married after meeting on the internet. Today, who doesn’t know someone who met their significant other on RSVP?

When it comes to new media and the election campaign, most journalists are where we were back in 1994. They’re reporting on a novelty.

In the Sydney Morning Herald today, we read that Australia’s first user-generated YouTube election debate will be held next month in Eden-Monaro. The public will be able to put questions to the candidates via YouTube. From the Media section of the Oz we learn that MySpace users are being invited to ask federal politicians questions via video and have them answered on Ten’s Meet the Press program each Sunday.

Swinging voters in Eden-Monaro, of course, have been hanging around their webcams for months waiting for this opportunity. Not.

New media has a broad role to play in political campaigns, involving mobilisation, participation, communications, accountability, breaking news and fundraising. It poses as many challenges for old media as it does for the political parties themselves. Both are failing. New media campaigns should work like any other media campaigns. They need to engage voters. That isn’t happening now.

The parties are offering some shiny toys to engage the tech tragics and political works – and score some favourable coverage in the old media for themselves based on the novelty value of their ventures in the field. They’re getting hip with teh kidz on teh interwebs. They’re not winning many votes, though.

Perhaps the most interesting online venture by our major political parties is Labor’s ALP Abroad site, targeted at “the 1 million Australians who live, work and study overseas”.

As Matthew Marks writes in the Crikey Guide to the 2007 Election, “Despite the ever growing numbers of Australian expats, only 68,544 votes were recorded outside the country in 2004. The largest polling booth in that election was in London, with 20,716 votes recorded, but this was a fraction of the number of Australians who were either living or holidaying in London at the time.” Those votes are worth chasing.

Matthew also observes: “Mobilisation… is more than simply getting people to a polling booth. Mobilisation is also getting party members enthused and critically, getting non-members interested enough to join.”

Yesterday, our media fell for a fake attack ad posted by a YouTube user with a taste for Austral verse that makes John Laws look like Les Murray. That’s how sophisticated the coverage of new media and campaigning in Australia is now.