Step forward Queensland senator Ian Macdonald, this is your moment to shine.

The genial Liberal from Townsville has the distinction of being the only member of the Queensland Liberal or National Parties to identify himself as belonging to the Liberal National Party, that shambolic litigation-waiting-to-happen established in July. He does so on his website, albeit with the misleading statement “a division of the Liberal Party of Australia”, which it isn’t, yet.

By way of contrast, Macdonald’s Senate colleagues Russell Trood and Sue Boyce prominently display the Liberal logos only, which pretty much sums up their view of the merger. George Brandis and Brett Mason avoid the problem altogether by not even having websites.

Macdonald’s fellow Queenslanders in the House of Representatives are also reticent about their notional membership of the Liberal National Party. In fact, most of them are entirely reticent about party membership of any kind. Only Andrew Laming and Steve Ciobo identify themselves as Liberals. The rest don’t bother, or don’t have a site. In fact, Liberals seem rather slow to get on this internet thing. 16 out of 55 Reps Liberals don’t have personal sites, and fully half of Liberal senators don’t.

Labor aren’t much better. Nearly half of Labor MPs don’t have a personal website, although they go in for Labor branding much more heavily. The boys from the bush, in contrast, are online in a big way. All of the Nationals have websites except newbies Wacka Williams and Darren Chester (Chester boasts a “Coming Soon” website). Nearly all of them carry the “Nationals” logo very prominently. And there’s not an LNP logo in sight for the Queenslanders.

Not that anyone exactly has a cutting edge online presence. The rest of us might be limbering up for Web 3.0 but our parliamentarians are blogging like its 1999. Contact details, photos, some speeches and press releases and maybe a Feedback form… you almost expect the Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe or the exploding whale story among the links.

Many MPs are on Facebook or MySpace, because, like, that’s where the yoof are, or at least that’s what their staff tell them, ignoring the fact that by the time politicians are on a social networking site, said site has long since lost any cred with Teh Kidz. But even when they bother to provide some personal content on their sites it’s perfunctory or they were seized with the spirit to do it for only three months in 2007.

Not like normal bloggers at all, of course.

Malcolm Turnbull, of course, is different. He may hail from an analog era but he speaks digital like a native. His site offers e-newsletters, a forum, an FAQ, the famous dog blogs (Joe Hockey shows how it’s done North Shore-style with his own cat blog), and plenty of AV as well as written content.

It’s not exactly state of the art blogging (where’s the Twittering?!), and one doesn’t labour under the illusion he hunkers down every night after dinner and personally sticks in HTML tags and embeds videos. But Turnbull gives the appearance of someone who understands the interactive possibilities of online media, in contrast to most of his Parliamentary colleagues on all sides, who seem to regard the internet as that thing that everyone else got into while they were busy branch stacking.

What’s a good website for a politician? These are the best bits from the sites we’ve looked at.

  1. Don’t have a Facebook or MySpace page unless you’re really going to use it.
  2. Have plenty of Parliament-related content. Hansard extracts, broadcast extracts, alerts for forthcoming committee hearings, links to webcasts. A good proportion of people using your site are likely to be journalists or political junkies so cater to them. As a special bonus, maybe you can put your Register of Pecuniary Interests declaration online, because otherwise they’re accessible only if you go to Parliament House and look at the folders.
  3. Either have a genuinely interactive component or don’t bother. Interactivity is a vexed issue. A Comments feature will draw fanatics, lunatics and straight-out d-ckheads like a magnet – or, worse, draw no one at all. And if you don’t have the time for responding even briefly to user comments, there’s no point. However, one-off interactive features – e.g. an online forum on an important bill – that is moderated and contains genuine responses from the MP are likely to get people interested, even if most of them don’t live in your electorate.
  4. Spend a bit of money to get a decent designer. I hold no brief to boost the incomes of web designers, but they’re useful for making your site look faintly contemporary and easily navigable. Except if they try to get you to use Flash intros, in which case fire them immediately. You’re a representative of the people, not a multinational corporation.
  5. Ensure your content is accessible to disabled constituents, who have as much right to access their MPs’ sites as everyone else. Kudos to Warren Truss who has the only site I found with access features for the visually-impaired.
  6. Go easy on the self-promotion. The site is about the voters, not you. No one cares how many Young Global Leaders Forums you went to. Yes Michael Johnson, we’re referring to you.
  7. Update your site regularly. Or even once in a while. It says a lot about an MP who hasn’t bothered to update their details in months or, in one case, for nearly a year. If you or your staff can’t be bothered, close the site.

Peter Fray

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