“Twitter flattens democratic debate,” NSW Premier Kristina Keneally declared in kicking off arguably the world’s first political debate on Twitter. She probably meant ‘flatters’, though the typo slip turned out to be Freudian.

The experiment ahead of Saturday’s state by-election in the seat of Penrith “enlivens democracy”, Keneally insisted, and was a “great tool for discussion, info exchange”. But it was quickly voted a farcical bore by the cyber audience, who were frustrated by the 140-character micro stump speeches and the inability of leaders to truly engage with Twitter users.

Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell was skeptical from the start. It was a “good innovation,” he said, but he only agreed to the Twitter exchange because “KK refused to participate in a debate organised by the Penrith Business Alliance”.

@barryofarrell: this is gr8. KK why wont you agree to face to face debates in town halls across Sydney and NSW?: Wld involve all of public #penrithdebate

Keneally wasn’t biting. She was far too busy squeezing the government’s economic and policy record into tweet form: NSW #1 in economic growth, #1 in lowering unemployment”; 700 new air con carriages are under construction”; integrated ticketing, 94% of travel is same price or cheaper”; 1st zero stamp duty for over-65s”; $16.6 billion spend on infrastructure”.

Challenged by one Twit about “cutting and pasting topic ‘points'”, Keneally begged: “ask me a question”.

Many did, of Keneally, O’Farrell and Greens MP Lee Rhiannon. Most went unanswered. Nine News political reporter Kevin Wilde was supposed to  moderate and process questions, though he was dodging the fire:

@KevinWilde: I am staying out the way as much as I can the debate [shouldn’t] be about the moderator.

Though Wilde, sitting next to the premier during the encounter, did debunk the suspicions of some that Keneally was simply cutting and pasting notes. The spruiking, it seems, was coming directly from her own fingertips — “Tweetdeck easier to follow columns, Twitter for iPhone easier for writing, today had laptop too to monitor hashtag,” she revealed.

There was some engagement over transport services — “we do support better services to westn syd & are committed to more express services,” O’Farrell told the premier — and on urban sprawl — “will put all new housing to fringe of Sydney Higher infrastructure costs, more social isolation,” the premier said of her opponent’s plan. Though nobody was touching Rhiannon’s suggestion that the major parties should “commit to no new coal fired power plants and no new coal mines”.

@leerhiannon: #penrithdebate Our time is nearly up. Goodluck to Suzie Wright and Greens on Saturday. The debate has worked. Not perfect but its real.

And that was that. “John Thain asks for your support,” Keneally pleaded; while O’Farrell wasoff campaigning” with his candidate Stuart Ayres. Leaving the definitive word to Daily Telegraph columnist Joe Hildebrand:


We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Peter Fray

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