It was in 1994 that the Australian Labor Party launched Australia’s first national political website. It wasn’t until 2007, however, that politicians, or the electorate, really got the hang of the internet. Since Kevin07’s textbook online friendliness, though, Labor has managed to lose the knack. If the ALP has learned anything from electoral victory, it’s how not to repeat it.

If we must appoint a year in which the internet was no longer seen as a modest servant to mass culture but its emerging master, let it be 2004. It was one decade ago that thinkers outside the business of digital communications stopped talking about “new media” and embraced the term web 2.0. At the O’Reilly media conference, chair Tim O’Reilly popularised the description of a technology and a market that no longer supported the monologue of old media and had become a conversation between people. It was also the year that veteran US Democratic Party campaigner Joe Trippi recounted the experience of managing Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid in his book The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, The Internet, And The Overthrow Of Everything. In a book breathless with the force of what we then called web 2.0, Trippi writes of his defeated dreams, “a candidate lost but his campaign won”.

The support Dean found online was, “nothing less than the first shot in America’s second revolution”. Political web 2.0 was a sure sign, wrote Trippi, of “democracy bubbling to the surface”. He goes on a bit in this wonkish book, but the account of a politician truly engaged with his supporters is instructive.

In our own 2004 election, web penetration remained low in the electorate According to the Australian Candidates Study at ANU, just 6% of voters followed the details of the election online. Nonetheless, the Greens had kept an eye on Trippi and pioneered the use in Australian online political life of campaign blogs and interactive polls; the party’s expert use, and political defence, of online continues unabated to the present, as we have seen from Senator Ludlam.

It was generally supposed at the time that left-wing parties had a more natural audience in the “bubbling democracy” of web 2.0, and perhaps this explains why the Nationals bothered to do so little. And it possibly accounts for the ALP’s indolence in the medium in 2004. So eager to take Howard’s Battlers and shift them slightly into Latham’s Aspirationals, the party did nothing more engaging online that maintaining a cold brochure presence. A trickle-down approach to economics begets a trickle-down approach to campaigning.

By 2007, everyone and his cat had begun to rely on the internet and it was a more accommodating place for centrists like Rudd, whose team worked it exquisitely. Doubtless, the ALP had learned a thing or two from Barack Obama’s primary campaign, which would be described the next year by Arianna Huffington as as effective in its use of online media as John F. Kennedy had been in his campaign adoption of television. Presaging the hashtag with his snappy Kevin07 title and including on his Facebook page his sweetly daggy tastes in dad-rock, the future prime minister certainly did not harm the youth primary lead that secured his victory. Certainly, he exceeded Howard, whose first YouTube appearance began with the words “good morning“. No one had told the poor old guy that on-demand video works at any time of the day.

That this campaign, which went so well for Labor and so badly for the Libs online, was truly effective is uncertain. The study Do Online Election Campaigns Win Votes? The 2007 Australian “YouTube” Election fails to draw a conclusion for that year. But the ALP’s online competence certainly didn’t hurt, and the friendly-not-familiar approach of an authoritative but “connected” Rudd might have prepared the party for this era of near-100% web penetration.

All of those good lessons have now been forgotten as the ALP manages to look like a bunch of meme-creating twits and off-cuts from Upworthy. Whoever is advising them that Warm and Thoughtful expressions work well online might want to reconsider that this may be the case for clicks to Mamamia, but is certainly at odds for an opposition that is doing all it can to look as tough as those tough-love Libs.

Last weekend, the ALP reposted this image on Facebook:

“From everyone here at the Australian Labor, all the best to Muslims across Australia and around the world.”

I’m going to set aside my personal disgust at the hypocrisy of a party that sends a nice greeting card out in hexadecimal Islamic blue but supports “anti-terror” legislative changes that will demonise Muslims. I’m not even going to get started on the mad belligerence of a party that is happy to participate in wars to liberate the oppressed yet opposes taking meaningful numbers of refugees from the threat of its own “collateral” slaughter of Muslim civilians. I’m not even going to mention Chris Bowen’s racist slight against Afghanistan made after the announcement of the Abbott cabinet that “even in Afghanistan” they have more women in key positions. What’s that, Chris? You don’t like the puppet democracy you played your part in installing?

All personal grievances with the Darkness On The Hill aside, I wonder who they think they are deluding with this stuff. It is no longer just nice people on Facebook who prefer a mask of liberal tolerance in their feeds, but everybody. Including all those voters who think that Australian Super Hornets taking armed joy flights across Iraq is just awesome.

Ten years ago, it was absolutely true that the internet was peopled by young and more progressive voters, but now, at least on Facebook, it’s every bastard. Sure, Shorten, who has embraced the fluffy #HeForShe campaign, can get away with holding up a cardboard sign (which might as well read “I know I will never be prime minister”) on the competitively compassionate Twitter. But on Facebook, where everyone goes, he is foolish to look like the kind of guy who wouldn’t deploy RAAF jets to Iraq.

 

And again this past weekend, federal Labor MP Tony Burke posted this picture:

Which again is super lovely, but only if you happen to think that the primary job of a major political party is to “promote tolerance” and not do a damn material thing about it. Of course, it is quite possible that tolerance functions as an ideological category for some voters. Possibly, there are a small number of voters within that category who are just happy to see the appearance of tolerance and still support racist policy on asylum seekers and in anti-terror legislation. I’d guess that’s a tiny minority, many of whom are inclined to vote Green — a party that does a much better job of seeming nice. In other words, if the party is really serious about looking like authoritative no-nonsense terrorist-killers, they might consider a stop to these public orgasms of compassion and start cheering “bombs away!”.

As far as social media goes, there is a widespread Plibersekisation of communication, such as we saw emerge in this 2013 campaign embarrassment endorsing same-sex marriage at the 11th hour:

Seriously. Don’t watch it unless you want to hear a song that sounds exactly like a guidance counsellors’ glee club. It’s all nice and shareable and has bugger-all to do with the description of Labor’s actual policies — which, surely, it has formulated to win back that racist wedge. Perhaps Labor genuinely believes that western Sydney is not on Facebook and receives all its political news from question time.

Guys. Everyone can see you. Even the people of the racist heartland.

With the exception of the 2007 campaign, the ALP has ignored those early influential web 2.0 documents that describe online as a “bubbling democracy” and a place for conversation. The “unprecedented opportunities for interaction” described by ALP elder John Faulkner and reported yesterday by Crikey’s Bernard Keane are not being taken. The ALP is not enacting peer conversations, but top-down mimicry of a manufactured Upworthy concern.

In its guileless posting of supportive hashtags and tolerant posters, the ALP sacrifices its authority, its tentative hold on the thing it calls western Sydney and the possibility of real conversation with genuinely engaged supporters.

But, you know. They want us all to enjoy a marvellous Eid.

Peter Fray

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