Archive for June, 2010

Thoughts on renewing my Crikey nominations

I’ve just paid $240 to renew my Crikey subscription for another two years. My current one doesn’t expire till early 2011 sometime but I fell victim to their current end of financial year marketing campaign which even saw the wonderful First Dog on the Moon cross the dreaded church and state divide to spruik for business. Plus, with New Matilda going out of business this week there is now a nasty breeze from the hole in the Australian independent media space and I thought it was time to insulate against it.

I’ve been subscribing to Crikey (or crikey.com.au to give it its proper name) now for four years or so and while they have a mixed record, I enjoy their daily digest of news served up in my favourite online tool: email. I keep hearing that Gen Ys and beyond can’t tolerate email but as an asynchronous long or short form communication mechanism, it remains the best of its class, even if it has been in widespread use now for almost 20 years. It hardly makes Crikey “new media” but it certainly still keeps them independent and mildly profitable, unlike New Matilda which fell in a hole between subscription and freedom.

In their email, Crikey deliver 20 or so stories in a package every lunchtime. I’m usually busy around that time and will often skim through most of the stories. But I will always take the time to read some of the articles. I like Bernard Keane’s post-public servant acerbic take on politics (even if he wears his Labor voting on his sleeve). I also like Guy Rundle’s manic mutterings and of course there is the incomparable First Dog on the Moon, Andrew Marlton. Marlton is quickly establishing himself as the cult Australian cartoonist of his generation borrowing liberally from other great cartoonists such as Michael Leunig and Jon Kudelka allied to his own native off the wall wit. His arrogant, foul mouthed version of Jasper, Kevin Rudd’s Cat (who seems more suited to being Paul Keating’s pet rather than Rudd’s) is well on the way to becoming one of the all-time great Australian fictional characters.

I also like Crikey’s well informed media coverage with Margaret Simons and the occasional tech rant from Stilgherrian, both usually well worth the read. It has also collected a varied and lively collection of blogs under its banner. Oddly enough, the one thing I I don’t care too much for is Crikey’s rumour and gossip. This is the section for which it initially became famous, and how it is still described by bigger media when they want to pour scorn on the publication.

Its skirting along the edge of defamation cost Crikey’s original owner Stephen Mayne his publication but perhaps that was a good thing for the Australian media sphere. It meant that more savvy people like Eric Beecher came in to take it over. Beecher has the same impassioned belief in the power of a free press that Mayne had. But he also has business smarts. His appointment of Amanda Gome as Private Media CEO shows the publication is heading in a new and more serious business direction. Gome has a journalism background but she is also a publisher and a professor of business at Melbourne’s RMIT.

That new direction may have interesting ramifications for Crikey staff. Jason Whittaker took on the role of Crikey’s new deputy editor after Sophie Black was promoted to editor when Jonathan Green left to take over the ABC’s The Drum. Whittaker is on the public record (prior to his Crikey days, admittedly) as a passionate defender of the traditional separation of advertising and journalism – the “church and state” of media.

However if their most recent advertising campaign is anything to go by, I fancy Gome and Beecher are no longer so sure such a strategy is effective. And indeed neither am I. In no other industry would such a refusal of two key branches to work together be tolerated – even if there is a great possibility of conflict of interest. Crikey, like most media, is a business and it must perform like a business. Yes, it has a democratic function. But that, as New Matilda have just found out, is just a sidebar. The main game, as ever, is making enough money to survive. And that requires everyone in the organisation working to the same objective. The fun part will be watching how Crikey evolves to meet that objective. I look forward to following the journey for the next two years.

June 29, 2010 at 11:44 pm 2 comments

Being Julia Gillard: Understanding Australia’s new prime minister

In Jacqueline Kent’s book The Making of Julia Gillard, Gillard herself tells a story of an event that took place in Hopper’s Crossing outside Melbourne, Victoria. She was at a shopping centre standing next to a board with a photo of her. “This old guy comes out of the supermarket, looks at me, looks at the photo, then turns back at me and says ‘Taken on a good day wasn’t it, love?’. I said “And you’d be bloody Robert Redford, would you mate?’”

Gillard’s self-deprecating sense of humour is one of the crucial skills she will need to have at her disposal after her stunning accession to the Prime Minister of Australia this morning. Most people believed that Gillard was destined to become the country’s first female Prime Minister but until a few days ago no one would have believed it could happen in 2011.

But with Kevin Rudd in disarray in recent weeks and private party polling clearly telling powerbrokers they were heading to defeat in a number of key marginal seats, it was suddenly time to up the tempo. Unlike Rudd and his opposite number Tony Abbott, Gillard had kept her personal popularity in the recent political upheavals. The time was right for the kingmakers to dust off the guillotine and depose the incumbent. Rudd realised overnight he no longer had the numbers and resigned without a fight this morning.

That outcome is the best possible given that the leadership spill happened. Labor has panicked unnecessarily and would have won the next election under Rudd but by terminating his leadership they have handed an unexpected fillip to the opposition. At least the clean nature of the execution means there is no residual leadership tension that could further undermine Labor. Indeed given Rudd’s stated intention to stay on, it is not beyond the realms of possibility he could be restored as Foreign Minister under Gillard after the election.

The focus is now on the new leader. Gillard was born in the South Welsh coal port town of Barry in 1961. Her father was a brilliant student but being one of seven children in a poor family he was forced to end his education early and work in the mines. When the four year old Julia was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia, a doctor advised her parents to move to a warmer climate. The family (including elder daughter Alison then aged 7) moved to Adelaide in 1966 where Julia’s father worked as a psychiatric nurse.

Gillard said she left the value of hard work from her father. In her Adelaide University years she was an organiser with the Australian union of students and then involved with the Melbourne-based Socialist Forum. Political views were heavily skewed in the ultra-left scene of 1970s student politics. Gillard told Australian Story that being a Labor student “you were viewed as a right-winger, I mean, we didn’t really have that many sort of Liberals who were active in it to create that right-wing pole so most of student politics thought the Labor students were the enemy for being too right-wing.”

Gillard graduated from the University of Melbourne with an arts and law degree. She worked her way up to a partnership in Melbourne legal firm Slater & Gordon before several protracted and unsuccessful attempts to secure Labor preselection during the 1990s. She gained crucial government experience in her role as chief of staff to John Brumby when he was state opposition leader in Victoria during the Kennett years and she was finally elected to federal parliament in 1998.

ABC Radio National’s Peter Mares said that Gillard’s membership of the Victorian left of the ALP was “more organisational than ideological.” She is keen to promote social inclusion but wary of government heavy-handedness in social policy. “Gillard supports approaches that combine state and non-state actors in service delivery, encourage competition and individual initiative, yet maintain a safety net for those who fall,” Mares said.

Biographer Christine Wallace agrees Gillard is “no lefty” and said she is factional only so far as it is useful. Wallace described her as “transfactional” and said Gillard elicits an “intense, visceral response from voters, journalists and fellow political players.” Her talent was nurtured by Brumby, Simon Crean and Mark Latham. Gillard was one of the few Labor heavies not to suffer a tongue-lashing in the Latham Diaries and in return she is one of the few leaders not to twist the knife in Latham. By the time Rudd took over, Gillard was the obvious choice of deputy and since the election victory in 2007 she has revelled in the difficult twin roles of education and employment minister.

Wallace said what distinguishes Gillard from many female politicians is a genuine love of power. “Possessing it acts as a big political multiplier for her: the more power she gets, the better she performs and the more she accumulates as a result,” said Wallace. Gillard has now hit the jackpot when it comes to accumulation of power.

Her immediate task is consolidation to ensure it doesn’t just last a few months. But assuming she wins the 2010 election, we may see a new style of leader never before witnessed in Australia. Her policy record is mixed, but her native intelligence, a driving will to succeed and her indefatigable sense of humour will prove major allies in the fierce battles to come.

June 25, 2010 at 12:12 am 2 comments

I’m hearing only bad news from Radio Africa

I remember at the Italia 90 World Cup when Cameroon got to the quarter finals and were unluckily beaten by England everyone saying it was only a matter of time before an African side won the World Cup. The breakthrough would come some time in the next 20 years. What no one predicted was that Cameroon’s 1990 performance would be remain an African high water mark, equalled only by Senegal who also went out in quarter-final extra time in 2002.

Things have gone backwards since then. With one round of the group matches left to go in the first ever African World Cup, it remains a distinct possibility that no African side will make it through to the last 16. South Africa, Ivory Coast and Nigeria are almost certainly out already. Algeria has some hope in the group of sleep but will probably lose to USA. That leaves Ghana who top their group currently ahead of Germany and Serbia. However their lacklustre performance against a poor ten man Australian side suggests that they will probably lose to Germany and allow Serbia to grab the other place with a win or draw against Australia.

Just about the one African innovation of note in this World Cup is not the football but the vuvuzela which has split sporting fans across the world who either love it for its ability to get the fans involved or, more usually hate it for its incessant one-pitched drone which drowns out every other noise in the stadium. Problems with the vuvuzela were identified as early as the 2009 Confederation Cup which acts as a dress rehearsal for the hosts. FIFA boss Sepp Blatter went on the record saying he didn’t want to ban the vuvuzela saying “we should not try to Europeanise an African World Cup.”

As with most things Blatter says, this was hypocritical bullshit. It had nothing to do with anti-colonialism and everything to do with office politics. There is certainly no long history of the vuvuzela’s use in Africa or elsewhere. The plastic trumpet first emerged in Mexico in the 1970s and were seen at the Argentina 1978 World Cup. They didn’t become popular in South Africa until 20 years later. With its dangerously high sound level and closeness to the frequency of human speech, the horns are detestable and Blatter probably hates them as much as anyone who is not playing them. What the FIFA President was really saying is that he was not prepared to risk African votes deserting him during the 2011 presidential election.

But while Blatter is busy buying votes, the tournament he runs is starting to gather pace after a slow start. The first week saw a succession of negative games and 1-0 scorelines. Desperately poor and uneven refereeing didn’t help. The code’s complete refusal to use technology to help the refs leaves it looking a laughing stock compared to the range of facilities available to rugby, cricket and tennis umpires.

This is especially ludicrous now that the referees and assistants are wired up to talk to each other. It would not take long to talk to a fourth or fifth official in the stands with access to replays, goal-line incidents and offside decisions. The oft-quoted excuse that it would “interrupt the flow of the game” beggars belief especially when considering how many interruptions currently exist when players fall over under the slightest provocation.

But back to the football itself. I’ve mentioned the problems with Africa, but Europe does not seem in much better health. A European team has never won the competition outside its home continent and this statistic is likely to repeat itself in South Africa. Germany looked strong against Australia only to fold against Serbia. Meanwhile Italy, France and England all lack a cutting edge. Favourites Spain inexplicably lost to Switzerland and may find it impossible to recover from the shock of that loss. The Dutch look the best of the Europeans so far but don’t really have the aura of trophy winners.

The same cannot be said of Brazil and Argentina. Both sides have aura in abundance and won their games easily. With the right amount of fortune they should end up playing each other in the first all-South American final since 1950 (or 1930 if you are being picky and say there was no actual final in 1950) and the first ever final between these two old foes. It would be hilarious to watch Diego Maradona pick up another world cup trophy, despite all his obvious flaws and apparent madness. I suspect Brazil have slightly too much guile to make that happen, but it is Argentina and its current on-field genius Lionel Messi that have my heart as we head into the next few fascinating weeks.

June 22, 2010 at 11:46 pm Leave a comment

2009 NT Intervention Report shows slow but steady progress

The Federal Government has just released its monitoring report (pdf) on the NT Intervention for the second half of 2009. The report shows much has been achieved in health, education and crime reporting since the Intervention started though critics still say there is not enough evidence yet to support its rollout.

The Northern Territory Emergency Response was a Howard Government initiative announced in June 2007 in response to reports of abuse and neglect of children outlined in the “Little Children are Sacred” report and supported by the Rudd Government when it took office five months later. The legislation period of NTER is five years and it commits the Government to actions to “close the gap” between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal key health indicators. The key objectives of NTER are ensuring the protection of women and children, reducing family violence, improving education, improving health, and promoting positive behaviours and personal responsibility.

In 2009, the Rudd Government attempted to remove some of the more odious elements of the NTER with legislation that is now before the Senate to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act. This was done after many in the 73 NTER communities felt they had been hurt, humiliated and confused by the often discriminatory way in which the original legislation was pushed through. However the same people admitted children, women and the elderly were were all feeling safer, better fed and clothed, and that there was less humbugging for alcohol, drugs and gambling.

There have been some good recorded improvements. The Government has built eight of nine promised new crèches and upgraded 11 out of another promised 13. Average school attendance has increased from 60.1 percent to 62.2 percent in 12 months. However this is still down on the 62.7 percent figure recorded in 2007. A school nutrition program is up and running staffed mainly by Indigenous people while over 140 new teaching positions have been funded in the NT. Another 173 health professionals are on the books covering nursing, GP, dental and allied health. Outreach teams have made 110 visits to 66 remote communities.

88 community stores were licensed to sell alcohol and out of 190 monitoring visits just one store had its licence revoked. Alcohol Management Plans are in place in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Palmerston and Katherine and on their way in Borroloola, Maningrida, Gunbalanya, Elliot, Tiwi Islands and Groote Eylandt. The Government created 2,200 new jobs still leaving almost 17,000 on welfare quarantine known as “income management”. 96 percent of these spent $133 million on food and clothing using BasicCards.

The instance of child abuse cases increased over the 2009 reporting period giving the ABC its gloomy headline when discussing the report. The numbers of child abuses cases from 72 in 2007 to 142 two years later. However with 62 additional police deployed to communities, there is an obvious increase in reported crime, while the actual incidence of crime may have remained unchanged or have fallen. The numbers of alcohol related incidents went up 31 percent while the number of drug related incidents went up 23 percent while reported incidents of domestic abuse went up a staggering 75 percent between 2007 and 2009.

But undoubtedly problems still remain in the communities. Last year NT Indigenous children were six times as likely as other children to be the subject of a substantiation of a notification of abuse and neglect. Neglect remains the main crime (43 percent) followed by physical abuse (26 percent) and emotional abuse (24 percent). Sexual abuse accounted for less than 10 percent of cases and since July 2007 27 people (including 4 non-Indigenous people) have been convicted for child sexual assault.

Response to the report has so far been limited in the media and virtually non-existent in the blogosphere. Apart from the ABC article noted above, the NT News also picked up on the increased stats angle, The Australian published an article by Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, while ANU’s Jon Altman in Crikey called the state of progress “disturbing”.

However what is truly disturbing is the mainstream lack of interest in the report and its contents other than for its political conflict value. Altman makes good points about some of the ways we have gone backwards since 2007. However, until there is a concerted hue and cry on behalf of white Australia to really follow through on the initiatives, nothing will change. Our media is failing us with this task. For those interested, Part 2 of the report provides detailed information and analysis by sub measure.

June 21, 2010 at 10:54 pm Leave a comment

Gaza: A History of Neglect

While the recent flotilla attempts to end the economic blockade have turned it into front page news, Gaza has been a forgotten add-on for most of its 62 years of existence. For millennia it was simply a part of Palestine occupied by a succession of foreign rulers. On 14 May 1948 the last of those rulers, the British high commissioner, left Palestine formally ending the colonial mandate.
(photo:AP)
The Zionists immediately proclaimed an independent Israel. Within 24 hours armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq launched an attack across the frontier but stopped short at occupying Jewish settlements. The Israelis battle-hardened from fighting Germans and British alike routed the invaders.

When fighting ended in January 1949 Palestine had disappeared from the map. Most went to Israel, the west Bank went to Jordan leaving behind just the tiny strip of Gaza administered by Egypt. The strip was home to thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled across the border or were forced to leave by Jewish settlers.

Egypt’s King Farouk ordered the building of a new palace in Gaza where he could preside over a Palestinian Arab Government. But his grandiose schemes fell apart when Nasser and his Free Officers deposed him in a coup in 1952. Nasser turned his attentions to removing the hated British from the Suez Canal Zone while Gaza reverted to near lawless anarchy and fedayeen raids against Israel.

Four years later the Israelis invaded the strip in the Suez War. It followed a blitz attack on Egyptian forces in Sinai then a diversion south to open up the Gulf of Aqaba. The southern end of the Strip became one of the key battlefields of the war but the Israelis quickly overran the 8,000 Egyptian defenders before taking Gaza City.

After the war Israel told the UN it would keep its troops in Gaza and Sharm el-Sheikh in Sinai. The Americans although sympathetic to Israel, reacted angrily and threatened to cut off aid and end its guarantee of unrestricted oil supplies. With a likely vote on a UN resolution condemning Israel, then Prime Minister Ben Gurion accepted the inevitable and agreed to withdraw from Sinai and Gaza in exchange for access to the Gulf of Aqaba. The war ended the facade there was an independent government in Gaza. Direct control went back to Cairo with a military governor installed in Gaza City.

Gaza changed hands again in 1967 when once again the Strip and Sinai were vital battlefields in the Egyptian flank of the Six Day War. At the end of the war the Israeli Government voted unanimously to return the Sinai to Egypt and the Golan Heights to Syria in return for peace agreements. However Gaza was conspicuously absent from the decision and the arrangement was rejected by Egypt and Syria.

Israeli historian Benny Morris said at least 70,000 Gazans emigrated to Egypt and were forced to sign documents saying they were leaving of their own free will. Israelis moved into the Strip in large numbers taking up one fifth of the land in an already crowded area. Israel finally gave Sinai back to Egypt in 1979 but once again the status of Gaza was not addressed by President Carter’s peace treaty. Egypt did however agree to renounce its territorial claims on the area freeing it to become a part of Palestine, in theory.

Growing Palestinian unrest led to the First Intifada from 1987 to 1993 and a year later to the Oslo Accords which called for the total withdrawal of the IDF from parts of Gaza and the West Bank. It also created the Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority for these areas for a transitional period of five years. It was also the first time that Israel and the Palestinians agreed to view Gaza and the West Bank as a single territorial unit. The Oslo Accords were a brave move but ultimately foundered on aspects that had been deliberately put into the ‘too hard basket’: Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees, security and border control, and the status of Jerusalem.

Yet there was impact in Gaza. The IDF left Gaza City and the urban conurbation around it and the Palestinian Authority began to administer and police the region in their place. The PA was racked by corruption and mismanagement and by 2000 most of the Strip’s 400,000 residents were frustrated by the lack of progress and the squalid conditions they lived in. The scene was set for the Second Intifada and the fracturing of the Oslo Accords.

After Israeli soldier were killed by a Palestinian mob in the West bank, the IDF launched retaliatory air strikes against PA targets in the West Bank and Gaza. Attitudes hardened on both sides with Israel turning to the right wing Likud Party while Hamas grew in popularity in Gaza. As matters dragged on for years, an exasperated Ariel Sharon decided in 2004 to unilaterally evict all Israelis from Gaza’s 21 settlements. The IDF withdrew a year later. The disengagement did not address wider issues of occupation. Israel still retained control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, coastline, infrastructure and power grid.

Nevertheless the withdrawal gave fresh hope to a peace settlement, hopes that were soon dashed again. In Palestine parliamentary elections were held in early 2006 for the first time in 10 years. Hamas stunned the ruling Fatah party by easily winning the election. With Hamas refusing to recognise Israel, the US and EU imposed sanctions on Palestine. Israel also imposed a blockade on the Strip which exists to this day. The election result also led to the “fratricidal war” between Hamas and Fatah and the latter used its greater numbers in the West Bank to wrest back power there. Hamas remained entrenched in the Strip.

They also continued their low-level war against Israel with home-made Qassam rockets a constant irritant in border regions. In December 2008, Israel lost patience and launched Operation Cast Lead with a series of air strikes before a ground-based invasion in which over a thousand Palestinians were killed and most of Gaza’s infrastructure was destroyed in a three-week campaign. Today the border remains sealed and the IDF strictly controls travel to and from the area.

The end result may to be harden attitudes within the Strip that its future lies not as part of a united Palestine with the West Bank but as a separate country in its own right. It is this reality that no one in the region has yet confronted.

June 20, 2010 at 9:23 pm Leave a comment

Red Cross say Kyrgyzstan situation is “an immense crisis”

The International Committee of the Red Cross say at least 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes as a result of the crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan. An ICRC team which arrived in the remote area yesterday said Uzbek authorities have registered 75,000 adult refugees and an unknown number of children in Uzbekistan while tens of thousands remain stranded on the Kyrgyz side of the border. “We’ve seen for ourselves and also heard about pockets of displaced people ranging from several hundred to several thousand in number, so it’s impossible to say with any certainty exactly how many people have been forced to flee their homes,” said Séverine Chappaz, the ICRC’s deputy head of mission in Kyrgyzstan. “It’s an immense crisis.”

ICRC staff visited the main detention centre in Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city Osh where they delivered food provided by the World Food Programme to around 1,000 detainees. It was part of an emergency WFP operation to deliver food to 13,000 people affected by the humanitarian crisis. WFP said transporting aid from the capital Bishkek was difficult, as roads are not safe and commercial trucking companies are reluctant to risk their vehicles. “This crisis is unfolding rapidly and WFP is mobilising its global expertise to ensure that the vulnerable – particularly women and children – do not suffer,” said WFP’s Executive Director Josette Sheeran. “We implore all sides to ensure humanitarian access to the vulnerable, trapped by the crisis.”

Officially almost 200 people have died in that crisis though the real death toll is likely to be much higher. Osh, the stronghold of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has been the epicentre of violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbek people for a week, though the roots of the violence date back a couple of months. Bakiyev was ousted from government in April in a coup that left 75 dead and hundreds injured in fighting between police and protesters. Ex-Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva said the opposition had taken over the reins of government and driven Bakiyev from office. Otunbeyeva was subsequently installed as interim leader.

However Bakiyev refused to accept the coup despite having lost the support of his Kremlin backers. He was first elected president in 2005 and re-elected in 2009 though there was a strong suspicion of electoral fraud in both elections. After the coup Bakiyev initially fled to Osh before eventually going to Kazakhstan. Bakiyev remained popular in the south of the country and it is not difficult to imagine his supporters being behind some of the violence that erupted spectacularly last week. The new Kyrgyz government was quick to blame Bakiyev for the violence. It said he hired “provocateurs” to instigate the deadly riots and they complained of a lack of international support, saying: “We were left alone with the enemy in the most difficult days.”

However Kyrgyzstan’s most difficult days were not entirely Bakiyev’s fault. Clashes erupted on 11 June with the large Uzbek population of the city targeted by gangs. It soon spiralled out of control with possibly a thousand people dying in the clashes. It is not entirely clear who is driving the violence but it is tapping into ancient enmities. Ethnic Uzbeks make up 14 per cent of the country’s population of 5.3 million but are almost half the population of Osh and neighbouring Jalal-Abad. In echoes of ethnic conflicts elsewhere, they are also a target being overly represented in the commercial class. Ex-pat Craig Murray in the British Telegraph suggests the violence may have been orchestrated by Moscow to undermine the overly Liberal Otunbeyeva regime.

The Kyrgyz administration has declared a state of emergency in the Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces and the next most important date for the interim regime is 27 June. On that date there will be a constitutional referendum to pave the way for parliamentary elections in October. The new leadership is determined to hold the vote, which it needs in order to entrench its legality. “The situation in Osh is stabilising. We have enough forces,” said Azimbek Beknazarov, an interim deputy premier. “We need this [referendum] like air. Everyone who calls themselves a Kyrgyz citizen must vote.”

June 17, 2010 at 10:48 pm Leave a comment

Twitter and politics: The Penrith Debate points to the future

Among the 1,200 tweets with the #penrithdebate tag, the most retweeted comment of the day came not from a politician but from a journalist who has long been familiar with the medium, Joe Hildebrand. Hildebrand used the conventions of his craft to turn the debate into an ironic news headline “EXCLUSIVE: TWITTER DEBATE CONFUSED, NONSENSICAL AND UNPRODUCTIVE; PERFECT REPRESENTATION OF NSW POLITICS” At least 41 others liked Hildebrand’s contribution enough to send it on to their followers too (photo: ABC)

Hildebrand’s joke was funny because it used the metaphor of the Twitter debate standing in for the entire panoply of governance in NSW. But if true, Hildebrand as a Sydney based News Limited reporter is part of the problem. If as one observer noted, “Twitter is too short, and with a lot of people tweeting to participate in the debate means that information just flys [sic] by without being properly looked and picked apart” there is no reason for journalists not to pick through the bones of the debate after the fact.

The Penrith Debate purported to be an exchange of ideas between NSW three political leaders using Twitter as the communication channel for 30 minutes ahead of a state by-election in Penrith on the weekend. Under the moderation of TV journalist Kevin Wilde, Premier Kristina Keneally, Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell and Greens leader Lee Rhiannon would use the 140-character format to debate ideas, issues and policies. Keneally made grandiose claims about the possibilities: “Twitter flattens democratic debate. Enlivens democracy. A great tool for discussion, info exchange.”

All of this is true after a fashion, but Twitter does not make for great theatre. In the end, given the tool’s shortcomings for multi-pronged conversation, the debate became more geek gimmickry than flush of oratory. Tech and social commentator Stilgherrian picked up on this calling it “confusing and pointless” and said Twitter was “completely the wrong medium for a debate.” Stil made the point that the three Twitter streams of the debate’s participants were almost like watching three TV stations. Yet he also made the point that a filtered stream of the hashtag limited to the participants was available on the day.

Twitter may be flawed but we forget it is just one piece of the communication puzzle. Keneally used her iphone to make her Tweets while Rhiannon used Tweetdeck. Others used a bewildering array of tools that sit on top of Twitter to make their points. The stream is being tamed as people find uses for the vast amount of data it consumes. And the debate, though badly executed, contained the germ of an old and timeless ideal: public accountability.

The Dutch are among the masters of public accountability and they held several Twitter debates a couple of weeks ago in the lead-up to national elections. The Netherlands went further than NSW with at three party leaders, two minister and three other MPs taking part. The commentary from Dutch-based John Tyler at HagueGuy showed there was a massive audience for this kind of interaction regardless of how chaotic the rapid fire exchanges got. While it was easy to get confused, the debates have added a vast amount of information for the likes of the HagueGuy and Hildebrand to work with when critiquing politicians.

It is too easy to overlook just how exciting this kind of interactivity is. Working at its best, the Twitterati operates like synapses, a hivemind that is capable of massive thought and concerted action despite its 140 character limits, inherent anarchy, spamming, non sequiturs and juvenile humour. Forced to be brief, complex words and sentences are pared down to their absolute essentials and often chiselled into remarkably dense thought despite the brevity. Admittedly we didn’t see much of that today but there will be other opportunities.

More of these debates will be conducted in the trust economy of social media. Politicians will have to learn a new skill: how to become adept at ceding control. Twitter debates (or whatever social media format might follow) won’t decide the election, but with the right tools and the right filters, they can add to the general wellbeing of the body politic by getting tight messages out to a wide and engaged audience.

Greens participant Lee Rhiannon was in no doubt the debate was a success. “There would have been more people following this debate on line than would fit into many local town halls,” she wrote “I am not saying these online events should replace public meetings but there is a place for online debates in the political landscape and we should encourage its development.”

While the debate format suited the Greens as it did not exclude them, Rhiannon is right – we should encourage their development. But we should not get too carried away; Rhiannon and the rest did what politicians do in any other debate on any other media. They spoke to their own themes and ignored pointed replies. It is politics, after all. It is up to us to go through the entrails to make sense of it.

June 16, 2010 at 11:17 pm Leave a comment

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