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Monday, 16 February 2009

e-Politics – The Australian Experience

A University study by Rachel Gibson & Stephen Ward on how the internet has effected politics in Australia.

Ten years after the Internet first emerged into the public domain in Australia
and across the world, the question of what, if anything, has changed within the
political arena is one that increasingly occupies the attention of social scientists.
The articles collected in this special issue attempt to provide some answers to
this question, by presenting new empirical and theoretical perspectives on the
impact of the Internet on a range of important actors in the Australian polity.
In particular, three key arenas are examined: first, at the systemic and
institutional level, assessment is made of structural shifts in the workings of the
government and the balance of power between the citizen and the state
(Dunleavy et al.; Dugdale); attention then switches to meso-level actors, the
focus being on how the mediating or organisational supports of the
representative system, such as parties and the established mass media have
responded to new ICTs (Van Onselen and Van Onselen; Goot), as well as less
structured and looser forms of protest and activism (Gillan and Pickerill;
Vromen); finally, investigation into changes at the individual or micro-level of
politics is undertaken through analysis of public attitudes toward, and use of,
the Internet for engagement in the political process (Gibson, Lusoli and Ward).
Although all the studies focus on the current status of e-politics within a
particular component of the Australian system, given the evolving and
expanding nature of the debate over Internet effects (as summarised below),
the volume also inevitably addresses wider questions of longitudinal and
comparative change. Now that the dust has settled a decade on from the arrival
of the Internet in the hands of Australian voters and politicians, what difference
has it made to political practice over the course of time? And how do these
findings resonate in a broader international context? On the latter point, some
areas of analysis are clearly more open to a comparative approach than others.
In particular, the work by Dunleavy et al. on Australian e-government extends
the growing body of international literature on this topic and the increasing
interest among international institutions to rank countries on their egovernment
capabilities (United Nations 2005; European Commission 2007).
Gillan and Pickerill’s study of online anti-war activism in Australia also takes
an expressly internationalist approach to its subject, comparing it to similar
movements in the US and the UK (partner nations in the ‘coalition of the
willing’), and asking how far the medium is particularly suited to the crossborder
networking and solidarity building needs of such groups? Although the
volume does not presume to give definitive answers to such questions, it does
seek to identify some of the key debates animating scholars in the area and
present compelling new evidence from a diverse array of political actors’ to
expand and update our current knowledge. In doing so, of course, we also aim
to refresh existing knowledge on the state of Australian e-politics’ scene.
The Evolution of the e-Politics Debate: A Return to Radicalism?
Current reflections on the impact of the Internet have moderated somewhat
from their early days when the initial growth in Internet use sparked feverish
speculation about radical shifts in the distribution of power in society and the
emergence of new forms of political action. For some commentators, the socalled
‘cyberoptimists’, the arrival of the new medium heralded a brave new
world of empowered citizens, forging new and more direct forms of selfgovernance
and wresting power from an over-burdened state apparatus
(Rheingold 1994; Grossman 1995; Negroponte 1995; Budge 1996; Rash 1997;
Dyson 1998). Adopting a much bleaker outlook, the ‘cyberpessimists’ warned of
the dangers the Internet held for democracy, including the emergence of a more
populist ‘push-button’ style of democracy emerging and less accountable leaders
(Street 1992; Lipow and Seyd 1996; Postman 1997; Barber 2001), and the
fragmenting of the body politic and descent into conditions of hyperpluralism
(Bimber 1998; Sunstein 2001). Although no time limit was placed on the
realisation of these visions, their logics have continued to inform the parameters
of the debate regarding Internet effects. Their claims of a fundamental restructuring
or, indeed, fissuring of our social and political life as a result of the uptake
of the new information and communication technologies (ICTs) clearly have
been subject to increasing question over time. The abrupt bursting of the economic bubble in 2000 and subsequent slump of technology stocks
alongside the prima facie evidence of the persistence of the democratic state
appear to have offered little support for these more revolutionary expectations.
The more detailed empirical investigation of changes within the various
branches of representative government and individual political behaviour that
followed these early visions largely confirmed this perception of minimal effects,
particularly in the governing and electoral arenas (Ward and Gibson 1998; Davis
1999; Coleman, Taylor and van de Donk 2000; Margolis and Resnick 2000;
Bimber 2001; Norris 2001, 2003; Needham 2004; Raab and Bellamy 2004). This
more ‘cyber-sceptic’ view was based primarily on in-depth case studies of a range
of government agencies, parliaments and parties in a variety of national
contexts, as well as quantitative analyses of citizen behaviours and attitudes
toward usage of the new ICTs, in general. The main conclusion reached was
that, for the most part, these actors were content to simply migrate their offline
activities into the online environment rather than use it as an opportunity to
develop innovative new political practices. It was to be ‘politics as usual’ with the
added twist that new ICTs might even worsen some of the inequities observed in
contemporary practice by reinforcing the resource barriers to entry into the
system faced by more marginalised groups and individuals (Davis 1999, 2005;
Tolbert, Mossberger and McNeal 2002; Norris 2003). Despite these more
negative predictions, however, challenges to a blanket acceptance of ‘no change’
thesis did start to surface subsequently, largely in participation research, and
principally in regard to the mobilisation of young people (Hansard Society 2002;
Krueger 2002; Gibson, Lusoli and Ward 2005; Owen 2006).
Below the institutional layer of democratic action, accounts of new ICTs’
impact on non-conventional forms of political activity in the shape of protest
movements and anti-globalisation campaigns have also tended to reach more
positive conclusions. Researchers in the area have consistently acknowledged
the importance of the Internet in promoting wider awareness of such groups’
message and mobilisation of a core support base, if not necessarily direct policy
change (Burbach 2001; Capling and Nossal 2001; Meikle 2002; Bennett 2003;
Pickerill 2003; van de Donk et al. 2004). A continuation of the ‘good news’
theme regarding Internet effects can also be seen in the rise of a new set of
participatory software applications – the so-called ‘Web 2.0’ technologies. This
development is seen as something of a watershed moment in the evolution of
the medium, one that promises to deliver on the early devolutionary and
democratic potential of the Net by reviving the essential ‘read/write’ privileges
of the medium for individual users. Through applications such as blogs, Wikis
and tagging systems, ordinary citizens now have the right to produce, edit,
comment on and classify material that appears on the Internet, thereby
inverting the classical ‘old media’ model of a top-down flow of information
from a limited range of sources. Such developments appear to have even reignited
some of the impassioned debate about the revolutionary possibilities
that the Internet heralds, with authors edging toward the utopian and dystopic
thinking that characterised the early days (Trippi 2004; Keen 2007).
E-politics in Australia
Given the very pronounced and ongoing shifts in the pendulum of opinion on
Internet effects over such a short period of time and the rapidly evolving nature
of the medium itself, any consensus on the impact on Australian politics is
clearly some way off. Certainly, studies of the Australian system have tended to
mirror the ebb and flow of opinion in the wider literature. Initially, expectations
ran high for the establishment of a new and more wired polity at the Federal and
State level with basic uptake rates among the public putting Australia
consistently in the top ten nations in its levels of Internet use.1 A series of
early practical initiatives in the national e-government field caught the attention
of international observers (Clift 2002), and placed Australia in pole position in
the international drive to incorporate new ICTs into public service provision.
1The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) web site provides an extensive range of
statistics on Internet usage from 1999 according to country. URL: 5

Innovations at the State level such as the Queensland e-democracy programme
and the Victorian Parliament’s report into use of the new ICTs to enhance
engagement among its citizens soon followed, taking the agenda in a more
participatory direction and furthering the impression of Australia as an e-politics
pioneer (Hogan, Cook and Henderson 2004; Parliament of Victoria 2005).
This widely shared optimism was rather short-lived, however, with questions
increasingly being raised over the true depth of the commitment to democratising
the polity through digital means. How far had early enthusiasm been
converted into genuine participatory opportunities, and was the e-democracy
agenda, in fact, rather more modest and even somewhat tokenistic than had
hitherto been thought (Bishop and Anderson 2004; Flew and Young 2004;
Geiselhart 2004; Dugdale et al. 2005; Chen et al. 2007)? Moreover, problems of
the digital divide were also seen as troubling (Willis and Tranter 2006). Despite
the rapid growth in public access to the Internet over the past decade, even by the
Federal Election of 2007, up to one-third of the population were not on-line,
meaning that a significant minority of Australians are lacking the motivation,
skills or adequate opportunity to use the Net for any purpose, let alone a
political one. Research into formal institutional politics has largely indicated a
picture of stasis. Political parties’ ICT usage has shown a mainly normalised
picture of competition, with none of the parties (with the possible exception of
the Greens) displaying a keen proclivity for Net-based mobilisation efforts and
the major parties proving the strongest or most prominent players, at least in
terms of web site provision at the State and local level (Gibson and Ward 2002,
2003; Gibson and McAllister 2006). Equally, Australian MPs and the Federal
Parliament have been relatively slow to innovate with new technologies,
especially in terms of democratic engagement. Ward and colleagues (2007) have
pointed to three significant hurdles to explain the comparative lack of innovative
ICT use in the formal political arena. First, that there has been a lack of
institutional leadership. Ironically, for example, the relatively modern facilities
of the Canberra Parliament have meant that a reform program based on
modernisation via ICTs has lacked momentum. Second, that political – systemic
factors in Australia, arguably, limit the potential of ICTs. For instance, intense
party discipline has tended to nullify innovation, whilst the existence of
compulsory voting has removed some of the urgency of using ICTs for political
engagement and mobilisation. Third, that the traditional culture of Australian
politics is very much one of face-to-face politics, whereby politicians value being
seen in the flesh by voters and engaging forcefully and directly with opponents.
Nevertheless, outside the formal political world, as in other countries, there
has been a vibrant adoption of Net technologies by radical protest networks on
a range of local, national and international issues, notably around environmental
and social justice themes (Meikle 2002, 2005; Simpson et al. 2002;
Pickerill 2004; Pini, Brown and Previte 2004). This is perhaps not surprising for,
as Pickerill (2004) has indicated, the lack of institutionalisation and hierarchy
within these networks makes it easier for them to innovate. In the Australian
context, as Gillan and Pickerill note here, the Internet has been especially
valuable in terms of breaking down geographic boundaries and assisting
international networking.
Although much of the empirical research conducted so far indicates a less
than radical impact of technology in the political sphere, the development of the
so-called Web 2.0 tools, particularly the social networking sites and YouTube,
has re-invigorated the debate about the potential role of new media
technologies in politics. In Australia, debate has been further enlivened by
the approach of the 2007 Federal Election, which was variously dubbed the eelection
or the Google election.2 The 2007 campaign has seen leading political
figures scrambling into Facebook and MySpace; parties setting up dedicated
YouTube channels; the emergence of blogging networks; and even the
attempted creation of a virtual party – Senator On-line.3 Although the
experience of other countries suggests that the idea of the Internet being a
decisive force in elections is usually hype (Davis et al. 2008), the 2007 campaign
does seem to have acted as a catalyst to activity.
Overview and Contribution of the Special Issue
Given the evidence of a newly found momentum in the use of new ICTs in the
political arena, at least for voter outreach and electioneering efforts, it would
seem an opportune and timely moment for a volume to appear reflecting on the
past, present and future of e-politics developments in Australia. Indeed,
although the 2007 Federal Election came too late for any comprehensive study
of the e-campaign to be presented here, we do provide some evidence regarding
parties’ and voters’ use of the technology that allows us to locate the on-line
campaign initiatives within the wider political canvas and ongoing process of
adaptation to new ICTs. Certainly, the work by van Onselen and van Onselen,
Gibson et al., and Vromen indicates that the major parties and much of the
Internet-using public (particularly young people) had already reached a high
level of competence and sophistication in their understanding of the power and
capabilities of the new media in a political context prior to the election. For
instance, 36% of Australians indicate their willingness to communicate with
their MP on-line and 57% would like to see an on-line policy consultation
process. Among the major parties, communication and coordination of
campaigns through internal electronic networks and databases appears to be
made almost routine. And for groups such as VibeWire and the Inspire
Foundation, as Vromen makes clear, the utilisation of the Internet in
promoting political activism has been a preoccupation for sometime. Thus,
although the uptake of video channels such as YouTube and networking
through MySpace might appear to represent a wholly new departure for
Australian politics, viewed through the lens of these ongoing and, perhaps,
more background or ‘backstage’ efforts, they are perhaps less surprising.
As well as locating current events in a longer range context, the volume also
offers a basis for assessing how far the different sectors of the polity compare in
terms of their enthusiasm and ability to embrace the e-politics agenda. Moving
from national government reforms and changes in the arena of health policy to
2See, for example Moses, A. 2007. ‘Pollies Embrace Google for the e-Election.’ The Age 13
September or, similarly, Moses, A. 2007. ‘The Election’s New Front is Online.’ The Age 14
3Moses, A. 2007. ‘Online Party Hopes to Click With Voters.’ The Sydney Morning Herald 18
October; Ruffles, M. 2007. ‘Net Party to Hand Power to Masses.’ The Canberra Times 25 October.
the actions of the parties, new social movements and individuals, the question
inevitably arises of where do we see the most innovation and benefit being
derived from the new ICTs? Although the Federal government may be
attempting to move towards a more ‘joined-up’ and efficient mode of service
delivery via new ICTs, the ripple effects of Net-based communication and
linkage for less hierarchically organised and more spontaneous forms of
domestic and international protest, although harder to pinpoint, may actually
prove to be of even greater significance.
In a third step, taking the current state of the debate on Internet effects as a
starting point for locating the significance of the volume’s findings, it is clear
that cumulatively the articles presented here make a significant contribution to
the wider theoretical literature on the topic. In particular, as has been touched
on above, much of the work directs us against the tendency to understand the
impact of the Internet through simplistic dichotomies; that is, that it is good or
bad for society, or that it induces revolutionary change versus being of no
political consequence. These articles suggest that Internet-facilitated politics
need to be viewed in a more nuanced and contextualised manner. Institutions
such as the Federal Parliament and individual MPs may well have been slow to
engage with the challenges and opportunities that the digital communication
era have presented, and what they have produced may have been less than
transformative; nevertheless, in general, there remains a widespread receptivity
to experimentation with new ICTs in Australian public and political life. Most
citizens appear to be highly supportive of continuing efforts to increase
transparency and accountability of their political leaders through technological
means. Such advances clearly carry with them both positive and negative
consequences. The incorporation of secure internal communication networks
by the two main parties to enhance their campaign management, for instance,
as van Onselen and van Onselen argue, carries with it the likelihood of a
promotion of the catch-all and even cartel party models within the Australian
system. Although such trends may trigger warning bells of further detachment
of parties from civil society, it also appears to inspire increased confidence and a
sense of autonomy among local party operatives in their bid to run a more
professionalised campaign. Similarly, Dugdale’s analysis of the impact of the
movement of government health services into the on-line environment, while it
points to a newly expanded realm of political space wherein non-experts can
unite and even challenge conventional hierarchies of medical wisdom, also
highlights the potential for a move toward a more consumerist model of healthcare
management, with responsibility devolved to the individual and out of the
collective and politicised realm of the state.
Finally, in addition to providing some fresh insight into some of these
important generic questions that dominate the e-politics debate, the volume
also engages with some of the concerns specific to the Australian situation, both
in terms of the impact of new ICTs and wider political trends. Following the
bouquets and brickbats, how healthy is the national e-government agenda? Has
it actually stalled? Has the on-line momentum that proved so important in
organising the anti-globalisation protests earlier in the decade ebbed away or
carried on to the anti-war movement? And, to what extent, can the Internet help
to challenge the negative trends in citizens’ levels of attachment and trust in
representative politics and help to attract new people into political process?
Although the articles themselves deal in depth with these issues and more,
below we seek to provide a brief flavour of some of the theoretical and empirical
insights provided to these questions.
Turning first to the macro or institutional level, the work by Dunleavy and
colleagues confirms Australia’s early lead in the e-government field, although it
suggests a later levelling out of performance and also considerable variation
between government departments and agencies. They argue that although there
is a generally supportive environment for e-government and considerable
citizen enthusiasm (at least, in theory) for e-government services, performance
across government is patchy and actual usage of e-government services has
plateaued. Although much e-government research has focused internally on
government organisational performance and policies, Dunleavy et al. suggest
that a central factor in shaping e-government strategy and success is the often
problematic relationship between government and the IT sector and, in
particular, the IT contracting regimes of government departments and agencies,
which can effectively stifle innovation.
Maintaining the governmental focus, Dugdale’s analysis of health service
provision in the Internet age narrows the analytical focus from e-government as
a whole to a specific policy area. Here we move into the ‘demand’ side of the
equation by examining the users or consumers of e-health provision and the
potential this presents for the politicisation of citizens. Centring on the example
of HealthInsite, a Federal government-sponsored portal for on-line health
information and services, and drawing on the innovative theoretical work of
Yeatman to interpret and expand the realm of the political, her analysis poses
the question of how far the arena of e-health can offer a basis for a more
empowered citizenry and a renegotiation in the balance of power between
individuals and the state. Combining evidence from interviews with breast
cancer patients and the contents of the HealthInsite service, she probes the issue
of whether current moves toward the provision and consumption of
government-sponsored e-health initiatives is creating a new democratic space
that facilitates more independent and elite-challenging attitudes and behaviours
among ordinary citizens. Do such developments give rise to the possibility of
new forms of political action outside of the traditional or formal arenas,
promoting a new, more active citizenry? Overall, as perhaps in other aspects of
e-government research, the answer appears to be one of limited change.
Much has been written about the role web sites and email play in political
campaigns and their possible democratising and decentralising impacts.
However, far less is known about private networks and Intranets, which have
become increasingly important campaign tools. Ainslie and Peter van Onselen’s
attempt to fill this gap by examining the role of Intranets in political parties,
with a specific focus on the Australian Liberal Party. Contrary to claims that
new ICTs flatten institutional and organisational hierarchies or facilitate the
decentralisation of power to local groups, individual candidates or activist
groups (see Washbourne 2001; Greene, Hogan and Grieco 2003; Margetts
2006), they argue that the Intranet is actually an important resource in
centralising power in campaigning. van Onselen and van Onselen suggest that
Intranets are being used to support a permanent campaign based on a topdown
electoral-professional model. More broadly, they also find that given the
resources involved in building such sophisticated Intranet systems, new
technologies are further entrenching the advantages of the major parties over
their minor counterparts.
A similar finding emerges from Murray Goot’s research comparing the
different media in the 2007 Federal Election. Goot investigates the argument
that the Internet might facilitate an opening up of the media to less powerful
actors and also potentially depresidentialise coverage of the Election. However,
far from producing a more level campaign-playing field, Goot argues that
Internet coverage actually tended to focus more heavily on the major parties
and, particularly, on the Prime Minister.
The remaining articles, those by Gibson et al., Gillan and Pickerill, and
Vromen, turn the spotlight on the non- or less institutionalised modes of
political activity and the responses of citizens in the Internet era. All three pieces
touch on aspects of the debate about the participatory potential of ICTs. Using
some of the first specific Australian survey data on e-democracy, Gibson et al.
provide a broad overview of the uptake and support for e-initiatives and profile
users. The Australian data reveal a similar picture to other liberal democracies.
Use of ICTs is primarily focused on a consumerist relationship with
government or for more general news-gathering activities. Although there is
considerable support for e-democracy initiatives in the abstract, it seems these
are unlikely to mobilise widely beyond the normally politically interested
groups within society. Nonetheless, amongst the younger population, there is
likely to be an increasing expectation of e-engagement and e-services within
government as standard practice.
The Gillan and Pickerill, and Vromen articles, however, both demonstrate
how networks and organisations can use e-tools creatively to engage citizens.
Much has been made of the anti-Iraq war movement’s use of ICTs for both
international networking and mobilisation purposes. Although Gillan and
Pickerill partially confirm this picture, they also point to a more subtle role for
ICTs. Rather than a crude mobilisation effect, they find that activism is shaped
by national and local contexts. But where the Internet has become crucial is in
helping connect such activity into the global arena and facilitate amongst
activists a more intangible sense of global solidarity.
Vromen also seeks to move beyond a simple mobilisation versus reinforcement
dichotomy. She examines a number of case studies of youth-led on-line
political spaces. Such sites, she argues, can play an important role in allowing
young people to express their views – views that are often excluded from the
traditional participatory channels. Vromen also emphasises that contrary to the
popular stereotype of young people as cynical and individualistic, young people
are socially and politically engaged, especially where the content and
information is generated by other young people, something that the Internet
has facilitated significantly. Rather than judging such sites against traditional,
normative, democratic goals of representation or deliberativeness, Vromen
contends that we should value such on-line activity in terms of its community
building and as a space for debate and dissent.
It is important to remember that while change can come in obvious and visible
ways, such as entirely new forms of Net-based political activity, it can also be
found in the steady yet subtle acceleration of pre-existing trends. It is the latter,
rather than the former, mode that, we argue, characterises the shifts induced by
the Internet in the democratic politics of Australia. New forms of political
mobilisation, such as blogging and viral messaging through email and mobile
phones, clearly offer significant expansions to existing repertoires of political
action; however, we should not fixate on these modes of participation as the only
signs of life in the e-polity. Just as important are the ‘below the radar’, everyday
uses of the communication being undertaken. The personalised email contacts
built up between anti-war activists across three continents, along with those
between domestic activists engaged in youth mobilisation and breast cancer
sufferers uniting for better health care provision, cumulatively and collectively
may work to bring about widespread and long-lasting politicisation of these
individuals and the networks they engineer. This more diffused, privatised and,
yet, ubiquitous interpretation of Internet-induced change in the political
communication process and wider social realm that this volume depicts, is one
that ultimately leads us back to the pendulum swing of academic debate and,
therefore, onto a more nuanced third wave of Internet studies, indicating a more
fragmented pattern of change rather than a uniform revolution.
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