On June 25, during my final sitting week in Parliament, I’ll be speaking at a Politics & Technology conference organised by Microsoft. You can see all the speakers and panellists at this link. The keynote speaker will be US political writer, Matt Bai. I guess it will sort of mark the point I make a shift from a blogging politician to a person blogging about politics.
The roles of blogs in political campaigning seems to vary a lot from country to country. There is nothing remotely comparable in Australia or the UK to the way blogs have developed in the USA. This piece by Matt Bai from 2006 details the first major convention of liberal (i.e. left leaning) bloggers in the USA, attended not just by 1000 or so bloggers, (including a few with a daily readership on a par with all but the largest newspapers), but also by major political heavyweights like Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean. Even though this might at first seem like a huge shift in political influence, Bai puts in it context:
the politicians may understand the real significance of this first blogger convention of its kind better than some of the bloggers themselves, who imagine that cyberpolitics is no less than a reinvention of the public square, the harbinger of a radically different era in which politicians will connect to their constituents electronically and voters will organize in virtual communities. Politicians know that politics is, by its nature, a tactile business. New technology may change the way partisans organize and debate, and it may even spawn an entirely new political culture. But at the end of the day, partisans will inevitably be drawn to sit across the table from the candidates they support or oppose, just as votes will still be won and lost in banquet halls and airport hangars and all the other seedy, sweaty stalls of the political marketplace. Online politics can’t flourish in the virtual realm alone, any more than an online romance can be consummated through instant messaging.
Even though much of the US blogosphere seems to me to play the role of partisan cheersquad, it is still quite significant to have a wider sphere of people putting their views out, even though they are mostly speaking to each other from beneath the same philosophical tents.
The upcoming US Democrat Convention where the Presidential nominee will be confirmed will be a huge media event. The closest equivalent in Australia – albeit on a MUCH smaller scale – would be a major party campaign launch or party conferences. But despite the major size difference, I was fascinated to read (on a blog) of the announcement by the Democratic National Convention Committee of over 50 bloggers (with more to be added) being given access to the Convention. This was a major “expansion of the credentialled blogger pool from past Conventions and the addition of a state blogger credentialling program.”
As part of the new DemConvention State Blogger Corps, designed for bloggers covering state and local politics, bloggers will receive unparalleled access to state delegations and the floor of the Convention hall. In a truly unprecedented move, the DNCC will seat these bloggers with their respective delegations during the historic four-day event, providing even greater access for local coverage and perspective.
I should note in passing, as someone who has been following the US Democrat contest with great interest over many months, that I have found the Democratic Convention Watch blog better than any of the mainstream media outlets when it came to a spin-free (and pontification-free) detailing of the progress of the contest – particularly in regards to keeping track of the crucial super-delegate endorsements, which were impossible to transparently track through any other outlet that I could find.
Anyway, none of this translates well at all to the Australian blogging scene. While much more limited in number, I think some of the Australian general political blogs – and the related more specialised economic and law blogs – are less determinedly partisan (even if their general philosophical leanings are usually obvious). This is something I think is a good thing. They might not break mainstream media stories in the way some of the major blogs in the USA do, but they are clearly starting to play a role in influencing wider public political debate and media commentary.
However, groups like GetUp! (speaking at the conference) in Australia have endeavoured to model themselves somewhat on MoveOn.org from the US when it comes to using the web to try to mobilise people around specific issue campaigns. Also at the conference will be the editor of Crikey! which is another style of web-based independent media – more like a traditional media outlet than a blog but certainly influential in breaking stories and shaping debate.
There will be a couple of other politicians speaking apart from me, but from my point of view I don’t see blogs or even the web more broadly doing that much to democratise political engagement from a politician’s perspective. The real opportunities are for campaigners from the ‘outside’. For politicians, it is mostly just another tool for repeating or reinforcing campaign themes and messages, rather than a primary force in its own right, although it can help humanise and open up some limited public conversation here and there. This is one thing which I think is common to blogging from the politicians side of the fence in the US and Australia and the UK.
Although as I’ve pondered before, the recent election in Malaysia gives me cause to wonder whether it may be that blogging is a more directly powerful political tool in places like that for challenging incumbent government. I’d love to see more examinations of the role of candidates’ and politicians’ blogs and web based campaiging in non-English speaking countries and developing democracies. Apart from anything else, there might be things that those of us who want to see stronger public participation and empowerment could learn.
RELATED: Andrew Norton posts on ‘who reads political blogs’, pointing to material in the Australian Election Study.