An interesting post by Oz on the online presence of political parties. He mentions specifically broad scale community blogging platforms which have been established in the U.K. and elsewhere. These communities are lacking in Australia. He mentions party discipline as a factor is constricting this space but notes several fledging attempts. Helpfully, he lists a range of websites and blogs which either touch or focus exclusively on the ALP.
It is absolutely correct to say party discipline restricts this type of activity. On reflection of my time in the ALP, I’m amazed by what does and what does not occur within the ALP due to discipline. Simple things like the distribution of basic materials and rules governing participation are stifled.
However other factors also likely play a role in the lack of online communities. The ALP has a much smaller membership base, even as a percentage of the population, than the British Labour Party. I also think a federal system which governs party bureaucracy reduces the amount of sway an individual or one state group can have over others outside that jurisdiction. This limits the ability to create successful relationships across jurisdictions.
Further, in Australia we have a lack of other new media devoted to politics (such as podcasts), third-party influence (outside of traditional organisations like the BCA and Unions) and meaningful think tanks (although perhaps this is changing slowly). This all contributes to stifling potential start-up activity around political party blogging or other online platforms.
There is great value is fostering such a community. Party members, supporters, MPs, unions and other interested parties should have a space to share and distil ideas regarding anything from policy to campaigning to organisation. It is actually very hard to gauge what ALP supporters and members actually believe about many policies. It would be easier and more informative for a politician to get an accurate view by crowd sourcing peoples favourite op-ed’s from the last month than attending branch meetings. A broad community blogging platform would help ameliorate this.
One very specific issue I believe this would address is the perception the federal caucus does not abide to the national policy platform from many ALP members. Away from the merits of whether the federal caucus should abide by the platform, it would be significantly easier for members and supporters to advocate for the policy platform with a more public voice, something which doesn’t occur at the moment. There is little anyone can achieve currently in advocating for a particularly policy outside of official channels such as conference and letter writing (both of which are dubious in value of actual change). It is rare to see inter-party clashes play out in public but in this day and age there is an argument it should happen more.
Perhaps no policy area symbolises this more than asylum seekers. I think party members are extremely progressive on this issue. If I had to guess, I would say you would be hard pressed to find even 30 per cent who support the current set of policies. This is why I find comments from (ex-)politicians like Craig Emerson about the left and asylum seekers so strange. When he talks about opponents of the ALP’s asylum seeker policy, he is talking about ALP members, not some “hard-left” set of greenies. The disconnect between Emerson (and, most prominently Bob Carr) and ALP members would be well served by a public platform to slug out these issues. Instead, the tension festers and members get peeved. Nothing much has changed since 2001, with politicians failing to convince members on the merits of the policies and many members frustrated their voice is lost. This fosters resentment and ultimately harms the party over the long-term. One can’t quantify the damage done by the existence of this disconnect but it I firmly believe it exists.
A public environment for members and supporters to express their opinions and positions will not solve this. Yet a successful online environment can mitigate the worst aspects. Better still, it can seek to attract those who are put off by the 19th century structures of a party which has failed in the 21st century to adapt. I for one am sick of waiting for the ALP to modernise. Its web infrastructure is completely garbage and despite incremental improvements in the 2013 campaign, I’m concerned the wilderness of opposition will see very little momentum.