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Graham Young

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Who votes for you anyway?

18, May 2005

Art Gallery Plaza, Southbank Brisbane

What big idea would you pitch to the Prime Minister and the Premier if you were caught in a lift with them for five minutes? That's the challenge put to me, and a number of other panellists, by Eidos, "a consortium of Queensland universities, government and non-government agencies or statutory bodies committed to improving education and social change research, policy and practice".

I'm answering the question Wednesday afternoon, but thought I'd put up my statement in the hopes that some readers might be able to help me refine it a little.

Hey Peter and John. Have you any idea how many electors would vote if it wasn't compulsory? Do you reckon it would be 70%, 60%? Maybe 50%? Less? None of us knows, do we? But one thing we do know is that it would be closer to 50 than 100 per cent. You, and every other politician and government in the country, have got a problem. You're elected, but no-one really regards you as legitimate. Voters are grudging, unenthusiastic and disengaged. And things are getting worse, not better.
There are a lot of reasons for this lack of trust and enthusiasm. One of them is that times have changed and politicians haven't. Electors don't relate tribally, apart from football; they sleep in electorates, they don't live in them; they distrust grand policy statements; and they feel soiled by the cheap political promises that buy their votes at election time.

But not everything's lost, and Peter and John, I reckon you're in a good position to do something about all of this. Here's the plan.

Have you noticed that while electors don't like conventional politics, they're still vitally engaged in issues? They mightn't want to join political parties, but they will still turn up to townhall meetings if they think they can make an impact. What you've got to do is start treating them as individuals, rather than just electors, and you've got to give them the opportunity to engage on every issue if they want.

Some people reckon you're two of the tinniest politicians around. I reckon they're right, because just as the problem has got worse than ever, the tool to fix it has appeared, and some of the best people at using that tool are here in Queensland. We're not just the Smart State, we're the Lucky State.

The tool that I'm talking about is the Internet. It's not tribal and it's not worried about where you live, and it is issues-based, and it gives you the chance to treat everyone like individuals and consult them on almost every issue without having to lick and pay for a million stamps. In the Queensland Government's Community Engagement Division you have an eDemocracy section that is regularly cited around the world as being at the forefront of citizen engagement. And you've got us. On Line Opinion has 70,000 readers each month from around the country (and the world) and we operate a bit like a 24 hour town hall meeting. What you need to do is to combine our different approaches and produce a totally new institution, and while you're at it, make it a national institution, not just a state one.

Big national ideas have come from Queensland before. Samuel Griffiths wrote a lot of the Commonwealth Constitution. We're talking about a similarly significant and unique moment in time. The Internet is a network, and it doesn't work well with the hierarchical systems that politicians have got used to, but it is not going to go away. When a similarly disruptive technology - wireless - came along we took a national view of it and created the Australian Broadcasting Commission, an organisation at arm's length from government, but funded by it, because we wanted the technology to serve all of the people and we knew it needed government support to do this.

That's what we need now - an ABC of the Internet. Something which will be an amalgam of news organisation, conversation, townhall meeting, think-tank, street march, convention, conference, parliament. An organisation that will broker conversations between politicians and electors; between electors and electors; and politicians and politicians. Where I can be alone with my own thoughts, or in company with thousands of others, all at the click of a mouse.

This might sound a little grandiose, but the alternative is to get run over. There's an organisation in the US called Moveon.org. It's based on the Internet, it supports candidates in US elections, and it has more members in Australia than all of our political parties (including both of yours'). It played a big part in the last US elections, and while it didn't win, it's learning. And it won't be the only organisation like this, and these organisations will start up in Australia, and they'll play politics in ways that might actually make voters more grudging, unenthusiastic and disengaged (and more inclined to make life impossible for you and every other politician).

So it's your big chance. You can grab the opportunity the Internet gives you, and you'll stand-out like a Samuel Griffiths or a Henry Parkes. Or you can keep on doing what you're doing, in which case, you'll be remembered as good politicians, for a while. It won't be comfortable, and it won't be easy, but you didn't get where you are without taking a risk, Peter and John. Howabout it?

Related Links

  • Eidos
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