Not much debate, not much Penrith

Submitted by Rick Eyre on June 16 2010, 3:55 pm

It looked good in theory, it was dreadful in practice. Actually, even in theory it was doomed to failure.

Earlier today, New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally, Opposition Leader Barry O'Farrell and Leader of the Greens Lee Rhiannon engaged in a half-hour moderated debate on Twitter about pertinent political matters in the lead-up to Saturday's Penrith by-election. And it was a mess. Even guest appearances from the Twitter Fail Whale couldn't save the day.

Moderated by Channel Nine state parliament reporter Kevin Wilde, the occasion brought together the three major party leaders in New South Wales, all frequent users of the Twitter medium in their own way. (Family First leader in the NSW Upper House, Gordon Moyes, is another adept Twitter exponent but was not a participant.) The debate was timed to take place from 11.15 am to 11.45 am - right in the middle of the hour-long National Nine Morning News.

The result was shambolic. As someone who has experienced the frustration of attempting in-depth argument on Twitter, and having experience dating back to the late 1990's of moderating busy celebrity chat sessions on Cricinfo and elsewhere (mainly through the IRC medium), I had a fair idea what was coming. And it came.

The hashtag #penrithdebate was set up to follow the debate - try finding the actual debate there. A NSW politics twitter list set up by SuperOpinion gives a cleaner feed of proceedings, but cannot possibly display the many questions left unanswered, and unanswerable in the time allotted.

While any move to bring the politicians closer to the people is to be applauded, there were many inherent flaws to this type of interaction, least of all being the limitation on the length of statement - effectively 125 characters, Twitter's 140 limit less the absurdly long 14-character hashtag (plus space).

And for a debate three days out from the Penrith by-election, there was very little Penrith about it. While Stuart Ayres (Liberal) and John Thain (Labor) were said to be at hand during the session, neither was directly on Twitter themselves. Suzie Wright (Greens) did make a belated appearance under her own login.

There was lots of posturing and sloganeering from Keneally and O'Farrell, much relating to broad Western Sydney issues, less so specifically to the Penrith electorate. Rhiannon posed questions worthy of answers, but mostly on statewide matters, and generally ignored by the Premier. As for the twitterati public, few questions made it through the moderator's gloves. With just thirty minutes (plus about ten minutes overtime, less occasional cameo appearances from the Fail Whale), public interaction was going to be merely the tip of the iceberg.

As for engaging the voters of the Penrith electorate, how many of them would (a) have bountiful access to the internet, (b) have the time to be on-line and paying attention mid-morning, and (c) be able to follow proceedings with any clarity? Let alone take the state's political leaders seriously?

Before anyone embarks on similar events prior to next March's state general election, the challenge is ahead to make a good principle - bringing the politicians closer to the people - work.

Twitter-only debates are definitely not the answer. They're a bit like riding a pushbike in a straitjacket.

Online-only debates, whether through webcast, chat windows (CoverItLive being the current flavour of the month) or even Facebook, still disenfranchise too many people.

Televised debates are too superficial, too rare, too stilted, and too preoccupied with trivialities such as the Worm. And with the demise of local programming, they're just not local enough. (And that means also that Channel Nine, the unofficial patrons of today's event, should be spectators on future occasions.)

Radio debates? Take it away, The Sports (1978)...

Town Hall debates must be the focus of attention, webcast but with online input an aid, not the driving factor, and input geo-limited to people living within the electorate. Maybe get candidates to give a TED-talk style presentation followed by a Media140 style forum, all recorded for posterity, transcribed and annotated for the benefit of future fact-checking and accountability.

But who's got the money to bankroll that sort of democratic process? I fear the answer to that...

Finally, while much public and media reaction mirrors this report by the Sydney Morning Herald, Ms Rhiannon herself views the event in a more hopeful light.