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Monday, 22 October 2012

Politicians will protest against online voting

It was amusing to see both the foul Scott Morrison and the dim-witted Peter Garrett on the ABC's Q and A program tonight praising social media. It's a great thing, they said, before they both made reference to "shopping malls" as another great place where the opinions of voters could be gleaned for use in policy making, as colourful asides in parliamentary speechifying, or for making compost (take your pick). Shopping malls are those large, privately-operated agglomerations of stores where people in the community buy things. Sort of like Amazon but with annoying small stall operators in the hallways who try to sell you marine-based facial treatments made out of Dead Sea mud, or sign you up for a new credit card. Where you can also buy bad cappuccinos and fresh doughnuts. Places that are not yet going bankrupt, unlike free-to-air TV stations and newspapers, due to the effect of competition from the internet. Of course, the retailers know their days are numbered and have pushed for the government to introduce a sales tax on most online purchases. But they're hanging in there, like Fairfax did for about 15 years before its share price fell below 10 percent of what it was once worth. Fairfax will bring in a paywall, it's just a matter of (yawn) when. We have heard from Gerry Harvey but not yet from Frank Lowy.

Getting back to the besuited pair on the TV tonight, I say it with an overtone of irony that it was amusing to hear Morrison and Garrett extol the virtues of social media, because their tone will change sharply once the push comes for individuals to use the internet to vote on specific pieces of legislation, as will happen at some point down the track. Once this proposal is given air, and people start to try to drag away from politicians powers of influence they have wielded for centuries, their song will change dramatically. The internet will no longer be about people finding community and exerting influence in a way that the media has traditionally done. It will become an untrustworthy, emotional, and ragged locus where no useful result can be achieved. Kicking and screaming, party representatives will be drawn away from the public teat, where they have attached themselves for so long pushing their often idiotic views down the throats of a trusting electorate. The problem is not with democracy, and the problem is not with the media. The problem is that we rely on these clumsy, unwieldy things - political parties - that believe that they have a moral right to swan into office and set down decrees on a broad range of issues that affect the lives of millions of people, and only become accountable every three years.

The regular hurley-burley of parliament stops in the lead-up to the elections and, suddenly, the politicians are on their best behaviour as they front the TV cameras and the ranged mics of the assembled press gallery. They try to stay on-message. They throttle the flow of information (which happens all the time anyway, we just never hear about it because the press constantly puts up with the intransigence of government as it strives to put together stories that possess that seamless cast we associate with quality, but which is a mere gloss pasted over the facts using the quantity of often deathless information the public service allows its media managers to release). They are shaped, styled and brushed up so that we get a good impression of them, despite years of ugly, savage, and often plainly illegal actions.

The use of internet applications for voting is emerging, often taking the form of community consultation, which is sort of like those polls tacked on news stories by media companies, only less susceptible to misuse. There are companies that make this software. Some jurisdications are even allowing people to vote online in substantive elections. The next and logical step, of course, is to wave aside the traditional process of debate within the chambers of Parliament and throw open the vote on individual pieces of legislation to people living in the community, who could use a variety of internet-connected devices to cast a vote. Terrifying as this thought might be to some, the advantages are enormous. One of them might be the eventual demise of the political party, or else a proliferation of parties that are aimed at specific areas of concern, or specific demographics. We are not talking about these things right now because nothing has happened to push the issue into the public sphere. It could also be because most journalists lack the imagination required to envision such an eventuality. In any case, the talk will start soon enough. When it does, expect Morrison and Garrett and their ilk to protest long and loudly against the idea.

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