Nearly half of all Australian households
now use a computer at home (48.6 per cent
or 3.4 million households). During the
week prior to the 2001 Census, 7.9 million
Australians used a computer at home, nearly
as many women as men (51.1 per cent male
vs. 48.9 per cent female). Close to 7
million people reported that they had
used the Internet http://www.abs.gov.au.
What does this mean for democracy? Could
the use of new media technologies improve
our democratic processes and create greater
public awareness, understanding and participation?
While Australians overall are becoming
more computer literate, is this true also
for Australian politicians?
Dr Peter Chen from The University of
Melbourne has recently completed a survey
Elected Representatives Use of New Media
Technologies 2002 which was funded
by the Australian Computer Society. The
survey sought to examine the use of, and
interest in new media technologies by
Australia's elected officials. A survey
form was issued to every elected representative
in Australia, including Commonwealth,
State and Territory parliamentarians,
local government councillors, and councillors
of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Commission (ATSIC). Of these 6,767 elected
representatives 1,321 responded.
The politicians were asked 18 questions
their use of new media technologies;
- the perceived importance of these
technologies for their work;
their interest in technology;
- the extent of their use of new media
enablers of the use of new media;
- the relative importance of new media
compared to more traditional forms of
- their interest in online consultation
and online voting.
The survey found that 85per cent of elected
representatives used the Internet, and
most did so on a weekly or daily basis.
Overall, parliamentarians used the World
Wide Web, e-mail, other online services
such as websites, telecommuting, electronic
mailing lists and newsgroups, and online
consultation more frequently than their
peers in local government and ATSIC. About 20 per cent of local councillors did not use the
World Wide Web or electronic mail at all.
There were also differences in the use
of these new media technologies between
elected representatives in urban and rural
areas: urban politicians were more active
users. Victoria was found to be the most
active online state.
Correspondingly, the lowest computer
skill levels were found in local and regional
government. More seasoned elected representatives
reported lower computer skill levels than
newer parliamentarians and councillors.
Women reported slightly higher computer
skills than men. Parliamentarians found
the information technology support that
they received more helpful than councillors.
This may reflect different levels of available
funding for IT support. Approximately 10 per cent of the survey respondents reported
no skill with computers, while 22 per cent indicated
a high or very high level of skill.
Parliamentarians found the use of new
media technologies more important for
their work than did their counterparts
in local government and ATSIC, and rural
representatives saw less value in these
technologies than their urban peers. Accordingly,
parliamentarians were twice as likely
to engage in online consultation than
local government and ATSIC Councillors.
Women were more likely than men to consult
online, and less likely to delegate this
activity to subordinates. Again, Victorian
representatives were the most likely to
engage in online consultation: approximately 80 per cent of representatives had engaged in
some form of online consultation, either
personally or through their staff. However,
the survey found that the interest in
online consultation was overall higher
than current practice. In contrast, online
voting was regarded less enthusiastically,
with one third of survey respondents opposed
to online voting.
I asked Peter Chen what motivated him
to undertake this kind of research.
"As a young academic I've brought interests
into the study of the traditional discipline
of political science from my youth (where
I was interested in BBS systems and the
Net before I entered university)", he said. "The
Internet is one of the defining technologies
of the late 20th and early 21st centuries,
and therefore worthy of study and I've
had an interest in the political impacts
of this medium for a number of years.
In Australia there are only a small number
of academics, across a broad spread of
social science/humanities disciplines
(cultural theory, philosophy, politics,
sociology, psychology) currently working
on what is generally called 'electronic
democracy' and this research at the
academic level is still very formative.
"In my own reading of work in Australian
and abroad, I observed that the current
tendency in this research field has been
a focus on institutional e-democracy initiatives
and developments, such as e-government
and online consultation by governments
and public service departments, and the
use of the net for political campaigning
by political parties and civil society
groups. While more work needs to be done
on these actors' use of online services,
I observed that there had been very little
work done on individuals and e-democracy,
especially elected representatives (there
has been some work in the US, but our
political systems are quite different
and the comparative value was limited).
This I see as problematic, as institutional
research neglects a core component of
the policy making process, and what has
traditionally been a lynch-pin of the
parliamentary process: reps, as individuals,
providing a conduit from the public to
the institutional level.
"If the two basic forms of e-democracy
(institutional and individual) develop
at different rates, this will create problems
for our system of representative government
as it further moves into the digital age.
Hence, a baseline study to see what the
current state of play is, before launching
more detailed and deeper research into
the relationship between reps and the