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Australian politicians' use of new media technologies - are they making the most of it?

By Monika Merkes - posted Thursday, 15 August 2002

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

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 on Australian 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 regarding:

  • 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 technologies;
  • enablers of the use of new media;
  • the relative importance of new media compared to more traditional forms of communication; and
  • 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 net."

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This article was first published in the August edition of PC Update.

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About the Author

Monika Merkes is a social researcher and policy consultant who has worked in state and local governments, the community sector and academia.

Other articles by this Author

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Related Links
Electronic Democracy Resources, RMIT
In the Service of Democracy. UK Government consultation paper on a policy for electronic democracy
Monika Merkes's home page
Qld Government's e-democracy Unit
True Majority
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