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The Mouse that Roared

It was television that shutdown Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. Jumpcutting between a mean-faced senator and a falsely accused US serviceman, the See It Now TV program brought the power of a new media against McCarthy.
Flashforward to our own election with jumpcuts between perspectives as Kevin Rudd interrupts the TV ad in which Howard brands him a unionist. Howard quickly YouTubes back with “Grow Up Mr Rudd”, hitting the remote and pausing KRudd so he can give him a stern talking-to. Both ads use the web to switch off the old media of TV.
But can netizens engage with Australian politics? Kevin07 gives a good impression of interaction. An estimated 25,000 Kmails and texts were sent out when the election was called, urging “Ruddrats” to enrol to vote. In political product placement, Kevin07 posts photos of T-shirted supporters in front of Uluru or the Taj Mahal, plus there’s a blog, petition and Facebook page. Rudd’s MySpace page features a snappy music-video that includes Al Gore congratulating his climate change policy. Contrast this with the first Google hit for “John Howard”: (the already taken belongs to a US-based software developer). The government site is obviously in caretaker mode to save taxpayer dollars, so would-be Young Libs are directed to the Prime Minister himself is almost invisible. Clearly the three-click rule wasn’t around in the 1950s.
What’s missing in both online campaigns is web 2.0, as users get little chance to interact. Rudd’s Facebook site suggests an opportunity but just try poking Kevin or posting a question to his wall. TV ads are re-served up and the page drags you through to a petition to help introduce the worm to political debate. Smaller parties have more to offer. The Greens at least allow you to add their logo to your Facebook page and Senator Brown’s Bobcasts have an established pre-election audience.
The recent US YouTube debate was broadcast not just on TV but also via the web. Forty videoed questions were selected from 3,000 sent in by folks at home including issues like gay marriage, and healthcare posed by a woman with cancer. While the questions surprised, US politicians have long been using the web (think Hilary Clinton’s candidacy announcement on her site).
Our own pollies don’t seem to be taking the web as seriously. Possibly with good reason. Facebook allows you to befriend Pericles of Athens, Joseph Goebbels and no less than four “Peter Costellos”, including one bearing a copyright-busting resemblance to Star Wars’ Emperor (YouTube offers a video morphing between the two).
Groups quickly spring up in response to news. Witness “Invading Iraq is worse than going to a strip club” or “Vote for Labour/Unions, Ruddy Idiot!”. YouTube has seen the inventive mash-ups from Peter Costello singing “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” to the Axis of Awesome’s Rudd vs Howard Election Rap (including Howard’s shout-out to the RSL vote: “Word up, my diggers”). Internet satirists carve up politicians just as effectively as TV journalists once did.

McCarthy was given a right of reply on See It Now: a sweaty senator doing a one-shot talk straight into the camera was a poor reply to a full production team. Today, as a jacket-less Howard appears like a schoolboy on YouTube and Rudd drives his traffic to a petition, media is shifting again back into the hands of new media makers.

An edited version of this article appeared originally in The Big Issue, No 292.