Digital Campaigning in Australia

by powste16

In every way, a good political campaign is like a well-oiled machine – there is the fuel (energized volunteers and organized managers), the machinery (campaign infrastructure that is becoming increasingly digital) and the output (votes). The Obama 2008 campaign is arguably the epitome of the new-age version of this machine – from Wagner’s predictive Survey Manager, to the grass roots Neighbor-to-Neighbor initiative to his use of My.BarackObama.com to create and online community and organize local events. In this blog post, I assess the extent of digital political campaigning – or the “machinery” – in my home country Australia.

Website

The official pages for the Australian Prime Minister (PM) Tony Abbott – his profile on his Liberal party’s page and the prime minister’s website – are both rather dull. It largely informational and it is clear that both the PM and his party see the website as just another broadcast medium. The only way to interact with him is via a “contact me” form – hardly engaging. Moreover neither of these pages is dedicated to campaigning for him and this perhaps reflects the fact that Australia has a parliamentary system rather than a presidential one, where people vote for the party more than the leader.

Social media

This infographic gives a nice summary of the social media presence of major political parties. Much like the websites, the use of social media in Australian political campaigns has been largely information and somewhat one-directional. Politicians on both sides have attempted to use social media as a more informal way to ingratiate themselves with voters. For example, Tony Abbot has posted pictures with Australian sporting legends, while former PM Kevin Rudd has posted self-deprecating photos of say, a shaving mishap. However, it feels somewhat staged in nature and there is a real lack of engagement with users; the leaders have failed to use it as a medium to swing voters convincingly.

Big data and micro targeting

The two major political parties – Labor and Liberal – both keep databases. However, more stringent privacy laws and distaste for “big brother” limits parties’ ability to capture data. With both a much smaller population (22 million) and a considerably smaller budget, it is difficult to replicate the Obama strategy. For example, instead of sampling 1,000-2,000 people, the sample size could be closer to 250. This could be particularly useful given that party membership has declined substantially over the last few decades.

Messaging

The most someone has ever tried to persuade me is by handing me “how-to-vote” cards as I walk into the voting booths – no phone calls, no door knocking and no emails. And unfortunately the online world is no different; politicians have failed seize the opportunity to use digital platforms to change the game. Rather, they see it as just another pulpit for espousing their party values and detailing policy initiatives. Where is the call to arms? And where are the youth?

Conclusion

Perhaps in part due to compulsory voting, the use of digital campaigning by Australian political parties lags behind that of our U.S. counterparts. A U.S. campaign is twofold – you have to convince citizens to vote for you AND you have to get them to the voting booths. Australia has compulsory voting, such that non-voters face a penalty of $20 and up to $170. Voter turnout at federal elections has been steady at c.93%; on average, 2-6% of the votes are invalid.

In addition, in some ways it is tough to strike a balance; I suspect the “in-your-face-rah-rah” nature of American campaigning would not suit the laid-back Australian culture. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, Australians vote for the party more than the person (especially since leaders can removed by the party anytime).

The next federal election in 2016 provides a real opportunity for parties to differentiate themselves based on their digital campaigns.

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