What is the state of politics online?

The general election of 1996 was the first in which the Internet began to play a part in party strategies. Not everyone's Website was a work of art, but nearly everyone had one.

The general election of 1996 was the first in which the Internet began to play a part in party strategies. Not everyone's Website was a work of art, but nearly everyone had one. So, three more years into the Internet era, what's the state of the the parties online? Intriguingly, the biggest change involves not the party sites themselves, but the rise to prominence of Newsroom and (since the great Newsroom schism) Scoop. Both sites take political press releases as their stock in trade, and have quite radically altered the debate, in that it focuses now on what the parties actually say - rather than what the traditional news media says they say. The Labour Party wisely avoids choosing between either Scoop or Newsroom, and provides links to both for those in search of statements. Labour's site has been simplified this time round, with much of the detail (from new policy to party history) moved to the 'Info Centre'. There are few fancy touches, but visitors can find MPs grouped by name, electorate or portfolio and, in most cases, choose between shorter HTML and full Word versions of policies. Paul Swain's offsite electronic forum for those interested in labour e-commerce policy also deserves a bouquet. I can't recall exactly what National's site looked like last time, but the impression is that it has gotten worse. Unlike the Labour site, it has no overall search function and comes across as rather sprawling. The "New" section is a confusing jumble of media statements and individual MPs' "newsletters" in PDF format. It's also still "under construction", which seems a bit poor for the party that got to name the election date. On the plus side, the Contacts section is excellent. While all the other parties emblazon their sites with the image of the party leader, the Greens have gone with a picture of a bulbous, mutant toad as an emblem of their GE moratorium petition. Their bright, breezy site offers links, background and copies of the petition. Act's site, developed by Webmasters, is the most sophisticated of all the parties' - a Java scroll on the top page carries news and many pages are dynamically generated. The party also operates its own online forums - in the most recent of which Wisconsin state's controversial welfare chief Jean Rogers appears to have participated. Background on individual MPs and their electorates is copious, but anyone expecting similar depth on policy will be disappointed. Act's handful of "policy discussion papers" are brief and superficial, leaving the side feeling oddly shallow. Of the others, the Alliance's site is simple but effective and provides ready access to full policy documents, along with news and brief candidate profiles; New Zealand First is predictably Winston-centric; Mauri Pacific has a blank page where its policies are meant to be; and the real overachiever is United, which, despite having but a single MP and negligible polling presence, has a solid site with plenty of policy content. And yet the biggest splash online so far has been made not by any of the parties but by the Engineers' Union, which took TV ads banned from TVNZ and placed them, uncensored on its Website, effectively becoming its own broadcaster. This may be the shape of things to come. Labour: www.labour.org.nz National: www.national.org.nz Green Party: www.greens.org.nz Act: www.act.org.nz Alliance: www.alliance.org.nz Mauri Pacific: www.mauripacific.org.nz New Zealand First: www.nzfirst.org.nz United: www.united.org.nz The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union: www.epmu.org.nz Russell Brown edits the @IDG online news service. Contact Russell at russell_brown@idg.co.nz

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