Wired for politics

Which New Zealand political party has its own WWW home page? Which National Party candidate launched his general election campaign on Usenet? Which Labour MP uses the Web to research debates? And is New Zealand First really "the most technically literate party in Parliament"?

The answers may surprise you - but no more so than the news that Netscape Navigator is now standard issue on every PC in the Beehive. There is even a help-desk service available, in the form of a half-day crash-course run by Parliament's IT services. One of relatively few MPs to take up the course is Labour's arts spokesperson Judith Tizard.

"I've used the Web several times for research on a speech or debate and it's been tremendously useful. I've used it to canvass legal and feminist arguments on de facto and gay marriages - and it really helped me decide that personal defence sprays didn't work and were probably counter-productive.

"The government's own resources on the Web are becoming more comprehensive. Some departments appear to have made no effort at all, but Education maintains a calendar of upcoming events, which is extremely useful."

Tizard is one of several dozen MPs to make frequent use of the Parliamentary email system, especially since it was upgraded from the much-unloved Poli to MS Mail. The number actually using the Internet is far smaller and, according to one anonymous Parliamentary staffer: "Most MPs wouldn't know a PC if it was shoved up their bums, and yet they're supposed to be leading us into this brave new era."

John Spavin, press secretary to IT Minister Maurice Williamson, offers a more sober view, noting that "ministers especially are no more likely to read their own email than they are to read their own faxes. Their days are scheduled by their secretaries and they wouldn't often have time to surf the Net."

Thus it falls to staff to push the wired ethic - those such as the United Party's press secretary Ted Sheehan, who turned up to work on a short-term contract and was "delighted" to discover he had Internet access:

"It's not quite a free-for-all though - if you start downloading everything in sight, the system does a reverse lookup and tells you to get lost!"

Sheehan and Peter Evans, a friend of United MP John Robertson, have collaborated to create the United Party home page (http://www.united.org.nz).

"It's not the most graphically exciting site at the moment, but we've got the text up there - and I believe it's the first political party Website in New Zealand. In terms of United's MPs, John Robertson and Bruce Cliffe understand email very well because they've used it in a business context, but they're not yet familiar with the Internet."

New Zealand First takes to Usenet

Sheehan's counterpart at New Zealand First, Rex Widerstrom, has taken his party's message to the local Usenet newsgroups:

"I was conscious of not gobbling up bandwidth, so I didn't want to just chuck everything on the newsgroups," he says. "But when the debates arose I joined in, and several people suggested I post the speeches. I must say the level of debate is a lot better than talkback radio, which I've had to endure a bit of lately."

Widerstrom pursued a presence for his party on the Government Web Pages, "but they're a very snotty outfit," and it fell to Stuart Birks of Massey University, who was concerned that opposition parties should have a Web presence.

"He suggested we find another party to join in and make a political Website worth his while to organise. Apart from us, the most technologocally literate party was ACT. I've contacted them and they're quite keen."

Technology makes strange bedfellows indeed. Widerstrom says New Zealand First MP Tau Henare is "a bit of a computer geek - but the leader is a bit more on the ... traditional side." Nonetheless, the Tauranga-based ISP Enternet is very keen to create and maintain the Winston Peters home page. The mind boggles ...

If the running is presently made by minions, then National's Auckland Central candidate, 26-year-old Shane Frith, is perhaps the shape of politicians to come. He began posting (and subsequently debating) media releases to the nz.politics newsgroup last year as chairman of the Young Nationals and uses the Web for research and email to maintain contact with party colleagues, whom he describes as "reasonably wired", with Williamson being oustanding.

Frith describes Auckland Central as "probably the most electronically literate in the country" and, intriguingly, he'll be up against Tizard. He says a National Party Website is in the works and Labour sources speak of a party Website and a mailing list - and even a home page for Tizard. Watch this (cyber)space ...

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