Monday, 18 February 2013

Blocked

Written by

Twitter has revolutionised the way we communicate with each other, our politicians, our service providers and our journalists, to name just a few. It’s a two-way street and, as individuals, we’re perfectly entitled to Block someone for any number of reasons. But do local councils (or any level of government) have the right to shut their constituents out?

If you’ve got a Twitter account and even the teensiest amount of gumption, you’ll probably know what it is to be blocked. Some receive a blocking with a sense of pride, while others prefer to take offense. I’ll never forget the feeling of exhilaration when I received the telltale FORBIDDEN message when attempting to access the account of a Pray Away the Gay preacher in the US. 

But when I was blocked by Parramatta City Council last week, my immediate feeling was one of disenfranchisement. You see, I’m a resident of Parramatta. I pay rates to its council. I participate in the local government elections that install the Councilors who decide on matters that are, quite literally, close to home. 

My council isn’t a celebrity whose films I can ignore or an international brand that I can choose to boycott. To be blocked by a level of government is whole other matter and, I’d like to suggest, one that brings into question the role of social media in a democracy. 

The drafters of our Constitution did not explicitly include many of the rights and freedoms that we exercise on a daily basis. There’s a whole section dedicated to lighthouses and telegraphic services, but you will not find one reference to ‘freedom of speech’. For a document that forms the basis of our legal system, it lacks all of the life, liberty and pursuit of shiny things that spring from the parchment of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In fact, one of the few freedoms we officially enjoy is implied rather than legislated. In the 1997 case of Lange vs. the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the High Court ruled that Australians have a constitutional right to freedom of political communication. While it’s not explicitly stated in the actual document, the full bench deemed free and open political communication to be vital to the preservation of democratic and responsible government. 

It’s this ruling that gave me the confidence to criticize my Lord Mayor, John Chedid, over his office’s treatment of the GLBT family support organization, Twenty10. 

On 17 January, dedicated Twenty10 volunteers were helping kids build kites at Parramatta City Council’s Family Fun Day when advisers, allegedly acting on Chedid’s advice, ordered the removal of the organisation’s signage. 

Chedid has never denied the allegations, instead stating that his advisers were only responding to complaints that the sign was “offensive”. Chedid eventually issued a private apology to Twenty10 but only after 12,000 people signed a Change.org petition demanding he do so. 

Like thousands of other netizens, I took to Twitter to hold my Lord Mayor to account for the actions of his office. My comments swung wildly between the visceral and rational but they were always based on statements provided by either Twenty10 or Parramatta City Council. 

Council stuck to their social media crisis handbook. They knew not to block me while the crisis was still building because that would only aggravate the situation and provoke accusations that it had something to hide. Instead, it waited for the inevitable moment when the Twitterverse was caught in the gravitational pull of someone else’s very public faux pas.

The realization that I had been blocked by my local government came on a Saturday morning one week after #ChedidGate when I attempted to review 

@parracity’s Twitter stream. My kids were bored and I wanted to see if Council was running any (ratepayer funded) activities. What I got was a big cross and the word FORBIDDEN. 

Forbidden? For what?! Surely not for commenting on the suitability of elected officials for public office? Surely not for defending some of Australia’s most marginalized families? You can bet it wasn’t for all of the favourable tweets that I’d submitted over the years: the photos of my kids laughing in playgrounds that were eagerly retweeted by Council’s own social media apparatchik.

While social media offers new opportunities for citizens to converse with all three levels of government it’s a conversation for which the rules are still being defined. You only have to look at the replies to Julia Gillard’s or Tony Abbott’s tweets to know that the conversation isn’t always polite. But, then again, there was nothing in the High Court’s ruling to suggest that political communication needs to be polite. 

Constituents were insulting politicians long before Twitter, whether it was in a Letter to the Editor or a town hall meeting. Which leads conveniently to my main point: there would be serious implications for the council that barred a ratepayer from a town hall meeting and quite rightly so. 

When it decided to block me, my council made a conscious decision to deny me access to its virtual town hall meeting. I’m not so unreasonable as to suggest that I’m now completely shut off from my politicians. I could still write a letter or appear before them in a real town hall meeting. 

My sense of disenfranchisement, however, stems from the fact that somewhere inside the intensely ugly administration building of Parramatta City Council, a public servant took away a small part of my freedom. They did so without having to appear before a judge or even advise the person from which the freedom was removed.  It was swift, opaque and final. 

I understand and even appreciate that social media offers few boundaries. It’s precisely because it’s not encumbered by the rules of the old guard that it’s become such a powerful tool for grass roots democracy. But, with your permission, I’d like to tender just one simple rule: it should never be used by government to disempower its citizens.

Peter Hinton

Peter Hinton is a Senior Project Manager at the University of Sydney and lives with his family in Parramatta, NSW. 

Follow his ramblings on Twitter: @peterjhinton