Comment Is Free – An Interesting talk with Peter Phelps MLC

By Kate Doak.
By Kate Doak.

A couple of days ago Peter Phelps MLC made a rather interesting response to my previous post that focused on the negatives of online drama.  By using a healthy dispute between Mr Phelps and Peter Van Onselen, I attempted to define what’s healthy in regards to social media activity and what’s not.  While their debate was reasonably mature, it was emotional enough in tone that I decided to use it as an example predominantly because it wouldn’t fill my website up with potentially defamatory material.

Needless to say, I feel touched that Mr Phelps took the time out to write an extremely thought provoking response to my article.  In order to give credit to this intreaguing and original commentary on Mr Phelps’ behalf, I’ve reposted his comment and added a few responses of my own to it.  Mr Phelps’ comments are marked as quotes in purple, while my responses are in bold.

I hope that everyone enjoys his engagement throughout this discussion as much as I did.


Peter Phelps — 1. Actually the matter was in dispute for two days and if you only saw last night you missed out on the bulk of the discussion between myself and PvO.

Kate Doak — That’s true, however my primary focus in regards to that article was to show what to try to avoid when it comes to social interactions via platforms such as Twitter. While both Peter and yourself weren’t “crossing the line” so to speak, the both of you were close enough emotions-wise when I checked your timelines to suit my purposes, without reposting a massive amount of abuse on my website.  That said, I don’t mind the occasional bit of drama in order to spice things up a bit. Like orange juice though, sometimes too much of a good thing can be bad for you.

PP — 2. I didn’t make things “personal” – unless you consider calling into question the professional abilities of a person who purports to be an expert is “making things personal”. Moreover, I made my initial assertions and these were not refuted. Specifically: that PvO made his name as a “one trick pony” on the basis of political databases – the truth or otherwise of which may be evinced by a brief look at his professional publication list ( Notable is the fact that of the 14 publications mentioned, 7 (50%) are about political databases and/or the Government Members Secretariat (which provided logistic and other support). The residual are articles which anyone with even a cursory involvement in Federal politics could have written. Moreover, I asserted that PvO had never ‘broken’ a genuine political story – an assertion which would have been easy to refute if it were untrue. And yet all I received was a deafening silence in response to that claim.

KD — For the record, I wasn’t suggesting that either Peter Van Onselen or yourself were making any comments personal in nature. If you look at all sides of the political divide on social media however, a lot of people do though. From smart-assed cracks at Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, Julie Bishop, Kevin Rudd, Tony Windsor and even Warren Entsch, there’s a lot of unrealistic and downright offensive stuff that gets bandied around when people do make things personal on all too often a basis.  I don’t think that what PvO and yourself were saying was crossing the line, however it was close enough to use as an example of what to avoid.

PP — 3. Using the “feelings” excuse doesn’t really fly when the progenitor of the Twitter dispute was PvO, and his assertion that Tony Abbott was a political coward for failing to appear on his programme.

KD — That’s why I said that words can hurt and everybody has feelings. Tony Abbott is a lot of things, though both friends and enemies alike are reticient to call him a coward. For all of his faults (and we all have them), Mr Abbott is an honourable man. This is an area that I reflected upon recently, when I wrote a review of Lt Colonel Catherine McGregor’s new book and the beautiful review that Mr Abbott gave of it.

PP — 4. Your assertion that debates should not be held in public is simply unfathomable, and only lends credence to popular misconceptions about politics being a closed, elite preoccupation.

KD — For the record, I have no problem with debates and love them as a matter of fact.  I’m a policy wonkette and while I don’t mind the occasional bit of drama in a debate, I get bored quickly with the he-said she-said mud-flinging matches and races to the bottom that too many people engage in nowadays. As the old saying goes, everything needs to be in moderation.

PP — 5. There is no need to worry that “people have a copy of what you say” if what you say is factual, or may be reasonable adduced by argumentation. I do not delete my Tweets. If I am wrong, I acknowledge such and move on. Other should do the same. Or as Will Grant (certainly no friend of mine) tweeted:

“Will J Grant (‏@willozap): When there’s a serious spat on Twitter and one side deletes all their tweets? Pretty obvious who lost.”

KD — I’ve always find it useful to be careful of whatever you put up online, even if you know it to be completely and utterly verfiable.  A prime example of that would be naming and shaming some of the tweeters and commentators that I’ve received some pretty vile responses from in the past as homophobes, purely because I’m Transgender and have the courage to write about what I find and experience.  I don’t though, because I don’t want a potential lawsuit on my hands.

PP — 6. I agree people have long memories, but the same is true for old media as well – indeed, like the time in 2009 when PvO used his position as an op ed writer at The Australian to launch a personal attack on me in an article ( after I helped to defeat a friend of his at the Bradfield pre-selection. Do I remember unjustified slights against me? You bet I do. Especially when the person was so demonstrably unsuitable for the position that he was out after the first round of voting.

7. Would I say what I said to PvO’s face? You bet I would. And maybe even more. Moreover, unlike most of the cowardly custards who attacked me afterwards, I use my real name in debates on this medium.

KD — Then in points 6 and 7 you’d recognise that what I was saying was a blanket statement then. A lot of people burn their bridges with stupid comments nowadays, especially when said via the media, whether it be social or traditional. There’s a LOT of things that most people wouldn’t say to another’s face, though feel that it’s well within their rights to say them online.

Take my previous point for example. Take away their anonymity and a lot of people aren’t anywhere near as game to abuse the hell out of somebody because they have a different background or ideology to other people. Would I call somebody a “goose” to their face if they deserved it? More than likely. Would I call someone a “Brainless F***ing wonder who needs their head read”? Well… You’d probably have to hit my horse in the head hard with a flag on a curtain-rod, making him rear up then fall down ontop of me backwards to provoke that…. But that’s another story for another time….. 😉

PP — 8. Those who don’t like my style don’t have to follow me. That is the beauty of Twitter. You pick who hears you voices and you pick those to whom you listen. Some people like the rough and tumble, some people like to trade cupcake recipes. Nobody is forcing you to listen to what I have to say.

KD — Well said. I’ve also found the “Block” function handy on occasion too. Especially when people start throwing homophobic and transphobic comments around. *sad face*

PP — 9. The broader problem is that politics are so homogenised these days that everyone EXPECTS political pronouncements to be a recitation of focus-grouped talking points. It is a kabuki play, where MPs recite their respective lines and fail to engage either their opponents or – more importantly – their audiences. Yet more than ever people demand authenticity and passion – in their music, their writing, their TV shows and, yes, their politics. It is perfectly possible for me to ‘play the game’ and fall into the routine of one anodyne announcement after another. But I choose not to do so. I think that is insulting the intelligence of the Australian public. And where are our debates to be held, if not in public where we can be adjudged on the merit or otherwise of our cases?

KD — Well said again. The problem is that a lot of people can’t tell the difference between authenticity and passion, in contrast to vitriol and smear.

To quote Dr Julian Bashir of Star Trek DS9:

“Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges.”
“‘In time of war, the law falls silent.’ Cicero. So is that what we have become; a 24th century Rome, driven by nothing other than the certainty that Caesar can do no wrong?!”

In essence, the problems start when people start believing that whatever leader (or leaders) they have on either side of politics are infalliable. Everyone is guilty of that particular mentality at one time or another, regardless of political ideology.

PP — 10. And in that spirit, I leave the final word to Amanda Rainey, a WA Academic specialising in social media and member of the Australian Labor Party:

“Amanda Rainey ‏@vodkandlime: But I am tired of people wanting MPs to speak their mind, but then freaking out over opinions they don’t like @PeterPhelpsMLC”

Amanda Rainey is a smart lady.  Thanks for the pleasure of this conversation, Mr Phelps. It’s been a most thought-provoking and enjoyable experience, which I hope that we have the pleasure of doing again in the future. 🙂