“Cracking the Whip” over political flame wars…

By Kate Doak.
By Kate Doak.

Last night I noticed part of a running battle on Twitter between Peter Van Onselen, Peter Phelps MLC (Liberals Whip) and The Honourable Premier of NSW, Barry O’Farrell.

After a bit of too-ing and fro-ing between the “Pair of Peters” over the issue of professionalism in both the media and politics, the Premier started “Cracking the Whip” a little after it started looking like Phelps was just trying to provoke an incident with a journalist for the fun of it.


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To which Phelps replied:

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Now while “flame-wars” may appear to be a lot of fun, more often than not they only end in tears and a whole world of professional hurt for all parties involved.  Given that Van Onselen has deleted all of but a handful of tweets on his account again due to the drama, it’s not hard to see that what was going on yesterday touched a few nerves with him.  Needless to say, there’s a few lessons to be learned from incidents like this for both journalists, politicians and the general public alike.

These include –

  1. Don’t make things personal:  Regardless of a person’s position in a political party, profession or society in general, everyone has feelings and those feelings can be hurt. More often than not, more opportunities are lost than gained when somebody decides to take disagreements to a personal level in public. Australian politicians, journalists and the general public are particularly guilty of this one on occasion.  Also just because people disagree on some issues, doesn’t mean that we’re not similar on others. e.g. The ALP/Green/Coalition Parliamentary Friends of LGBTI Australians Group in Canberra.
  2. Once something is published online, assume someone has a copy of it:  While it’s possible to delete a tweet, there’s plenty of programs and websites around today that can allow people to make a copy of anything you put online as soon as you publish it. From Google Cache through to PolitWoops, it isn’t hard to see what public figures have tweeted and then deleted if you know where to look.
  3. People have long memories, especially when they are offended:  More often than not, people will remember grudges longer than what they will remember happy occasions. While sometimes sharp words need to be spoken, don’t burn your bridges over something that in the grand scheme of things is only of minor significance (if that) in the long-term.
  4. Don’t be a “Keyboard Warrior” during conversations:  In the digital telecommunications era, the Internet is just as real a world as the physical one we live in everyday and will become more so over the coming decades. If you wouldn’t say something to somebody’s face, then you haven’t got an excuse to say it online. This goes for both “flame wars” and ordinary disagreements that occur both online and in the non-virtual world.


So while I’m not taking sides in this little dispute (both Peters are adults and can look after themselves anyway), there’s a lot that we can all learn from such encounters when they occur. By learning from and admitting our mistakes in both the real and virtual worlds, we can learn from such incidents and become better people as a result from them if we try hard enough.




One thought on ““Cracking the Whip” over political flame wars…

  1. 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.

    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 (https://www.socrates.uwa.edu.au/Staff/StaffProfile.aspx?Person=PeterVan%20Onselen). 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.

    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.

    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.

    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.”

    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 (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/factions-firsts-and-foolishness-in-one/story-e6frg6no-1225780228868) 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.

    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.

    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?

    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”

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