Defence purges Web sites of potential propaganda

Public sector IT and Web content managers have been dragged into a war of words over blurry guidelines governing the use of the Internet and e-mail as election campaign tools. Opposition MP Bob McMullen has accused Defence Minister Robert Hill of hijacking his department's Web site to distribute election propaganda.

McMullen has accused the Department of Defence of defying "the Caretaker [government] Conventions which explicitly prohibit activity supporting political events organised by the government of the day".

Caretaker conventions govern the actions of government departments and agencies following the calling of an election to ensure the public service and public sector resources remains politically impartial and are not manipulated to give an incumbent regime an upper hand in election campaigning.

McMullen has filed a formal complaint with Defence departmental secretary Richard Smith alleging the "[Defence] department's Web site and e-mail system continues to publish and circulate material promoting Liberal Party electioneering activities" and that Defence's Web site "continues to contain blatantly political material".

After enduring successive claims of partisan manipulation, Defence is clearly not taking the matter lying down. Defence's media alert e-mail machine churned out a response from Smith stating that allegedly coloured content hosted or posted by Defence fulfilled the caretaker content test of being "matters of existing policy or purely factual material".

However, Smith was not prepared to gamble on any semantics of what Defence electronic material is factual or partisan and has since banished any new content generated by his ministers from Defence's e-mail system and Web sites.

"To minimize the risk of controversy, all of the media materials generated by our ministers, and the Parliamentary Secretary since 31 August and all future materials will now be posted to the Web site of the Liberal Party of Australia, whether or not the material meets the particular [factual or policy] tests described above," Smith said.

Quizzed about the cyber -removal at a doorstop in Sydney, Hill described his department's actions as "a question of interpretation of the caretaker provisions as they apply to ministerial Web sites".

Interpretive or not, a prominent statement emblazoned across the top of Hill's ministerial homepage at www.minister.defence.gov.au/ now reads: "During the federal election campaign period, releases and transcripts from the Minister for Defence, the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence and the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence can be found at http://www.liberal.org.au."

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