OTTAWA — It was tradition that the senior aides around the prime minister were ghosts, unseen and unheard by Canadians as they quietly worked the levers of power.
Well, tradition meet Gerald Butts, principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
There’s a new government in town and with it, a new impetus to harness new mediums to communicate. And debate.
Canadians — at least those on social media — were reminded of that this week when Butts used Twitter to challenge criticisms of the Liberals’ newly unveiled strategy to take on Islamic State extremists.
When Carleton academic Stephanie Carvin said on Twitter Tuesday that the Liberals should “own” and justify their decision to end combat missions by the CF-18s, Butts replied.
“We’ve only been making this argument for 18 months. We’ve owned it for a long time,” he said on Twitter.
And when fellow academic Steve Saideman weighed in with his own critique, Butts attempted to rebut those arguments, too, saying at one point that Trudeau had stated the case “about 10 thousand times.”
At the end of the exchange, there was an electronic handshake of sorts as they parted ways. “We do believe in engagement. And listening. Especially to smart people like Steve,” Butts tweeted.
Seeing the criticism of the Liberal plan unfold on social media, it was perhaps impossible for Butts — a two-time Canadian National Debating Champion — to resist weighing in.
In fact, Butts was long been active on Twitter. What’s surprising is that he didn’t disappear from social media once he took up in the Prime Minister’s Office last November.
“It’s just a modern comms vehicle. It’s consistent with our open approach to government. I don’t engage with angry partisans, and have muted most of them,” Butts told the Star in an email Wednesday.
With 25,000 followers on Twitter, Butts — who served as a senior aide to former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty — does have an audience and he notes in his profile that tweets are his personal views.
Saideman said Wednesday he was surprised and pleased by Butts’ intervention, calling it a welcome change from the past practices.
“I think it’s very welcome to have the government and people involved in the government engage in conversation with outsiders about what they are doing,” he said.
The topic at hand this week hits close to home for Saideman, who wrote a book about the lessons of Canada’s long engagement in Afghanistan, including the failure to communicate about key aspects of the mission, such as development.
“This government is obviously much more willing to have people at all levels engage the public,” said Saideman, the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University.
He framed Tuesday’s Twitter discussion as respectful and productive. “I wish the partisans out there would respect the conversation,” he said, noting the hostile reaction from some quarters to their exchange.
Butts is not alone among Trudeau’s inner staff who are on social media. Katie Telford, the architect of the campaign that swept the Liberals to power who now serves as the prime minister’s chief of staff, is also active on Twitter. However, she tends more to retweet others rather than engage in direct debate.
The intersection of social media and politics is not new. There are prolific tweeters among MPs. Former prime minister Stephen Harper was on social media, as is Trudeau. Yet it’s been less common to see senior aides to a prime minister engage in public debate.
Political strategist Robin Sears admits he was uneasy when he first saw the extent of Butts’ engagement on Twitter. But Sears, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, said he has since come around in his view, recognizing that Twitter is a “very powerful” medium.
“I think it would be a stretch to call it a useful policy discourse . . . but I do think it’s a good message device, for correcting or implanting a message,” Sears said in an interview.
But he also noted that one errant tweet, one inflammatory retort risks undoing the narrative. “This worries me, I guess, because I’m so old-fashioned and conservative . . . it would only take one really bad incident.”