Some day, in the future, someone could invent a machine to fix what’s wrong with politics.
They could call it the Internet.
It’s been about two decades since Canadian politics started to make serious use of the tools of modern communications — email, social media and, in more recent years, data and analytics.
Yet it’s not clear that any of these tools have presented a net gain, pardon the pun, for politics — for the elected or the electors.
The mixed blessing of the Internet was a constant theme when three of the leading figures from Canada’s political backrooms took to the stage at a forum this week in Ottawa on “digital governance.”
Tim Powers, a longtime Conservative strategist, Brad Lavigne, a top campaign adviser for the NDP, and Gerald Butts, the chief adviser to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, were the opening act for the gathering. Over nearly two hours, the political pros dissected the strengths and weaknesses of digital politics. It was one of the most thorough discussions I’ve seen or heard on this subject.
They all agreed that the Internet had made some things better for the practice of politics in Canada.
Butts said that the Liberal party would not have rebounded from defeat as quickly as it has, in fundraising and membership terms, without the fast-moving Internet. Lavigne described how digital tools have given the NDP much more accurate ways to find their potential pools of voters and measure results. Powers said that listening is a cardinal rule in politics, and all parties are forced to listen more to the voters’ voices on social media.
Still, their conversation kept circling back to the shadowy side of the Internet age in politics — the anonymous commenters, the Twitter trolls, the shallow pool of instant analysis that results when there are more rewards for saying something first rather than best.
“If you want to see the dark side of social media, check out the people who Tweet at me every day,” said Butts, an avid social-media user whose profile on Twitter says: “Twitter is for journalists. Facebook is for your mom.”
Lavigne was the most optimistic voice on stage, praising the new tools as a much-needed injection of democracy and dialogue into Canadian politics. Twitter, he said, has the ability to create intimate, virtual connections among people around big events or ideas.
Butts gave full credit to the Conservatives and the New Democrats being quicker to master the tools of digital politics in the 21st century. Without elaborating, however, he vowed that Liberals would be the party to “create a version 2.0” of what Conservatives did 10 years ago in the field of grassroots voter contact and fundraising.
Butts was also the only one on stage, by the way, to agree that Canada was going to need some laws soon to rein in those huge voter-information databases the parties have been amassing over the past decade. In case you’re not aware, right now in Canada, you have a legal right to see what information the government or a big-box store is keeping about you. You don’t have that right with regard to the political-party databases, which are functioning in a “black hole,” as privacy advocates put it — and the Fair Elections Act last year did nothing to fix that situation.
(If the Liberals ever do get into power, I’m going to regard Butts’ remarks this week about the database laws as a promise.)
At several points in the discussion, all of the speakers remarked on how politics has one foot planted in the modern digital age and another one still firmly rooted in 19th-century practices.
A good question was raised: why, in a world of rapid connectedness, does the House of Commons still require MPs to make gruelling, weekly commutes to Ottawa or organize their lives around physical attendance at votes or meetings?
Former cabinet minister Belinda Stronach raised that very issue in a speech in Ottawa in 2010, suggesting that MPs of both genders might be better able to balance family and political obligations if the Commons adopted technology as basic as video-conferencing or electronic voting.
Along the same lines, if we have all these fancy new tools for politicians to communicate with the voters and each other, why are we still trudging through the archaic spectacle of Question Period? No one is suggesting that politicians give up speeches for text messages or debate for YouTube appearances. But it’s striking how much the contemporary tools of communication have only amplified the ridiculous excesses of partisan politics, rather than compensating for them.
The forum in Ottawa this week was billed as the beginning of a conversation on bringing government into the digital age. The opening panel was civilized, respectful and interesting — kind of the opposite of the political talk on social media.
Maybe that’s a hopeful sign.