Liberals (e-) challenged

As the Conservatives begin to place their stamp on Ottawa, the Liberal Party is engaged in what promises to be the most open and competitive leadership race in decades. A lengthy roster of candidates features men and women who are scouring the country for supporters in the lead-up to the final vote in December.

An important determinant of Canada’s digital future may well be whether or not the Liberals rise to the challenge of addressing electronic governance matters in meaningful and innovative ways. The stakes are high for the country as a whole since not only are the Liberals likely to be a government in waiting, but the agenda of a new leader is likely to influence the choices of a minority Conservative government as well.

The Liberals begin with the advantage of a bar set quite low. E-government and other matters pertaining to e-commerce and a digital society were hardly discussed in the last election campaign. One study by the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa assessed the electoral platforms of the parties on such matters and the results were sobering – with the parties having little of interest to say.

In the early days of the leadership campaign, there have been mixed signals as to what to expect. Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett was ecstatic that the party saw fit to embrace Internet registration for new memberships, a seemingly minor change but one that is genuinely democratizing (in the past, controlling the paper supply proved an essential tactic of party organizers).

Beyond this modification, however, the Liberals have opted for a remarkably traditional process culminating in what will be – as always in Canadian politics – a made for television convention where the new leader will be crowned in what the party hopes will be a competitive and unpredictable finish. The ideal outcome: a prime time address by the new leader not only to the cheering faithful on the convention floor but also the country as a whole.

Yet, people are joining political parties less and less, to say nothing of watching the conventions on television – events that can drag on for hours of time-filling interviews between votes (Lord help them if CSI or Canadian Idol happens to be playing at the time). Should the Liberals not have been bold enough to embrace an online and open vote for the membership at large? Would younger people not be more inclined to take an interest?

Water under the bridge in any event, but what remains is still ample opportunity to debate the prospects for Canada to regain its stature as a leader in embracing digital innovation in all sectors. To name but a few matters of key importance: e-government and e-democracy, e-commerce and a review of telecommunications and cultural policies, the urban-rural divide in broadband access, e-health and e-learning, privacy and security, and the list goes on.

Responsibility lies not with the Liberals alone of course. Proponents of change in these and other areas of technological management, including the publishers of this magazine and the technology industry more broadly, should be demanding nothing less than a wide and meaningful debate among leadership aspirants.

If Liberal candidates and their supporters perceive a wide constituency of interest on such matters, they will respond in kind. At the end of the day, however, the Liberals’ future hinges on whether or not this leadership race galvanizes young Canadians. Such was the message delivered recently to party leaders by Joe Trippi, a leading American political organizer and Internet proponent who successfully launched Howard Dean as a legitimate Democratic presidential contender (he is now the national party chairman).

The lesson from Trippi’s experience is that it likely will not be the central party apparatus that instigates change but individual candidates – particularly younger ones, courageous enough to embrace new ideas in terms of both policies and processes. The Internet can be much more than a top-down fundraising and communications vehicle: It can also be an empowering mechanism for grassroots engagement and dialogue.

Technology is increasingly the platform for political action except, ironically, in political parties themselves. Who in the Liberal ranks will step up to the plate? 064984

Jeffrey Roy ([email protected]) is associate professor at the University of Ottawa and author of E-Government in Canada: Transformation for the Digital Age.

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