Liberals (e-)challenged

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

An important determinant of Canada’s digital future may well bewhether or not the Liberals rise to the challenge of addressingelectronic governance matters in meaningful and innovative way.

The stakes are high for the country as a whole since not onlyare the Liberals likely to be a government in waiting, but theagenda of a new leader is likely to influence the choices of aminority 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 adigital society were hardly discussed in the last electioncampaign. One study by the Canadian Internet Policy and PublicInterest Clinic at the University of Ottawa assessed the electoralplatforms of the parties on such matters and the results weresobering – with the parties having little of interest to say.

In the early days of the leadership campaign, there have beenmixed signals as to what to expect. Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett wasecstatic that the party saw fit to embrace Internet registrationfor new memberships, a seemingly minor change but one that isgenuinely democratizing (in the past, controlling the paper supplyproved an essential tactic of party organizers).

Beyond this modification, however, the Liberals have opted for aremarkably traditional process culminating in what will be – asalways in Canadian politics – a made for television conventionwhere the new leader will be crowned in what the party hopes willbe a competitive and unpredictable finish. The ideal outcome: aprime time address by the new leader not only to the cheeringfaithful on the convention floor but also the country as awhole.

Yet, people are joining political parties less and less, to saynothing of watching the conventions on television – events that candrag on for hours of time-filling interviews between votes (Lordhelp them if CSI or Canadian Idol happens to be playing at thetime). Should the Liberals not have been bold enough to embrace anonline and open vote for the membership at large.

Would younger people not be more inclined to take aninterest?

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

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

If Liberal candidates and their supporters perceive a wideconstituency of interest on such matters, they will respond inkind. At the end of the day, however, the Liberals’ future hingeson whether or not this leadership race galvanizes young Canadians.Such was the message delivered recently to party leaders by JoeTrippi, a leading American political organizer and Internetproponent who successfully launched Howard Dean as a legitimateDemocratic presidential contender (he is now the national partychairman).

The lesson from Trippi’s experience is that it likely will notbe the central party apparatus that instigates change butindividual candidates – particularly younger ones, courageousenough to embrace new ideas in terms of both policies andprocesses. The Internet can be much more than a top-downfundraising and communications vehicle: It can also be anempowering mechanism for grassroots engagement and dialogue.

Technology is increasingly the platform for political actionexcept, ironically, in political parties themselves. Who in theLiberal ranks will step up to the plate?

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

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