Party lines not connecting

Last month’s column examined the rapid emergence of blogging as a new and important channel of political action arising outside the contours of traditional democratic structures.

If governments remain tepid in their response to date, one might expect political parties to be a bit bolder in making use of blogs — and other digital tools — to both reinvigorate and expand their movements. In this time of a federal minority government, with the potential for an election at any time, the efforts of political parties should be of particular interest. In short, how are political parties adapting to the World Wide Web?

The short answer is that parties online, across all political ideologies, by-and-large resemble governments themselves: Sophisticated web sites in terms of marketing and imagery, with remarkably little creativity with respect to policy innovation and democratic engagement. While this assessment by-and-large holds up around the world, according to what little research has been done on this topic, Canadian parties appear to be particularly cautious, and to their own detriment.

At the federal level, all parties manage to do two things well. First, each communicates its political brand in a flashy and visually appealing manner, providing basic information on the party and its elected representatives. Secondly, each accepts donations online (no security worries here). Not surprisingly, party leaders are featured prominently on the respective sites – along with notable news and headlines presented in the most partisan manner possible.

In a world of sound bites and promotion, the Young Liberals recently made some waves. Supporting same sex marriage legislation in the runup up to the party’s national convention, with the slogan, “It’s the charter stupid” (it’s perhaps a bit catchier in French: “C’est la charte, duh”), their web site features mildly provocative or stylish (depending on your taste) depictions of a same sex couple in the midst of a seemingly heartfelt embrace. By contrast, there would appear to be no online link to the youth wing of the Conservative party.

Across all parties, what is consistent – and disappointing – is the near absence of policy ideas and research.

None of the major parties offer research documents – nor are there links to potential sources of intellectual capital.

While positions on many issues of the day are outlined in succinct, summary form, there is little evidence of a knowledge system to underpin them — and even less sign of efforts to engage with others in formulating new ideas.

Partisans from the Conservatives and Liberals might defend this void by pointing out that national conventions have recently been held–forums where, in fact, many positions are debated and voted on. Nonetheless, there is little about the governance of the parties (particularly as presented online) to suggest that these conventions will do much to shape party policy. A case in point: the Prime Minister decreed no missile defence involvement one week prior to the Liberal meeting.

Indeed, genuine debate is hardly the purpose of a partisan gathering. These exercises in communication and spin lure find the party faithful with high profile guest speakers and hospitality suites, as organizers strive to ensure the highest possible endorsement of the party leader from those present. No e-voting here.

In British Columbia – where a provincial election is set for May – the two main political parties, the Liberals and NDP, resemble their federal cousins (although the governing B.C. Liberals offer no such link online). Beyond conveying the leader’s image and the main partisan themes (while attacking opponents), there is little about the online apparatus of either party to invite input and broaden debate. In an odd mix of e-politics and e-commerce, however, the Liberals offer members an online technology store featuring a party discount on Dell products…

Two lessons stand out.

First, political parties are missing out on the opportunity to leverage cyberspace as a vehicle to not only expand their membership base but also discover new ways of doing politics. Secondly, given the importance of political champions for e-government strategies, the performance of these organizations as incubators for tomorrow’s leaders is worrisome.

The steady decline of parties underscores the case for change. Today perhaps only 2-3 per cent of Canadians belong to any of the federal parties now in Parliament. Other studies estimate that — notwithstanding the enthusiastic young Liberal core — the average age of partisan membership is well over 50.

Blogs, chat rooms and other online venues and tools are undoubtedly part of the new Wild West of the Internet age. As such, there is genuine risk for parties seeking to exploit this terrain to their advantage. Risk avoidance, however, merely ensures that innovation and payoff remain well out of reach.

Jeffrey Roy ([email protected]) is Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa and Visiting Professor at the University of Victoria.

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