Archive for January, 2010


Thursday, January 21st, 2010

  “Then you better start swimmin’ Or you’ll sink like a stone. For the times they are a-changin’.”

Bob Dylan

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is live-blogging on his Facebook page this afternoon.  Judging by the silence from mainstream media, most journalists are not impressed.

And who can blame them? Another baby-boomer politician on Facebook is not exactly a stop-the-presses story.

But if reporters looked beyond the obvious, they might just see an event that could very well signal a sharp change in how we conduct our politics and engage as citizens. For anyone paying attention to the growing chatter in the social media environment, Michael Ignatieff’s live Facebook conversation is happening at a tipping point.

Two recent events in particular signal a change in the prevailing domestic winds: the creation of an anti-prorogation Facebook page and the social-media response to the Haitian disaster.

Today, all but the most hardened sceptics or partisans are admitting that there might be something to the outpouring of online anger and frustration channelled by the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament  (now over 200,000 strong).  

And look at how social media sites are being used to share information and engage Canadians in Haitian relief efforts. You’ll see a different, more synergistic expression of solidarity than at any other time in our history. While Facebook, MySpace and other social networking platforms were around at the time of Hurricane Katrina or the South East Asian tsunami, this time the response has a different feel. It is not only more pervasive and widespread, but more organic.  

How can we explain this?

There are probably two key factors at play. We may have achieved a degree of critical mass in Canada with respect to social networking participation across demographics; and social media sites create both a platform for sharing information quickly within social networks and a place where subtle peer pressure is applied.

Today, Michael Ignatieff takes his first go at live blogging. In doing so he becomes the first federal party leader to use social media to engage directly and in real time with Canadians.  More importantly, taking a page from president Obama’s playbook, he taps into a powerful tool for citizen engagement that until today, had been largely neglected in  our country.

If the Liberal party extends aggressive online engagement to its spring policy conference, it could be riding a wave that changes the way the game is played; not only for the party, but for Canadian politics.


Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

As far as Cabinet shuffles go, today’s changes in “the Ministry” were fairly restrained. Nobody was dropped from Cabinet and only one person entered, Rob Moore from New Brunswick, as minister of state for Small Business and Tourism. 

This is consistent with Prime Minister Harper’s approach of avoiding dramatic changes that might signal, even inadvertently, any indecision and instability of the kind that ultimately sunk Paul Martin’s government.  Still if the shuffle was intended to send the message that the government is “recalibrating” on public expenditure and economic growth, it did.

The defining appointment is the shift of Stockwell Day from International Trade to Treasury Board. Many in the press have rightfully pointed out its significance as the government’s seriousness about addressing its spending, but Day’s appointment actually says more than just that. 

First, just what does the Treasury Board actually do?  An apt analogy is that if the Ministry of Finance controls the water pumping stations, Treasury Board controls the taps.  A minister will have money in his or her budget, as approved by Parliament, but they cannot really spend it unless they have approval from the Treasury Board, the relevant Cabinet Committee, and ultimately the full Cabinet.  Treasury Board controls the submissions involving expenditures to Cabinet committees.  For the most part, the Treasury Board’s work has been technical in nature ensuring that spending proposals are properly sourced in the ministry’s budget envelope.  Treasury Board has not historically served as a policy maker but as a rule enforcer.

With Stockwell Day’s appointment, that may change to the extent that Day may become the second Finance Minister.  How so? First of all, Day serves as Harper’s go-to guy when a tough job needs doing. They understand each other and they trust each other.  Day served as Alberta’s Minister of Finance when tough decisions were made.  Yes, Flaherty was Ontario’s Minister of Finance but arguably Day in Edmonton was a lot tougher than Flaherty at Queen’s Park.  For such a senior and experienced minister to take a portfolio and not have a significant policy role seems unlikely.  To the extent that money equals policy influence–which it does–Treasury Board’s mandate, if fully exercised, can allow for  significant  influence .

What to expect? Day will swiftly set about to establish and enforce priorities on to what actually gets spent outside of mandated expenditures.  If a proposal is not funded, if a proposal cannot be tied to a clear economic purpose or if a proposal merely appears sloppily prepared (it happens more than you would think), Day will serve as the voice of the PMO in saying “Non.” His French by the way is excellent.

To that extent, Stockwell Day will take on an importance to line ministers greater than that of Flaherty himself.  The following ministries will be the most affected, Human Resources and Development Canada, Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Heritage, DIAND and perhaps most of all CIDA. 

After this recalibration, expect priorities to be set and enforced, if not always transparently.


Monday, January 11th, 2010

As I write this, over 150,000 people have signed on to the Facebook page Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament and the counter will probably hit 155,000 before most  see this post.  The anti-prorogation page, the initiative of 25-year old Alberta student Chris White,  has generated considerable discussion in both mainstream and social media, not only on the issue of prorogation, but also around the usefulness of this kind of social media activism.

The National Post for one, chose to poke fun at rival Toronto Star’s assertion that the Facebook group’s numbers were  evidence a “popular uprising” was afoot. In a comment piece irreverently titled “The Toronto Star Discovers the Interweb”   the paper’s editorial board took issue with the Star’s assertion and pointed to other well-populated FB pages devoted to trivial or oddball pursuits as proof that people (and news media) shouldn’t get too excited over Facebook advocacy.  MacLeans blogger Paul Wells also questioned the political value of the FB group, suggesting a better way for people to have an impact would be to contribute financially to one (or more) of the opposition parties.   

But it wasn’t just online commentators from traditional media outlets that questioned the political effectiveness of the anti-prorogation group.  Ottawa blogger and social media guy Joe Boughner questioned how much traction the protest would really have when FB participation is so easy, and expressed the hope that organizers would be able to tap the group’s momentum for the planned January 23 anti-prorogation rallies.

What struck me most about these commentaries–and others–is that they missed the fundamental point about social media:  To paraphrase former US president Clinton, it’s the conversation, stupid.  And as anyone who has visited the anti-prorogation page can attest, there are a lot of conversations taking place.

It would be a mistake to measure the effectiveness of Facebook advocacy by how well it leverages traditional media coverage, the number of boots it can put on the ground or dollars it can raise.  Those are all important elements of social and political engagement, but they form the core of advocacy 1.0, not advocacy 2.0. 

Advocacy 2.0 should first be about encouraging conversations, online, but more importantly, around the watercooler. This very minute, dozens of people are sharing information about last month’s prorogation; they are sharing ideas, perspectives and arguments. And in so doing, they are validating the views, perspectives and arguments of others who may not have had the confidence to share them otherwise.

While it will be difficult to measure–unlike contributions to a political party or people at a protest rally–the real impact of the anti-prorogation Facebook group may ultimately be in the thousands of offline conversations it has generated and will generate, at kitchen tables, in offices and yes, even in the Tim Horton’s of this country.