Election 2000

They’re all losers on the Web

Brice Scheschuk November 27 2000
Election 2000

They’re all losers on the Web

Brice Scheschuk November 27 2000

They’re all losers on the Web

Election 2000

Brice Scheschuk

A cornerstone of the Liberal Red Book is that “Canada will be a smart country.” And much of that smartness, it seems, will be gained through the use of the Internet. As they make us wonder about our current level of intelligence, the Liberals should practise what they preach. A look at the Web sites of the parties, organizations and candidates participating in the federal election (I am excluding third-party news, commentary and portal sites) gives one an eerie sense of déjà vu—think corporate Web sites in 1996. Remember the days when a company could put up a site with its marketing brochure and be considered Web-sawy?

In visiting the Web sites of the five major parties, one sees a strikingly similar pattern. Give viewers a glimpse of the party propaganda, provide a few snippets of positive news, maybe bash an opponent and focus on the leader. I couldn’t even find out how to contact my local Liberal candidate on the official Liberal party site (they later added his phone number, but no link to his Web site).

What about the smaller contenders? A quick look at the six other registered parties’ Web sites provides a refreshing contrast. Operating with smaller (if any) budgets and very busy volunteers, these sites provide similar information to the majors and often go a step further. Take the nationalist Canadian Action Party, which has a message board with discussions by candidates on how the campaign is progressing. Diana Jewell, the candidate for North Vancouver, describes how she found one of her campaign signs “burning away like a Roman candle.” Almost allows one to sympathize with the vagaries and complications of campaign life.

Can the Internet be used to enhance a campaign? Al Gore, probably the most technologically astute party leader in North America, developed a campaign site (www.algore2000.com) that offers a glimpse into the future. It includes interactivity through a town hall section, streaming video and audio, instant messaging, a kids section, wireless updates for personal digital assistants (such as Palms), and even the ability to suggest changes to the open source code of the site. Gore’s campaign has effectively integrated new technologies with the demands of politics. When you look at his site you can’t help but think, “This guy is in touch with the Web.” Did it win him any votes? Difficult to say, but his Internet strategy definitely has appeal to the growing base of young people being weaned on the Web. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for any Canadian parties.

Brice Scheschuk is a chartered accountant and a Torontobased executive at an Internet financial-services company.

Another major opportunity afforded by the Net is the potential to build lifelong relationships with the electorate. Gore is collecting e-mail addresses, drawing up “Internet Team” volunteer profiles and building GoreNet for young Americans—powerful communication channels that personalize politics in a way that wasn’t available before. Canadian parties are missing the majority of these stay-in-touch tools that many businesses have been using for years.

We can’t forget about the candidates. Among those individual politicians who have Web sites, it is extremely challenging to find an offering that is not a poorly designed rehash of the annoying marketing propaganda that appears in our mailboxes each election. After sifting through dozens of candidate sites, you are guaranteed to get tired of reading generic introductory letters and sterile, repetitive information. I did not like a single candidate Web site among the 100 or so that I looked at.

For a glimpse of the road ahead, it is again useful to look south of the border to the Web site of Jean Elliott Brown {www.jeanelliottbrown.com), the Democratic candidate in the just-completed U.S. election for Florida’s 16th Congressional District. Browns Web site features online town hall meetings, streaming media, community forums (message boards), online opponent faxing, a function to construct a candidate comparison, voter surveys, secure credit-cardbased fund raising and an icon displaying the latest child gun-death count. Brown is an excellent example of a wired candidate who used the Web as a cost-efficient, integral part of her campaign strategy rather than an outmoded brochure.

Did it work for her? In a word, no. Brown lost to the incumbent in her district. All the accolades, endorsements and publicity her Web site received did not win the election. Let’s be clear: traditional campaign tactics—ability to raise funds, character, track record, experience and so on—still rule the day. But as text, voice, video and other media converge online, the ability to deliver a fresh message to the electorate using technological know-how will become an important factor that politicians will be judged on. The unwired candidate could get left behind.

Internet delivery by Canadian politicians in this election campaign follows the all-too-familiar pattern of general Internet use. Simply put, Americans make better use of the Internet on a bigger scale in more innovative ways. Our politicians should look, and learn. A window of opportunity exists to leap ahead of the competition and emerge as the Websawy Canadian political party in 2001 and beyond. The kids are watching.