Prorogation, Protests and Twittering the Budget

Before Christmas you probably hadn’t heard of Christopher White, a graduate student in Anthropology from the University of Alberta. These days, it’s quite likely you that you have: he’s the creator of a Facebook group called “Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament” which has managed to rally 225, 000 members. Through the group, simultaneous anti-prorogation protests were organized and held in cities throughout the country January 23rd 2010.

Pundits have debated whether or not all this momentum would translate into meaningful political choices, and, ultimately, action. Some have dismissed the phenomenon, saying that joining a Facebook group requires so little commitment that it is virtually meaningless, and does not demonstrate that these people were truly politically engaged. Facebook, Twitter, who cares?

Yet recently, the Department of Finance announced that it would be “Twittering the Federal Budget”. In a statement released last month Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said: “Using social media will bring our message to Canadians in a new, cost-effective and convenient way.” Perhaps some news consumers might find it more convenient to get their budgetary updates from a Twitter feed as opposed to listening to the entire budget speech. At press time, stakeholders and media alike were still in the budget lockup and there were no budget updates on the Finance Canada Twitter page. It is hard to understand the appeal of a budget that’s being released in real-time bursts of 140 characters or less. Maybe the Department is still learning the ropes of social media.

But some think that by definition today, a government communications strategy includes the attempt to by-pass the press and get the news directly to the people. In an interview with the National Post, media training consultant Ian Capstick went as far as to call this “…the Holy Grail in Canadian political communications strategy.” To read this National Post Article, please click here.

Gordon Walker, a former MPP wrote a very informative article for The Mark on March 3rd 2010 in which he discussed the art of the budget leak. Click here to red this article.

In his column, Walker observes that much has changed since budget leaks were followed by frenzied calls for the Minister of Finance’s resignation; he pointed out: “When governments leak information, they get their version of the story printed basically intact without Opposition interpretation.” This would seem to be compatible with the Harper government’s legendary tight control of messaging.

Social media has the potential to allow the Department of Finance direct access to people. In his Hill Times article, Mr. White observed that the people dismissing the Facebook group’s impact were sometimes the same people trying to recreate its success.

One has to wonder if the purpose of twittering the budget is to cash in on the kind of political momentum we now know a Facebook group can generate. Access and expediency are two of the qualities that make social media attractive. If the Department of Finance Twitterfeed is going to be attractive to people, it must allow enhanced access to Department of Finance officials; it will have to be interactive and respond to people’s feedback. Whether this will be the case remains to be seen: interactivity is not very compatible with tight control. If you use Twitter, you might consider letting them know what you think of the budget.

Keywords: social media, government