You can't govern a country 140 characters at a time -

You can’t govern a country 140 characters at a time

Once upon a time, governments consulted with those affected, commissioned reports and weighed their options

You can’t govern a country 140 characters at a time

Chris Wattie/Reuters

As might be expected, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a lot on his mind these days. We know this from recent postings to his Twitter account. Last week, for example, he wished everyone a “Happy Lunar New Year!” Before that he passed along Christmas greetings from “Rachel, Ben, Laureen and myself” and congratulated Ontario-born baseball player Joey Votto on being named National League MVP. Oh yes, he also rewrote the nation’s Internet policy. All in 140 characters.

Twitter is the popular social networking tool that allows users to send out short, frequent blasts of information. Celebrities, sports stars and anyone else who sees a need to provide continual updates on their latest thoughts and activities have flocked to Twitter. Add politicians to this list as well.

Harper has been tweeting since September 2008. Many of his cabinet ministers and parliamentary rivals tweet as well. As a marketing and networking tool, Twitter has become useful, perhaps even necessary, to the business of politics. But is this how Canadians expect their government to make policy? Is it possible to rule a country 140 characters at a time?

The occasion for Harper’s tweet was an announcement that came out of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, an independent agency. The CRTC affirmed its position on Internet usage and unlimited access plans, a move that proved controversial in some segments of the public. The Prime Minister sides with the dissidents: “We’re very concerned about CRTC’s decision on usage-based billing and its impact on consumers. I’ve asked for a review of the decision.” The next day Harper’s industry minister, Tony Clement, announced, again via Twitter, that “CRTC must go back to drawing board.” The CRTC quickly caved, and declared it would review its ruling (announcing the move in a news release).

The manner by which Harper and Clement changed this policy should be considered as significant as the change itself. They did not stand up in the House of Commons and state that they found the CRTC ruling to be unacceptable. They did not issue a formal press statement, give a speech, or use any of the traditional methods by which governments are accustomed to making announcements. They simply tweeted the 97,375 people who follow their Twitter accounts.

What does it say to the Canadian and international business communities that our leaders are prepared to so casually announce major policy decisions? It’s fine for politicians to present themselves as technologically savvy, but why should anyone have to wade through Clement’s Twitter account to see if, between the updates on his home life (“my daughter has claimed the remote for Glee“) and his thoughts on the soup at a recent industry association dinner (“tasty”), he’s about to alter the country’s regulatory framework? Besides, substantial policy changes require more than a sentence of explanation. Once upon a time, governments consulted with those affected, commissioned reports and weighed their options before making important announcements. Now all that’s required is a pair of thumbs and a BlackBerry.

Reliance on Twitter is entirely consistent with this government’s approach to communications: tightly scripted, unmediated contact with the public. It’s also a depressingly familiar reminder of the many ways in which the Prime Minister and his cabinet have denigrated our important parliamentary institutions. Consider the parsimonious attitude to Freedom of Information requests, boycotts of parliamentary committees, unprecedented ad hominem attacks on the parliamentary budget officer and former diplomats as well as the use of prorogation as a tactical manoeuvre. Policy by Twitter is yet more evidence of a government that has lost interest in the fundamentals of parliamentary democracy.

Governing Canada is a job for adults who can act it. If there are policy announcements to be made, these should be presented in a setting and manner befitting the serious responsibilities of government. The process leading up to such announcements should be deliberate and thoughtful. Blasting out changes based on passing thoughts or the whims of the online crowd is an embarrassment to serious policy-making. Finally, our system of representative democracy requires that Parliament be the centre of law-making and government in this country. Who put Twitter in charge?

It was good to see a story Maclean’s broke starting to get more attention this week, even if the reason is distressing. Several media outlets picked up on the plight of Cindor Reeves, once the brother-in-law of the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, who is now on trial in The Hague on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Reeves smuggled guns and blood diamonds for Taylor, but secretly turned on him to co-operate with the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, which eventually brought charges against Taylor. His work, according to those involved in building the case, was crucial. It was also risky. The court once plucked Reeves and his family from West Africa hours before an assassination squad sent by Taylor would have found them. Reeves asked for and received nothing in return. His application for refugee status in Canada has now been rejected. He’s appealed the decision, and we trust the Federal Court will do the right thing. There is solid and credible evidence he will be murdered if he is deported to Liberia, and much to take issue with in the Immigration and Refugee Board’s decision.


You can’t govern a country 140 characters at a time

  1. If ever there was a piece of technology ripe for misuse as a propaganda delivery mechanism (and/or inciter of mob behaviour) twitter is it.

    The fact that we so blindly and unquestioningly accept its infiltration into our lives with absolutely no critical thought is disturbing.

    Thanks to Macleans for publishing this article.

    • I don't do twitter and don't even have a cell phone. I do have a Face book acct. but with no info about myself and have NO friends, sometimes go on it to see what others are doing, I would never post to the world what I did, pictures, etc.

      • i prefer to have friends, myself.

    • you know who really hates tweeting opinions and information…. tyrants and dictators in the middle east. Thanks Rogers/Maclean's for showing your true colours.

  2. What used to be a demanding 24/7 job…governing a vast complex country like Canada…is now something you do in your spare time apparently.

    • Brilliant comment Emily – you are right on.

      • What's brilliant about it?

  3. tweetle dum and tweetle dee dee

  4. I've only read about three tweets in my life, but I'm not sure how different it is from the concise press releases that make a wide range of important announcements. I suppose it may be a way for governments to make more tentative announcements, and to get feedback from the public. In that sense, this tweet certainly worked.

    The information revolution has made us stupider and worse off in a great many ways (and better off in others). However, I'm not sure that Twitter offers a revolutionary difference in the way things are done – and the modest changes it does entail (the possibility of feedback and the fact that it targets a different audience) may even be positive.

    • It is a good thing, it has made the world soooo small and I loved it during the Egypt ordeal, I mean this tool has changed us forever, if not asked Egyptians.

      • Rubbish. I bet you if you asked 1000 Egyptians what they tweeted during the demonstrations, 999 wouldn't know what the heck you were talking about. Twitter's role in the Egyptian uprising was marginal at best, just as it was during the Iranian one. Those who believe otherwise are self-deluding ethnocentrists who have no idea how totalitarian governments thrive on the kind of traceable information flow that Twitter and Facebook create for them – saves them hours of field work.

  5. Oh, please what a bunch of baloney, I have never disagreed with a maclean's editorial as much as this one!

    With Harper is damn if he does it and damn if he doesn't, it was a smart twitt, to the point, and it reached the people that they intended to to reach, and it spread like fire and was well received, it felt personal and approchable, so it was great, I didn't hear anyone complaining, everybody welcomed the news.

    We are changing, our communications are evolving, see the INCREDIBLE work it did in Egypt and most journalists in this country sure love their twitter, there is a few twitter addicts and you know it, which personally I don't mind, it's kind of nice to read their interests and get some news that other wise you wouldn't have ever read. I've learned a lot about apps from certain someone in your magazine ; )

    So #badmacleansbad ; )

    • It's commendable that government ministers are able to use some of the new communications media, but in this case the point is that sound bites transmitted over twitter have replaced thoughtful debate. This trend by the Harper government is intentional because their policies and decisions only make sense if they are conveyed in four word sentences. "Politics in whole sentences" is not in the interests of the Harper Party.

      Yes, a great deal was accomplished using social media in Egypt, but even the twitterers acknowledge that the business of reforming their democracy and writing a new contsitution cannot be accomplished in the same way.

      • I don't agree I am sorry, it was smart advertising and I bet you most people saw it that way, twitter went crazy with complains, MP's, Government, was just inundated with twits and emails (Don't forget Harper doesn't react unless it affects his comfort zone) they wanted to see some change and some action, opposition were against it too, it was a smart way to reach their target, I hardly believe that it crossed the mind of any major leader in the world or international bussines communities, it's something that we did expect, we knew it was going to happen and it was ok.

        I don't disagree that he makes it really hard with his MO in the HOC, but with the twitter article it's an overeaction, I haven't heard one complain but theirs. And I love my maclean's but I don't agree with this at all.

        • I also don`t think Egypt will be reforming their democracyand writing a new constitution thru twitter, but they will let it be known thru it with sound bites.

          Twitter is great because it is a fairly immediate way of communicating and can be very personal, which beats most other forms of communication, it offers so much information, non-stop at everyone`s easy disposal, it is a great tool.

          I think Harper wasn`t out of line with this, maclean`s was overeacting : )

  6. While tweeting has its uses, I think the most important point in this article is that it is not a suitable replacement for Parliamentary debate and thoughtful discussion backed up by research and facts, for developing or changing public policy. This is unacceptable and a disservice to Canadians and their elected representatives.

    • Thoughtful discussion? Research and facts? Not in the Stephen Harper world of knee-jerk reactions and political calculus.

  7. So, when it was reported that the government was insisting that the CRTC review this matter, the fact that the policy statements were only made via Twitter wasn't mentioned – at least not prominently nor with the significance it deserved.
    The HarperCONS can continually crap all over the mainstream media and the MSM won't even call them out on it?

  8. The recently elected mayor of Calgary spoke about doing politics in whole sentences. This is something our current government in Ottawa have ability for. (Please insert NOT before have in the previous sentence.)

    • I <3 mayor Nenshi.

      Not sure why my previous post was deleted since it pretty much said the same thing.

      • I do too, what a great guy!

  9. In true loner spirit Maclean’s fails to mention the worst of Harper’s abuses of the Twitter medium. What’s that you say? The fact he announced his meeting with Obama EXCLUSIVELY using Twitter. That is, he didn’t issue a formal media release. Now Maclean’s wouldn’t care about that, right? Since they always come in WAY AFTER the news breaks with commentary. But the public does care! We want our media treated with respect by our government. Now Luiza Savage, posted in Washington, likely heard about this meeting through the grapevine or from the US Embassy so Maclean’s needn’t worry right? Hey…the more a breaking story breaks the better that serves this editorial board’s agenda…

  10. OK. Now Stephen Harper is the worst prime minster ever in terms of selling out canada to foreign interests, but come on, there's SO MUCH better things to be on his case about than the use of Twitter by government officials! How about it Macleans? How about a REAL story for once instead of this spoon fed pablum to keep the people stupid.

    How about some truth telling about the Harmonized security parameter agreement with the states? (which was pushed through without public consultation or debate in parliament)… Or maybe the CETA agreement which is being "negotiated" right now… which is like NAFTA on steroids when it comes to the effects of what it will do to our country. Nope. Not a peep. Just another mealymouthed pundit spouting off about something laughable in importance. Distract Distract Distract. SHAME!

  11. An honest editorialist would declare, in the interest of full disclosure, that MacLean's is owned by Rogers, which has a vested interest in UBB.

  12. I like how macleans has no problem with having twitter accounts used to sign in to their own website.

    I can't stand twitter and facebook, but I'd rather have the government tweeting directly to the people rather than going through a mouthpiece like macleans.

  13. MacLean's. You are a puppet of Rogers. Pro-UBB, anti-twitter. You're pathetic. You should publish an article next month about how Netflix will kill children! Morons.

  14. Nice try ROGERS…. And Macleans, you are very disappointing to me. "By the Editors?"…. which means nobody has the balls to even sign this piece of propaganda…..

  15. You can govern a country 140 characters at a time. Stephen Harper showed us how.

    Which is kind of weird, because his enemies also use it.

  16. Congrats Macleans, you actually stooped lower than your pro-UBB (a.k.a. anti-consumer) article. Oh, and look another article thats written by "editors"…. I see your ROGERS overlords have no shortage of articles ready for you to post. Any time someone threatens ROGERS' criminal profits, they must be doing something wrong. All this article is about is whining that Clement opposed the anti-consumer, anti-competitive UBB ruling. Now ROGERS is worried they won't be able to charge 5000% markup on their internet services forever. Forgive me for not caring.

    Let me guess, the next article is going to be how Netflix promotes communism and kills kittens… right?


  17. boycott Macleans magazine. Not that many people read it nowdays

  18. Twitting has a lot of future with UBB. 140 characters at a time, you're right. Maybe it's internet 3.0, not what I had in mind though.

  19. It seems mysterious editors are Rogers PR department. Shame on Macleans, you are not worth the paper this nonsense is printed on. I have canceled my subscription, No support for Rogers agenda pushers from me…

    Oh, and to 'editors' – **** *** *** ******* ******

  20. Stop focusing on the message container and get down to the real issue: CRTC took a biased decision.
    But I suppose that since MacLeans belongs to Rogers, it wouldn't serve their purpose……..

  21. Unfortunately this article isn't about Twitter at all. Rogers (which owns MacClean's) is simply in a panty-bind about the content of the "tweet" itself–which announced to near 100,000 people in one click that UBB is a no-go and Rogers' (MacClean's) agenda to virtually rob the common household isn't flying. So, Rogers (MacClean's) wrote this ridiculous article as a way to spin it and devalue what Harper had to say.

    Don't worry, Rogers. I don't even have Twitter! I get my news about you and Bell losing the UBB battle via REAL news sites and