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.

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