Parliament and the Internet: The present and the future

by Michael K. Barbour

Every member of the Senate and the House of Commons along with their staff, have access to e-mail, the World-Wide Web and Usenet newsgroups. However, just getting connected to the internet does not ensure that this communications tool is used to the fullest extent. This article looks at what Parliamentarians are doing and what they could do in the future.

In the early 1990s the Internet was just some mysterious entity that did not figure prominently in the work of most legislators. It was not known exactly what this vehicle could mean to government and to politics. Eight years later, all federal and most provincial legislators have been connected to the Internet in one form or other yet the question still arises as to what extent this new technology has is being used in the offices of Canadian legislators. To answer this question a survey consisting of eight questions was sent to all 310 Members of the House of Commons in early 1999.

The questions were as follows:

The response rate, 32 out of 301, is in line with traditional mail surveys although one might have hoped for a larger response given the ease of answering questions by e-mail. Nevertheless based on these responses it is possible to make some general observations about how Parliamentarians are using e-mail, the World Wide Web and Usenet newsgroups.

Of the 32 M.P.s who replied to the survey, only 10 of them were using e-mail databases. Most political offices have traditional, mailing databases which can be merged with form letters or used to run off labels to send out copies of the M.P.'s or Senator's last speech. This kind of direct mail is popular both as a fundraising and advertising tool. It would seem logical to take this to the next step and create an e-mail database that could be used to contact special interest groups, the business community, supporters and donators.

This could be done quite simply by keeping a record of the people that e-mail your office and add them to your database. Watch for e-mail addresses that are printed on the business cards that you receive, something that is becoming a more common practice. Include a survey in your next householder, which can be mailed back to the M.P., asking constituents questions about their level of Internet access and be sure to include a space for them to write their e-mail address. These are all ways that you can start to collect e-mail addresses to add to your e-mail database.

Imagine being able to contact these groups and individuals on a regular basis, occupying little in the way of staff time and at no cost to the taxpayer. The beauty about e-mail is that a two screen e-mail is less than half a page of text. This half page could contain anything; excerpts of speeches, press releases, short notes about a particular issue or just the activities of the M.P. or Senator.

Of the 32 M.P.s who replied to the survey, 13 of them had World-Wide Web pages. This is one area where the M.P.s that are using it, they are being quite creative. M.P.s have used this medium to post biographical information, parliamentary responsibilities, riding achievements, feedback, press releases, speeches, political party and other links, 10%ers and householders, FAQ's (or Frequently Asked Questions), and articles for local papers. At least one member, Herb Dhaliwal, has created a World-Wide Web site with his own domain name ( www.herdhaliwal.com). Members of the House of Commons who have homepages registered with the Canadian Yahoo include Hedy Fry, Jay Hill, John Godfrey, Jim Jones, Derek Lee, Peter Milliken, John O'Reilley, Carmen Provenazano, Julian Reed, and Alex Shepherd. A number of Senators including Dan Hays, Colin Kenny and Sharon Carstairs have established home page that are linked to the Parliamentary Internet.

Some M.P.s created a homepage shortly before the election, so that it could be used as an election tool. In many cases, however, it is the political party that has established information about each of their MPs It would appear that only about 10% of parliamentarians have their own homepages and are using the World Wide Web as an important part of their communication strategy.

Perhaps the most part of the Internet most under utilised by parliamentarians is Usenet newsgroups. A Usenet newsgroup is akin to an electronic message board. Newsgroups are arranged around particular thematic topics or geographic areas. Anyone with access to the Internet can simply post a new message on a topic of their choice or respond to a message posted by someone else. Since 1995 I have only, personally, seen two Parliamentarians ever post messages to a Usenet newsgroup. Replies to the survey support this observation. Out of the 32 respondents, only 4 M.P.s stated that they monitor Usenet newsgroups and only 3 of those stated that they had ever made a post to a newsgroup.

To what newsgroups should I a message be posted? Any really, although it is not considered good etiquette to post messages that are off-topic to a particular newsgroup. For example, an M.P. from British Columbia might consider posting messages to bc.general or bc.politics. If they happened to be from Vancouver, they might consider including vancouver.general as well. An Alberta Senator interested in agriculture might consider posting a message to ab.gov.agriculture.barley. Or an M.P. interested in gun control could post a message to can.talk.guns. At the very least, most provinces have a [province].general and a [province].politics newsgroup and there are can.general and can.politics newsgroups that cover the entire country. Literally, there are tens of thousands of different newsgroups available to choose from.

Problems Associated with Using the Internet

One of the main reasons Parliamentarians haven't embrace the Internet as a communications method of the future is because of the demographics of Internet users. It is estimated that one quarter of Canadians have access to the Internet at home, work or school. However, the vast majority of these Internet users are still university students. As a population, this group is declining in political participation and is transient by nature. Many individuals within this group only have access to the Internet while at their university campus and not in their part-time university accommodations or in their permanent residence. Experience has also shown that another large segment of Internet users are those who already have strong political opinions. This group, while not useful for campaigning purposes, can also serve as a hindrance to normal activities of serving constituents on the Internet through mass e-mail campaigns. This group tends to be e-mail asking extremely technical questions that are time consuming to answer.

Another reason for Parliamentarians limited use of the Internet is the demographics of their individual ridings. Many ridings across the country, particularly poorer or rural ridings do not have the level of Internet use that many of the more affluent or urban areas do. A fine example of this is the riding of Vancouver East. During her time as a Member of Parliament and during her re-election campaign, Anna Terrana spent much time and resources on ensuring that she had a state of the art World-Wide Web site and timely, detailed response to e-mail inquiries. However, the riding of Vancouver East covers some of the poorest areas in all of Canada, including being the home to the poorest postal code in all of Canada. After the election, her former Executive Assistant and Campaign Manager observed that many constituents and later voters would question why Ms. Terrana focused so much on the Internet when very few residents of Vancouver East even owned computers.

A final reason why the Internet is not being used to full potential by Parliamentarians is a lack of technological knowledge on the part of Parliamentarians and their staff. Internet expertise has yet to become a requirement when hiring political staff on Parliament Hill. Those who do now possess the technical "know how" to use the Internet in the ways outlined earlier also have a large misconception about how difficult this task will be. It has become a common misconception among non-Internet users that the Internet is vast, complex and difficult to understand. However, this myth is being broken down and the sooner that people realise how easy many of these Internet initiatives can be, the sooner Parliamentarians will begin to take full advantage of all the Internet has to offer.

Some International Comparisons

The first comparison should be with other parliamentary systems, such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. In the United Kingdom not one Parliamentarian is connected to the Internet through their parliamentary connection ( www.parliament.uk). This means that there are no individual e-mail addresses or world-wide web homepages for Parliamentarians. The Parliament in the United Kingdom does have one general e-mail address and does have a world-wide web site for the institution. Finally, in a two month survey of two politically-oriented Usenet newsgroups in the United Kingdom (uk.politics.elections and uk.politics.parliament), there was no evidence of any Parliament initiated messages.

This is similar to the New Zealand example, where there is no individual access to e-mail or world-wide web homepages for Parliamentarians on the parliamentary server (mx.parliament.govt.nz). While there are no individual e-mail addresses or world-wide web homepages, there is one general e-mail address for Ministers of the Cabinet (announce@ministers.govt.nz). The Government uses this account to post messages to the nz.politics Usenet newsgroup. Over a three month period, the Government posted on average of five to eight ministerial announcements per week. In addition to the ministerial announcement, one of the political parties parliamentary caucus also post messages to the nz.politics newsgroup. The ACT political party's parliamentary office (act@parliament.govt.nz), which has eight out of one hundred and twenty seats (they are the fifth out of six parties represented in Parliament), has regularly posted press releases and speeches to the newsgroup.

Their close neighbours in Australian are steps ahead of their Pacific colleagues, although they are still not to the point that Parliamentarians have reached in Canada. In Australia, M.P.s and Senators do have access to individual e-mail addresses (on the aph.gov.au domain), but not to individual world-wide web pages. While Australian Parliamentarians have access to e-mail accounts, they also do not use them to post messages to Usenet newsgroups. In February of this year, the only political organisation to post any messages to the aus.politics Usenet newsgroup was the Australian Democratic political party (webmaster@democrats.org.au), which posted three press releases.

In the United States, every single member of the House of Representatives and every single Senator has access to individual e-mail addresses and individual world-wide web homepages (www.house.gov or www.senate.gov). In addition, the President, Vice-President and the First Lady all have individual e-mail addresses and the White House has its own world-wide web site ( www.whitehouse.gov). However, even with this blanket access to the Internet, member of the House of Representatives and Senators still do not post messages to Usenet newsgroups. The White House is the only government organisation that has made extensive and regular use of Usenet newsgroups. Even during presidential elections, neither the Democratic or Republican Campaign Committees used newsgroups much during the campaign (although the Republican National Committee has begun posting since the beginning of 1998). However, the White House did post all press releases and all speaking notes to alt.politics.elections, along with many other newsgroups, leading up to the Presidential election in 1996.

When considered against the United States, Canadian Parliamentarians are not all that far behind in their Internet usage. . Both groups of legislators have full access to e-mail accounts and both groups have access to Usenet newsgroups (although neither body uses them). The only real difference between the two groups is that in the United States the vast majority of legislators have personal world-wide web homepages, while in Canada only a select few have the same.

In the United States as well as Australia and New Zealand, political parties have been using Usenet newsgroups when their legislative representatives fail to do so. This trend has not been lost on Canadian political parties which are also making use of the Internet and in some cases, making a more effective use of the Internet than Parliamentarians.

The Canadian parties represented in Parliament were questioned about their Internet use, via e-mail and three of them responded (the Liberal Party, Reform Party and New Democratic Party). In addition to web and e-mail presence, the parties that responded, also monitor Usenet newsgroups although none actually post messages to Usenet newsgroups.

With the exception of the PC Party, which did have an e-mail listserver in 1995-96, none of the political parties have listservers (although they do make mention of lists that are ideologically similar). One interesting point to make, is that the Reform Party (which was the first party to have an Internet presence) is the only party that allows their Parliamentarians to have e-mail accounts and world-wide web sites on their party's domain (reform.ca).

Conclusion

Over the past three years, we have seen Parliamentarians access to and use of the Internet increase dramatically. However, there are still many areas that can be expanded and improved upon. New initiatives do not require vast commitments of personal or resources. Many can be done taking only minutes out of someone's day. However, it should also be noted that a number of valid reasons exist as to why Parliamentarians have not embraced Internet usage to its fullest extent.


Michael Barbour is a former Parliamentary staffer, having worked for retired Senator Jack Marshall, Senators Dan Hays and Jerry Grafstein and former M.P. Anna Terrana. He is presently a graduate student in Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Social Studies teacher at Discovery Collegiate in Bonavista.