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Blogging the Canadian Election

Blogging the Canadian Election

Jim Elve> A number of international events made headlines this past week. The U.S. handed over political rule in Iraq to a group of Iraqis. Saddam Hussein was brought before a judge in Baghdad. MSN launched a new web search service. Barbie turned 40. Marlon Brando died at 80. Deep space probe Cassini sent Earthlings pictures of Saturn.

Lost amid all of that important stuff was the Canadian federal election. On Monday, June 28, Canadians elected 308 Members of Parliament in what was seen as the bitterest campaign ever staged in the oh-so-polite Great White North.

In December, Canada’s two right-of-centre parties, the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party, merged to form a united right: the Conservative Party of Canada. In January, a $100 million CAD ($71 million USD) scandal erupted in which the ruling Liberal Party was implicated in kickbacks and money-for-nothing advertising contracts going back several years. In March, the new Conservative Party elected Stephen Harper as its national leader. On May 23, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin called a federal election for June 28.

In what can be best described as a campaign of fear and loathing, Canadian voters were warned by the Liberals not to entrust power to the as yet unknown new Conservatives. Conservatives urged voters to punish the Liberals for 10 years of waste, mismanagement and corruption.

The two major parties, however, were not the only choices for Canadian voters. In Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois courted voters with a combination of left wing policies and a message of Quebec separatism. Across the country the New Democratic Party (NDP) presented its brand of moderate socialism, a little to the left of the Liberals. The Green Party was also a factor and, for the first time, ran candidates in all 308 ridings.

So, you’re wondering, what’s all this got to do with blogs? Be patient. I’m getting to that.

In the lead-up to the election, web-savvy voters speculated on the effect the Internet would have in 2004. The major parties already had websites before the election was called and launched new, revised versions immediately following the May 23 announcement. Despite high expectations for an Internet-savvy campaign, the official party use of the web was quite disappointing.

A few candidates had blogs. Out of over 1200 federal candidates, though, only a handful blogged and of those, only a couple had what could be considered “real” blogs with permalinks and a commenting system. Frequent updates? Forget about it.

Blogging did have a part to play, though.

The parties resorted to old style one-way communication via TV, radio and newspaper advertising. Mostly, they told us in brief terms why we should not vote for the other guy. With all the negative campaigning being done by the big players, it fell to bloggers to unravel the truth from fiction and to discuss the issues in depth.

Canadians were well aware that an election would be held in 2004 and the smart money was on an early date. Prime Minister Martin was not elected as PM but had ascended into that role when Jean Chrétien retired and Martin was elected leader of the majority Liberals. He not only needed a mandate from voters, he wanted to get the election over and done with before all the dirty details of the advertising scandal, dubbed Adscam, became public.

As publisher of BlogsCanada, a web log directory and blogging resource site, I launched a special group blog in January. Christened the E-Group Election Blog, the group effort brought together a disparate collection of Canadian pundit bloggers for the express purpose of blogging the upcoming election. Although it would be over 4 months before the election campaign officially got underway, the E-Group had plenty of material on which to write.

At the time I was developing the E-Group, many political blogs were being disparaged both in Canada and elsewhere as “echo chambers.” Left-wing blogs were seen as havens for left-wing opinions where every blog post was cheered on by like-minded supporters. Ditto right-wing blogs. I was determined to do something different when I assembled the E-Group.

As the human editor of a human-edited Canadian blog directory comprised of over 8,000 blogs, I have my finger on the pulse of the Canadian blog scene. Since new bloggers submit their blogs to the directory, I get an early look at the talent out there. There’s a lot of it.

For the E-Group, I recruited writers from across the vast Canadian geographic and political landscapes. Although, I hail from Ontario and I’m a left-leaning liberal, I courted contributors well to the right and left of my own views. The E-Group was launched on January 17 with about 10 group members from various parts of the country and representing a wide diversity of political opinion.

By piggy-backing on the BlogsCanada directory and resource site, the E-Group garnered an immediate daily audience of about 500 unique readers. As well-written, informed articles began to appear, traffic steadily rose. By the time the election was called, we had added several new writers to the group and were getting a little over 1,000 unique visitors per day. Once the election was officially underway, weekday traffic started to approach 2,000 per day and on Election Day, June 28, 3,500 readers visited the E-Group.

Along the way, the big media noticed us. In early May, I was part of a three member panel on blogging on Canada’s CBC Radio, broadcast nationwide. After the election campaign was underway, one of Canada’s national television networks, Global TV, did a segment on election blogging and showcased the E-Group, me and two other E-Group writers, Darren Barefoot and Don Macfarlane. The E-Group was linked to in much of the mainstream media’s online election coverage by large media websites like the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, the Montreal Gazette, CTV, CBC and a host of smaller sites.

Better yet, bloggers were linking to us. And, they were reading and commenting. The in-depth discussion of the issues that was missing from TV and radio was being carried on in the comments section of the E-Group. During the 5 weeks of the official campaign, more than 50,000 readers visited, hundreds of articles were published and thousands of comments were posted.

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One of the more surprising aspects of the whole experience was the civility and respect demonstrated by bloggers and commenters with diametrically opposing views. In an atmosphere of unparalleled negativity on the campaign trail and in the mainstream media, issues were discussed in depth by well-informed, grassroots pundit bloggers whose highly partisan views were challenged and debated by others, just as well-informed and opinionated.

The absolute low point of the negative campaign came when the Conservative Party sent out a press release stating that the Liberal leader was in favour of child pornography. Horrified Conservatives waited for Stephen Harper, their leader to disavow the press release and to chalk it up to an overzealous campaign worker. Instead, Harper softened the heading of the press release and kept the content and meaning intact.

Up to that point in the campaign, the polls had the Conservatives comfortably in the lead. Echo chamber blogs erupted with name-calling and accusations. Some conservatives called it a gaffe that would cost the party the election. Others insisted that the Liberals, by failing to adopt an opposition motion aimed at tightening Canada’s porn laws were guilty as charged.

Canadians looking for civilized debate on the issue found it on the E-Group. One Harper supporter wrote, “(T)he debate here are BlogsCanada Politics E-Group on child porn and stopping it is a great deal more sophisticated and technically savvy than anything any of the parties have said so far.”

As the campaign unfolded and issues of social conservatism, tax policy, voter apathy, abortion and same-sex marriage were discussed, Canadians found intelligent conversations on the E-Group. The worse names to be called were “idiot” and “moron” and, incredibly, that only happened once. Of the thousands of comments posted, I only deleted two. One was pure comment spam and the other was a plagiarized magazine article posted verbatim.

As its publisher and a contributor, I’m obviously prejudiced but I really do believe that the BlogsCanada E-Group gave Canadian voters what they wanted: in-depth, well-researched articles from the grass roots, links to countless other sources of information, links to other pertinent blogs and the ability to interact without restriction.

Now that our election is over, I’ve decided to morph the E-Group into something a little wider in scope. A good description might be “Canadian and International Affairs from a Canadian Perspective.” That’s a bit of a mouthful and not very catchy. The tagline I opted for is, “Multi-partisan Political Punditry.”

Oh, yeah. In case you’re wondering who won the election, it was the Liberals. At least they squeaked back into power, chastened and with a minority. Strategic voting by would-be NDP voters is credited with robbing the Conservatives of a victory. As you might expect, the outcome is being discussed at length by writers and readers on the E-Group .

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