Loose Cannon: Harper cyber chats with himself

Thursday, March 18, 2010

  • There was nothing social about
the 40-minute Youtube pep talk from our Prime Minister. Mainly, it was an opportunity
for him t

    There was nothing social about the 40-minute Youtube pep talk from our Prime Minister. Mainly, it was an opportunity for him t

Written by Greg Beneteau

Is social media democracy’s best friend, or its worst enemy? The answer depends on how you use it.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper sat down Tuesday for a special livestream interview on Youtube, the move was heralded by organizers as an opportunity for the country’s leader to connect with the Internet generation.

The Prime Minister’s Office described the interview as a chance for “Canadians to have unfiltered and immediate access to information.”

“It’s not every day that you get to ask your country’s leader questions about issues you care about,” chirped Jacob Glick, Canada Policy Counsel for Google, which owns Youtube.

Sadly, that day remains as elusive as it’s ever been. Instead of going viral, Harper simply adopted a new communication strategy for his heavily-scripted message.

The interview, conducted by Google’s bilingual chief financial officer Patrick Pichette, touched on subjects ranging from the deficit to crime and the Afghan detainee abuse scandal. Questions were chosen from among 1800 submissions, many of which desperately required basic grammar and spell checking before going live.

But there was nothing social about the 40-minute pep talk from our Prime Minister. Mainly, it was an opportunity for him to repeat Conservative talking points without any interruptions, particularly from Pichette, whose primary job as interviewer was to be unassuming. 

B. Jonte from Waterloo asked why the government frequently responded to questions about detainee abuse in Afghanstan by saying “we should ‘support our troops’ and look the other way.”

Harper replied by stating he disagreed with the premise of Jonte’s question, and then proceeded to launch into a “support our troops” speech. He barely attempted to address concerns about student debt expressed by Crazyforyou79, who apparently lives in Saskatoon.

On a question about the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentencing, Pichette stepped in to help with the wording after Harper claimed that deterrence to crime “doesn’t work unless people are actually certain they’re going to get punished.”

“But if you create a system where there’s always a loophole, and you can always get out of the punishment, or the punishment can always be downgraded or forgotten, then it’s clear, that kind of a system does not deter people,” Harper explained.

“Is not credible,” Pichette chimed in.

“Is not credible,” Harper echoed.

You won’t get that kind of assistance from Peter Mansbridge.

If Harper hoped to resonate with the youth vote, he blew it when responding to a question about the legalization marijuana. (According to Pichette, it was the most popular question chosen by online voters).

“A majority of Canadians, when polled, say they believe marijuana should be legal for adults, just like alcohol,” the question read. “Why don’t you end the war on drugs and focus on violent criminals?”

Harper’s black-and-white answer bordered on condescending, insisting that the legalization of “bad” drugs like marijuana could never be handled as reputably as, say, the commercialization of alcohol.

“The reason drugs are illegal is because they are bad,” Mr. Harper said. “And even if [marijuana] were legalized, I can predict with a lot of confidence that these would never be respectable businesses run by respectable people.”

Harper also claimed that when people buy drugs, “they are not buying from their neighbour. They are buying from international cartels that are involved in unimaginable violence and intimidation and social disaster and catastrophe all across the world.” This would come as a surprise to anyone who has ever bought home-grown marijuana from their neighbour.

The strength of social media is that it provides a forum for frankness and honesty in a world saturated with spin.

There is no such thing as an “unfiltered” interview in a government that maintains a vice-like grip on its message.

But in the spirit of participatory democracy, I decided to submit a written question for the occasion. I asked Mr. Harper why government institutions remained hostile to Freedom of Information requests, despite a pledge by the Conservatives to usher in a new era of transparency. I asked why it was considered reasonable for citizens and journalists to wait up to 18 months to receive heavily redacted documents, if they received them at all.

I also asked why it was necessary to answer questions through a Youtube interview when many of the most popular questions were being asked everyday by journalists, who are given the same pre-chewed answers by MPs.

Sadly, no such question came up over the course of Harper’s interview. Presumably it wasn’t popular enough, at least compared to questions about legalized pot and detainee abuse, which raises another troubling question about social media: if an issue doesn’t resonate with the Internet mob, does that mean it’s not important? Maybe I’ll add that to my Twitter feed and see if I get an answer.

Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.

The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question.

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