Michael Barbour is a former
parliamentary staffer. He worked for retired Senator Jack Marshall, Senators
Dan Hays and Jerry Grafstein and former MP Anna Terrana. At the time this
article was written he was a graduate student in Education at Memorial
University of Newfoundland and a Social Studies teacher at Discovery Collegiate
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 a mysterious entity that did not figure prominently in the work of
most legislators. Today all federal and most provincial legislators have been
connected to the Internet in one form or another yet the question still arises
as to what extent this new technology is being used in the offices of Canadian
legislators. To try and answer this question a survey consisting of eight
questions was sent by e-mail to all 301 Members of the House of Commons in
The questions were as follows:
- Do you check/read your e-mail on a regular basis?
- Do you reply to any e-mail that warrants a response?
- Do you maintain an e-mail database for regular or mass
- Do you monitor Usenet newsgroups?
- Do you post to Usenet newsgroups?
- Do you have a World-Wide Web site?
- How often is this site update?
- What sort of material is available on your World-Wide
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
Of the 32 MPs 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 MP’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 a member’s office and watching
for e-mail addresses printed on the business cards something that is becoming a
more common practice. A survey could be included in a householder, asking
constituents questions about their level of Internet access and including a
space for them to write their e-mail address. These are all ways to start to
collect e-mail addresses to add to an 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 MP or Senator
Thirteen MPs who replied to the
survey had World-Wide Web pages. This is one area where some members are being quite
creative. They used this medium to post biographical information, parliamentary
responsibilities, riding achievements, feedback, press releases, speeches,
political party and other links, 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.herbdhaliwal.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 pages linked to the Parliamentary Internet.
Some MPs create a homepage
shortly before the election, so that it can 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 less than 10% of parliamentarians are
using the World Wide Web as an important part of their communication strategy.
Perhaps the part of the Internet
most under utilised is Usenet newsgroups. A newsgroup is akin to an electronic
message board. They 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 his or her choice or respond to a message posted by
someone else. Since 1995 I have personally seen only two parliamentarians ever
post messages to a Usenet newsgroup. Replies to the survey support this
observation. Out of the 32 respondents, only 4 MPs stated that they monitor
Usenet newsgroups and only 3 of those stated that they had ever posted a
message to a newsgroup.
To what newsgroups should 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 MP
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 MP 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. There are tens of thousands of other newsgroups available to
Problems Associated with
Using the Internet
One of the main reasons
parliamentarians have not embraced 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, tends to use e-mail to ask extremely
technical questions that are time consuming answer.
Another reason for
parliamentarians limited use of the Internet is the demographics of their
individual ridings. Many ridings, 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. After the
election, her former Executive Assistant and Campaign Manager observed that
many constituents and 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 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 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.
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.
In New Zealand there is no individual
access to e-mail or world-wide web homepages for parliamentarians on the
parliamentary server (mx.parliament.govt.nz). There is one general
e-mail address for Ministers of the Cabinet (email@example.com).
The Government uses this account to post messages to the nz.politics
Usenet newsgroup. Over a three month period, the Government posted an average
of five to eight ministerial announcements per week. In addition to the
ministerial announcement, one of the parliamentary caucuses also posts messages
to the nz.politics newsgroup. The ACT political party’s parliamentary
office (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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 ahead of their Pacific colleagues, although they are still not
to the point that Parliamentarians have reached in Canada. In Australia, MPs
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 (email@example.com),
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, members of the House of Representatives and
Senators still do not appear to post messages to 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). The White
House is the only government organisation that has made extensive and regular
use of Usenet newsgroups. The White House posted 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 them.
In the United States as well as
Australia and New Zealand, political parties have been using Usenet newsgroups
whereas 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
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). 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).
Over the past three years, we
have seen access to and use of the Internet increase dramatically by
parliamentarians. 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,
valid reasons exist as to why parliamentarians have not yet embraced Internet
usage to its fullest extent.