Those wondering when the federal election campaign is going tostart may be surprised to learn that it already has. No one is running anyelection ads and no lawn signs are up, but the campaign is already clearlyvisible to anyone with a computer and a modem.

The NDP fired the first volley in the Internet campaign when it launched, a tongue-in-cheek poll aimed at deciding which flag PaulMartin should raise over the Peace Tower when sworn in as Prime Minister. Itwas a none-too-subtle dig at Martin’s unfortunate history of reflagging hisships in order to avoid Canadian taxes and labour standards. By allaccounts, Martin and his team were absolutely apoplectic at the NDP’swebsite.

Just before Christmas, the Liberals added a prominent page to their ownwebsite, dubbed “Say Anything Jack” and comparing NDPLeader Jack Layton to the likes of Howard Stern. So far, it features onlytwo poorly-written releases, both of which purport to expose “lies” told bythe NDP. Within days, the NDP had posted a detailed rebuttal at The party also suggested that the Liberals’ site was “the latest proof thatthe NDP is the party on the rise in federal politics. Paul Martin is clearlyworried (about the NDP).” Indeed, there is nothing on the site attacking (oreven mentioning) any other party, so the NDP may have a point.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party of Canada took weeks to remove the “underconstruction” sign from their website For anotherweek after that, the site consisted of a press release about the new partylogo. Even now, the site is sparser than even most riding associationwebsites, and merely links to the outdated sites of the Canadian Allianceand the Progressive Conservatives. While the shabby status of theConservatives’ web presence is likely a reflection of a much deeper lack oforganization, it seems clear that Canada’s newest political party is alreadybeing left behind.

Of course, it’s not only political parties that will be involved in decidingthe outcome of the coming election. The creators of paulmartintimehave parodied the look and format of Martin’s own site, while providingloads of useful but unflattering information about Canada’s 21stPrime Minister. Martin’s team was so impressed by the site that theythreatened to sue its creators (and, like the Fox News suit against authorAl Franken, thereby gaining further publicity for the site).

In the United States, the role that the Internet plays incampaigns is gaining considerable attention, largely because of theunprecedented success of Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean. New York Timescolumnist Frank Rich, in a compelling piece entitled “Napster Runs forPresident,” explores Dean’s use of the Internet and its role in creating thesurprising momentum behind his campaign. “Rather than compare Dr. Dean toMcGovern or Goldwater, it may make more sense to recall Franklin Rooseveltand John Kennedy. It was not until FDR’s fireside chats on radio in 1933that a medium in mass use for years became a political force. JFK did thesame for television, not only by vanquishing the camera-challenged RichardNixon during the 1960 debates but by replacing the Eisenhower White House’sprerecorded TV news conferences (which could be cleaned up with editing)with live broadcasts. Until Kennedy proved otherwise, most of Washington’swise men thought, as New York Times columnist James Reston wrote in 1961,that a spontaneous televised press conference was ‘the goofiest idea sincethe Hula Hoop’.”

Rich adds that “such has been much of the reaction to the Dean campaign’sbreakthrough use of its chosen medium. In Washington, the Internet is stillseen mainly as a high-velocity disseminator of gossip (Drudge) and rabidlypartisan sharp shooting by self-publishing excoriators of the left andright. In other words, the political establishment has been blindsided bythe Internet’s growing sophistication as a political tool — and thereforeblindsided by the Dean campaign — much as the music industry establishmentwas by file sharing… The condescending reaction to the Dean insurgency bytelevision’s political correspondents can be reminiscent of that hilariousparty scene in the movie Singin’ in the Rain, where Hollywood’s silent-eraelite greets the advent of talkies with dismissive bafflement. ‘The Internethas yet to mature as a political tool,’ intoned Carl Cameron of Fox Newslast summer.”

For better of for worse, many of the campaign techniques used in the UnitedStates eventually make their way up to Canada (although our attack adsremain comparatively mild and the amount of money in our political system isa drop in the bucket compared to the U.S.). Whichever political partyfigures out how to take advantage of the power of the Internet will have ahead start in reaching voters. So far, it looks like the NDP is forcing theLiberals to play catch up, while the Regressive Conservatives are stillstuck in the starting blocks.


Scott Piatkowski

Scott Piatkowski is a former columnist for He wrote a weekly column for 13 years that appeared in the Waterloo Chronicle, the Woolwich Observer and ECHO Weekly. He has also written for Straight...