CBC News Federal Election

Analysis & Commentary

Dan Brown

Howard Dean they ain't
June 1, 2004

Dan Brown
Dan Brown  
Having an internet presence is de rigueur for anyone seeking public office today, although there's no proof that a website can actually help a political candidate increase his or her vote tally. Just ask Howard Dean. The one-time front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination generated lots of headlines (as well as cash) with his web operation, though that didn't stop him from getting trounced in the primaries. Granted, Dean was able to use the web to create a sense of community among his supporters. But John Kerry still kicked his butt.

What this means is that setting up a website is now part of the price that a candidate pays for entry into the political game. That said, not every website is created equal. There are better websites and there are worse websites, and each party running in this year's federal campaign here in Canada has carved out a distinct web identity.

Tod Maffin grades the parties' websites - Runs 4:01AUDIO
Tod Maffin grades the parties' websites
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Take the upstart Green Party's official site, for instance. The splash page features a quote from Justice Louis Brandeis: "The most important office in a democracy is the office of Citizen." What's telling isn't the quote itself, but the fact that Brandeis was a Justice on the American, not the Canadian, Supreme Court. By choosing Brandeis–who has also been publicly quoted by the likes of Timothy McVeigh–the Greens are sending a very specific message: we aren't, like the other parties, bound by tradition.

Doug Long is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. He believes that the Green site shows that that the party understands exactly who is going online to get information on Green policies.

Rick Broadhead, a technology analyst and long-time observer of campaign websites in Canada, is most impressed with the Conservative Party site, which also has a slight American flavour to it. The first thing visitors will notice is that the colour scheme chosen by the Conservatives matches the red, white and blue of the American flag. According to Broadhead, the bright hues actually help the party because they convey an energetic image. He also says that the Tory site is the best of the lot simply because Stephen Harper's people have got the basics right: it's a nice-looking site with a consistent design that's easy to navigate.

"I get the impression that this is a party that's going to make a difference," says Broadhead, who notes that one of the Conservative Party's predecessors–the Reform Party–also had a sharp site.

Broadhead thinks the Bloc Québécois website is the closest to the Conservative one in terms of effectiveness. Long, for his part, says the BQ site makes all the rest look like half-hearted attempts.

"I find it the most engaging political experience," Long explains. "The website of the Bloc Québécois just exudes this visceral energy."

Long is especially taken with one feature of the Bloc site: Ecoutez la théme. This is the button that allows visitors to see a group of young Bloc supporters singing the party's campaign song. "It is hot, it is good stuff, it's catchy," Long says. "You find yourself humming it as you go away." In Long's view, only the Bloc could get away with such a blatant appeal to the heartstrings of voters because all they have to do to win over voters is celebrate the perceived advantages of Quebec sovereignty. "They don't have to mount a widely plausible platform for governing," he adds.

Both Long and Broadhead give the Liberal site low marks. Long rates the Liberal attempt the least effective because it looks like what it is: the site of the incumbent party.

"It was as though someone had said 'We are the government. We want everyone to understand that we're governing, so we'll show them all the complex stuff we're doing,'" he notes. According to Long, the Liberal site is very revealing of the "mental age" of the people who put it together: "The Liberal website looks to me like the website of a group of old people hoping to look young."

Broadhead likes the Liberal home page fine, but doesn't think Paul Martin is offering much to visitors who want to roam around. "It was almost as if they threw the website together and didn't have time to really do a good job on the back end," he says.

But Broadhead doesn't believe the Liberals are at the bottom of the heap. That distinction goes to the NDP. The problem, in his opinion, is that the NDP site doesn't capture the personality of Jack Layton, possibly the party's only nationally recognized figure. "There needs to be more content and there needs to be much more energy to the site," Broadhead says. "I guess what struck me the most is Jack Layton, to me, is the most charismatic character. His website is the least charismatic of all the parties. So that's what's surprising: the website does not reflect on him very well."

Broadhead says the sparse NDP site "makes it look like they've got a third-rate graphic designer working for them," which brings up the obvious question: does the quality of a website even matter? Presumably the point of having a website is to help a party at the polls. But are they really a factor?

"I don't think that it has been demonstrated that it's all that important," Long says. "I don't think that these websites are going to translate into enough votes to be decisive."

Past Columns
Dan Brown is news online's senior arts editor/reporter. A former editorial writer, copy editor and journalism instructor, Dan has degrees from three universities.

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