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Alberta Parties show lack of social-media savvy as candidates take hits online

Jerry Bance, former Conservative candidate for the Scarborough-Rouge Park riding in Toronto, is seen here emptying out a customer's coffee mug, into which he reportedly urinated, in this still image from a video broadcast of CBC's Marketplace that aired on March 2, 2012.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/CBC Marketplace

It is not often you see so many political sorts flinging themselves off a cliff like Arctic lemmings. And yet it happened four times this week, an election record assuming someone keeps tabs on candidates urinating into a coffee mug or making prank phone calls by faking a mental disability.

If this federal election gives us nothing else, we will at least remember it was Conservative candidate Jerry Bance who answered the age-old question: "Who peed in your corn flakes?" That incident, combined with Conservative Tim Dutaud's calls posted on YouTube, further underscored how pivotal tweets, blogs and online commentary have become, not just in tracking this campaign, but in raising issues and, perhaps one day soon, determining the outcome.

Further proof of that came from two political aides who had posted inflammatory comments. New Democratic Party communications director Shawn Dearn wrote a pair of 2013 tweets that attacked the Catholic Church and the Pope. Conservative riding association director Sue MacDonell wrote on Facebook that "Indians" were "self-loathing" and described Ashley Burnham as a "nasty piece of work." (Mrs. Burnham is the Enoch Cree Albertan who won the 2015 Mrs. Universe title, then asked First Nations people to vote against Stephen Harper's Conservatives on Oct. 19.)

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Ms. MacDonell was shown the door. Mr. Dearn remains with the NDP, but now works in the shadows.

"People post everything now, and it stays there. Nothing is ever done and forgotten," said Stephen Carter, a former campaign manager for Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and chief of staff for former Alberta premier Alison Redford.

What Mr. Carter is observing is a curious mix of major parties that do not know how to counter a social media assault, along with candidates too slow to understand the new medium is the message, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan.

"We're not learning anything," Mr. Carter said of the use and abuse online. "Somebody should have known about [the video of Mr. Bance peeing in a cup while working as a service repairman in 2012]. I mean, it was on a TV show, CBC's Marketplace. How does that happen?"

CBC received a tip from an anonymous source that the network had video of Mr. Bance caught in mid-stream. CBC checked, and as soon as it put the clip on its website, it went viral. Mr. Bance was soon sacked.

Every political party worries about questionable candidates with murky pasts. Even though candidates are screened, spontaneous actions – or "bozo eruptions," as they were dubbed in the 2012 Alberta election campaign – are still possible.

Danielle Smith's Wildrose party was cruising ahead in the polls until two candidates ended up in a ditch. Former pastor Ron Leech did an interview saying that being a Caucasian gave him an advantage in his diverse Calgary riding. Pastor Allan Hunsperger used his church's website to express his belief that gay people "will suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell."

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Mr. Hunsperger said his comments were his personal views. No matter. His political career was done.

David Taras, a professor of communication studies at Calgary's Mount Royal University, feels it is "overstated" to suggest social media will decide the outcome of the federal election. For party leaders, the key issues remain the economy (linked to the price of oil) and how best to deal with Syrian refugees.

"You'd like to think the parties have checked into their candidates' background and asked, 'Is there anything you want to tell us?' " Mr. Taras said.

No doubt the Alberta NDP would have appreciated a heads-up from Calgary-Bow candidate Deborah Drever, who posed for a photo showing her as a victim of sexual assault. Then an old Instagram post questioning the sexuality of long-time politicians Jim Prentice and Ric McIver was found linked to Ms. Drever.

Dumped by the NDP, she now sits as an independent MLA and a reminder of how quickly things can unravel. What you do not want, Mr. Taras cautioned, "is this to happen in the last 10 days of campaigning."

The Plane Truth

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When the federal campaign began (What was it? A year ago?) journalists travelling aboard Mr. Harper's chartered Air Canada Airbus announced they would stick to a time-honoured tradition and name the plane.

This prompted many suggestions, some of which were delightfully funny. But after the matter was put to a vote, Economic Action Plane nosed out Balanced Budget.

Meanwhile, journalists accompanying Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau refer to his plane as Hair Air. As for the NDP, Thomas Mulcair's staff chose to bypass the media and pick their own name – Air Mulcair. That was exciting.

Hair we go again

The new NDP television ads are out, and they look much like the Conservatives' bit that ends with a job interviewer saying Mr. Trudeau is "just not ready." The NDP's take goes after Mr. Harper and says, "It's time to let him go."

The ad closes with the "nice hair" line, which worked nicely against Mr. Trudeau. But against Mr, Harper? Not so much.

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