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When it comes to online, Canadian party leaders are out of touch

Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe (C) speaks with patrons at the Brulerie Limoilou while he campaigns in Quebec City, April 1, 2011. Canadians will go to the polls in a federal election on May 2.

Mathieu Belanger/Reuters/Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

When U.S. President Barack Obama launched his campaign for re-election, he began with a YouTube video and a series of ads placed on left-leaning blogs. Independent candidate Ron Paul has so far raised $3-million, almost all of it in $70 donations made by individual donors online. And former Alaska governor Sarah Palin remains a serious contender for the GOP nomination in 2012 by the mere strength of the fact that she leads all other Republican contenders in online support, with 2.8 million friends on Facebook and more than 462,000 followers on Twitter.

Social media have become a game-changer in U.S. politics, allowing politicians as diverse as Mr. Obama, Mr. Paul and Ms. Palin to lead fundraising juggernauts and rally the base at the push of a button.

So why is the same technology used to such dull effect in Canada?

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In the current election campaign, political parties have employed social media as just another way to broadcast their message, a cycle of policy announcements made via Twitter feed in addition to TV and radio spots.

Tamara Small, a professor at Mount Allison University who studies how Canadian politicians employ social media, says the difference can be traced directly to candidates' bank accounts.

"The amount of money they need to raise leads them to use technology in a much more effective way," she said of U.S. politicians. "[In Canada,]they're not going to live and die through fundraising dollars on the Internet. It gives them a rationale to say, 'We don't have to go crazy on the technology.'"

Although they do fundraise, Canadian political parties receive a subsidy according to the number of votes they tallied in the most recent general election, money that is paid out quarterly.

But Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has vowed to end the subsidy system if his party wins a majority government, meaning Canadian politicians would need to start thinking differently about how they cash in on their Twitter feeds.

"If they took away the quarterly allowance, the individual fundraising becomes much more of a matter of life and death," said Harold Jansen, an expert in Canadian campaign finance at the University of Lethbridge.

In 2009, subsidies provided $10.4-million to the Conservatives, $7.2-million to the Liberals, $5-million to the New Democrats, $2.7-million to the Bloc Québécois and $1.9-million to the Greens.

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Finding a way to ramp up private donations would seem to be particularly appealing to the opposition parties.

The Conservatives raised about $22.6-million from donors in 2009, far outpacing the Liberals at $12.5-million, the NDP at $5.1-million, the Greens at about $1.5-million and the Bloc at about $1.4-million.

"I think all parties, even in the current environment, would like to raise more online," Dr. Jansen said.

But political parties in Canada are nowhere close to tapping the full potential of the Internet, he said, and a financial incentive would not necessarily speed the process.

"I'm not convinced that would mean they suddenly figure out the online thing," he said. "There's no reason not to use it more effectively for broader political communications, and they haven't figured that out."

Joshua Dyck, a political science professor at University at Buffalo, State University of New York, said social media have quickly become the backbone of U.S. election campaigns, and not just because of money.

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Both sides of the political divide have employed technology to engage voters on issues that matter to them and increase election day participation, said Dr. Dyck, who holds dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship. Campaign financing aside, he believes Canadian parties need to do the same.

In addition to fundraising, U.S. parties use social media to gather information on potential voters, and to push them toward the ballot box with targeted messaging.

"If you know John Smith is likely to vote Liberal but you're not sure of his propensity to actually vote, why wouldn't you try and address him directly?" Dr. Dyck said. "The whole idea is to generate this database of people, and to make sure the messages you send them keep them sufficiently interested."

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