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- Push-button Populism: The Reform Party and the Real World of Teledemocracy.
- Reform Party of Canada.
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Tell us if something is incorrect. Out of stock. Get In-Stock Alert. Delivery not available. Pickup not available. The use of electronic technology to enfranchise a greater number of party members in the process of leadership selection is decidedly different from an exercise which seeks to translate public opinion directly into legislation or policy.
The former is a matter of internal party politics, suited to quantitative measurement: how many more party members participated in choosing their leader as a result of this technology? The latter is an issue of public policy and governance, and so must also be subjected to scrutiny in terms of the quality of the democratic participation enabled by the technology involved. In this case, the question to explore is whether the application of this or related technology could result in a qualitatively better democratic practice than is common through the medium of Canadian party politics.
A sufficient answer to this question requires that we move beyond the sort of traditional qualitative critiques typically levelled at referenda in general, and at electronic plebiscites in particular. We will see that the exercises under consideration fail to meet the standards minimally acceptable to democrats and social scientists alike. I also wish to consider how a focus on the ability of teledemocratic practices to construct and reinforce certain discourses suggests why this technology is attractive to the Reform Party.
Finally, I will contend that an emphasis on these "performative" dimensions of teledemocracy can contribute to a richer appreciation of the conditions necessary for more democratic applications of these technologies. The impetus for this exercise was twofold. First, White was seeking to gauge his constituents' opinions on the current state of trial and sentencing practices for youth criminals, with the intent of drafting and tabling a Private Member's Bill in the House of Commons, proposing amendments to the YOA which would reflect these opinions.
However, shortly before Referendum '94 was to take place, federal Minister of Justice Allan Rock tabled his own set of amendments to the YOA , prompting White to suggest that his results would be used "to confirm the approach in Mr. Rock's Bill, or to suggest amendments to the Bill during committee stage in Parliament" White, b. Secondly, the telephone poll in North Vancouver was intended to represent the Reform Party's first attempt to "show all of Canada how the occasional use of electronic referenda can ensure that MPs are much more responsive to the wishes of the people they represent" White, c.
Calling this the "first ever electronic referendum" and an opportunity for his constituents to "show the world how democracy can be improved using the very latest technology," White presented Referendum '94 as an example of "government with due regard to the views of the majority. In other words, true democracy" White, d, p. This claim is based on the contention that Referendum '94 was an exercise carried out in observance of the principle of "universal suffrage," rather than merely a poll of randomly selected opinions Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, personal communication, June 14, Constituents intending to vote were asked to call a number, enter their PIN, and answer "yes" or "no" to a series of questions pertaining to proposed changes to the YOA --all via the keypad of their touch-tone telephone.
Students in the riding were issued a special set of PINs so that their votes could be tabulated separately from the general electorate. A similar arrangement was made for federal Members of Parliament, who were also encouraged to register their opinion. Finally, citizens across the country were able to cast their votes in a separately counted opinion poll which used the same questions but a different telephone number; no PINs were required for participation in this part of the exercise, which meant that people with a particular interest in the outcome of the poll could, conceivably, vote as often as they pleased.
Canadian Election Law & Policies
Public response to the telephone poll was less than overwhelming in terms of numbers participating, and predictable in terms of results see Table 1. Voters were asked three questions: Should the minimum age at which a charge could be laid under the YOA be reduced from 12 to 10 years of age? It should be noted that a significant number of callers to the Referendum Help Line indicated that they voted "no" to this question because they felt the minimum age should either be lower than 10, or eliminated altogether.
Results for the other three categories of respondents generally mimicked those of registered North Vancouver voters, both in terms of low participation rates and preferences. The nation-wide poll elicited approximately 2, responses, while merely 44 of a possible North Vancouver student voters, and only 16 federal MPs participated in the televote.
Despite these small numbers, the distribution of opinions across all categories of voters was relatively consistent with those indicated by White's constituents. White attributed the low rate of participation to a number of factors, including a lack of media attention due to news competition with the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver and Father's Day. According to White: "The most commonly given reason for not voting was that the Government had already announced amendments and that those amendments would be rammed through Parliament so there was no point in voting" White, e, p.
Nevertheless, White praised those who did participate for being "pioneers," and indicated that he was confident he had received a clear enough indication of his constituent's feelings on this issue to act as directed Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, personal communication, June 22, In October of , the Reform Party embarked on an even more ambitious experiment, sponsoring an exercise billed as "Canada's first, live, nationally-televised, interactive Electronic Town Hall meeting" Reform Party of Canada, On one level, this combined television program and telephone poll provided the Reform Party with an opportunity to both publicize and elicit feedback on its plans to "reconstruct our federal system and rebuild the principles by which we govern ourselves" Reform Party of Canada, , p.
On a second level, this was yet another occasion for the Reform Party to enlist the aid of sophisticated communications technologies in fulfilling its rhetorical commitment to increased citizen participation in major policy decisions. Accordingly, Canada Speaks was portrayed as a "citizen participation project" designed to facilitate "consultation between elections," affording "a unique and historic opportunity for you to participate in this electronic town hall meeting from the comfort of your own living room" Reform Party of Canada, , p.
The Canada Speaks exercise was organized as a week-long national telephone poll, culminating in a panel discussion held in Fort Calgary on October 3, , televised live by approximately two thirds of Canada's cable networks. First, callers were asked to respond with a "yes" or "no" to the question of whether "Canada [has] reached a point in its history when the issue of national unity must be resolved once and for all.
The telecast, dubbed an "electronic town hall meeting" by its organizers, gave viewers the opportunity to call in their response to these questions one at a time, after the issues had been discussed by participants in the televised forum. Panelists leading the discussion included Reform Party Leader Preston Manning, hailed as "the uncontested parliamentary pace-setter in the race to the brave new world" Gold, , p.
A5 ; a handful of political scientists and economists; a constitutional adviser; an opinion researcher; and a former adviser to the Bloc Quebecois. In addition to these experts, viewers at home and the audience members in the studio were treated to recorded testimonials from a number of prominent members of the country's political and media elite. Following the exercise, Reform Party Leader Preston Manning indicated that he was "encouraged by the response" Lunman, , p. Aside from their predictability, by far the most interesting aspect of the results of the Canada Speaks televote was the manner in which they were portrayed to and by the mass media.
Numerous print and broadcast media took for granted that 9, "total registered responses" meant that "about 10, Canadians reached out and touched Preston Manning's national unity telethon" Lunman, , p. Firstly, PINs limiting participants to a single vote were not distributed before the poll, and this means that interested parties could potentially have voted several times.
But even more compromising is the fact that each answer to any of the three questions was counted as a distinct "caller. Nevertheless, each answer to every question during this time was also counted by the Reform Party and the mass media as coming from a distinct respondent. Furthermore, a randomly selected control group was solicited in advance to participate in the exercise as a measure of the statistical validity of the telepoll's self-selected sample population.
This control group was also included in the total number of participants, again with each response to every question being tallied as a distinct caller which is probably even less likely in the case of the control group than in the general sample. The result of these unorthodox calculations was a vastly inflated perception of the level of public participation in Canada Speaks.
As it stands, it is statistically impossible to make an accurate determination of how many people actually participated in this exercise. Timed to capitalize on growing public anxiety just prior to the release of the federal budget, the National Tax Alert demonstrated how Reform is able to use this technology to reduce democracy to the level of spectacle and performance. The electronic town hall consisted of brief responses by a panel of experts to three questions about taxation and deficit reduction.
The panel was nearly uniform in its general support of the Reform position on these issues. Panel responses were supplemented by alarmist "tax facts" presented entirely without context or discussion of the possible social repercussions of massive spending cuts, and pre-recorded, cleverly edited testimonials from "the streets of Canada" decrying taxes and the cost of social programs.
Audience members prepared to ask questions were known to organizers in advance of the event, and those with impromptu questions were summarily overlooked by the moderator. In one case, an obviously enthusiastic, but repeatedly ignored, audience member with an unscheduled question was approached by the event organizers off camera, asked about the nature of his question and the contents of his handbag, and encouraged to "settle down.
This supposed exercise in direct democracy ended with one of the young event organizers slipping into a reserved seat near the platform and asking Reform Leader Preston Manning, as if on cue, the event's final question: " The Reform Party of Canada is not alone in having seen the future of democracy in technology. Indeed, it is widely conceded that "there seems to be no insuperable technical obstacle to having the Athenian assembly in our living rooms and workplaces" McLean, , p.
Towards this end, a number of attempts have been made at using communications technology to increase citizen involvement in the political arena, particularly in the United States. As expressed by one of the developers of the Hawaii Televote model, televoting was conceived as a way of addressing some of the inadequacies of the current system of democratic representation: "Televote was seen as a useful means to communicate the views of the citizenry to the representatives and to provide a clearer view of the entire range of citizen opinion than they receive from a small, but vocal and organized, minority or from random samples using conventional polling techniques" Slaton, , p.
Thus, televoting is intended as an alternative medium of interest articulation--a sort of "electronic plebiscitarianism"--that enables more immediate citizen direction of elected officials, in line with what has been traditionally understood as the "delegate" model of political representation. Setting aside for now the issue of whether this is a sound or sufficient basis for democratic practice, we can consider whether televoting based on the plebiscitarian model has been judged to achieve the goals it sets for itself.
In his critical appraisal of these experiments, Christopher Arterton has expressed scepticism in this regard. Arterton sets out eleven conditions for a successfully democratic televote, and determines that the Hawaii televote model is suspect in many respects including access, agenda setting, sample validity, and eventual impact on policy outcomes. Recently, the emergence of sophisticated interactive and network technologies has revived interest in electronically enhanced democratic practices that extend beyond simple televotes. One result of this interest is the availability of government and political documents "on-line.
A handful of parties have even produced "home pages" on the World Wide Web of the Internet. A second manifestation of the increased interest in interactivity has been a proliferation of electronic town hall meetings, particularly since the populist candidate Ross Perot used them to such great effect in the U.
Presidential election campaign Schwartz, ; Wright, Since that time, government leaders throughout the United States and Canada have been involving themselves in similar efforts to bolster their profiles as open and responsive representatives. Thus far, scholarly analysis of these exercises has been limited, but some early commentary on the American cases can be found in a report by Jeffrey Abramson Based on his observations of electronic democracy over the past three decades, Abramson identifies several issues pertaining to the democratic character of mediated town meetings.
These include: sample validity, equality of access to participation, citizen input on issue selection and agenda setting, the depth of prior educative activity supporting the exercise, and whether the kind of interaction enabled is genuinely empowering or merely plebiscitarian in nature. The Reform Party's teledemocratic program is substantially similar to that employed in both the Hawaii Televote model and the recent electronic town halls in the United States, and can be measured according to similar democratic criteria.
More than other Party representatives, Reform MPs portray themselves as delegates, bound by Party policy to transmit the opinions of the majority of their constituents, and are committed to exploring communications technology as an instrument likely to enhance their ability to fulfill this role.
In contrast to the Party discipline and partisanship that causes "old-line politicians" who "don't care what their voters think" to misrepresent their constituents, Reformers have been quick to embrace televoting technology as a means to "facilitate the public will" in a way that other parties can or do not Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, personal communication, June 14, Again, deferring the question of whether this constitutes, or even contributes to, a sufficient foundation for the construction of a rich democratic discourse, it is helpful to evaluate Reform's recent applications of this technology in terms of the minimal qualitative conditions standards they set for themselves.
If the intent of these exercises is to usher in "a type of government that more accurately reflects the will of the people" Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, personal communication, June 14, , it must first be established whether the swath of opinion cut by this technology represents that will reliably. First, because PINs were not distributed in either the Canada Speaks televote or the national opinion poll portion of Referendum '94 , there was nothing to prevent interested parties able to pay the user fee from registering their opinion multiple times.
However, neither it nor the other sample populations escape the tendency of self-selected samples to exaggerate the preferences of those with strongly held beliefs or established opinions on the issue under scrutiny. It is ironic, given the Reform Party's goal of using this technology to negate the undue influence of well-organized "special interests" by generating an accurate portrait of majority opinion, that these exercises could really only be counted on to amplify the voice of a specially interested minority.
The Reform Party's position on the issue of sample validity is ambiguous. In the wake of Canada Speaks , Preston Manning recognized that "these, of course, are responses calling in to a television program. They are not a scientific sample" Delacourt, , p. Nevertheless, he was content to accept the results as a clear indication of the people's will. How does Reform reconcile this apparent incongruity? To answer this question, one must understand that the Reform Party is keenly aware of the meddlesome influence of experts who, using statistical methods, mould and distort the views of ordinary Canadians to suit the purposes of the mandarins and special interest groups that commission their services.
In the Reform Party's view, randomized opinion polls may be "scientifically valid," but they are still suspect precisely because not every citizen with a strong opinion or interest gets to participate. Why the Reform Party is willing to countenance what it knows to be a lack of scientific validity should become clear later, when a performative analysis of these exercises reveals the payoff for this compromise.
It could be argued that the Reform Party values the "universal suffrage" made possible by televoting more than the reliable capture and accurate characterization of the popular will. Or can they? At the very least, citizens interested in participating in these exercises must have access to a touch-tone telephone, a television set, and basic cable services--admittedly, a low-property qualification in the current context, but a property qualification nonetheless.
More seriously, those who wish to be counted in a Reform Party televote must be willing and able to pay for the privilege of doing so, and in the cases where PINs are not distributed, those who have the wherewithal to finance multiple calls can ensure that their particular voice is heard more often than the voices of their less affluent neighbours. Despite the fact that in the case of Referendum '94 a significant minority of North Vancouver residents appear to have been deterred from participating because of the user fee, the Reform Party does not see this as seriously challenging their claim regarding "universal suffrage" in televotes.
This may be true, if all we are talking about is the odd televote now and then. But if, as the Reform Party seems to predict, televoting becomes a more regular feature of Canadian political life, the accumulated expense of repeated user fees may compromise the ability of those on fixed incomes to participate fully and vigorously at a level consistent with those for whom these fees do not force difficult economic choices. Providing the infrastructure for a televote is not cheap, but serious consideration must be given to whether the methods employed to finance such endeavours compromise their democratic character.
When financing entails participation predicated on economic means, democratic criteria inevitably suffer. It should be clear that this is not an indictment of the process of televoting itself, but rather a charge against the pay-per-vote model of funding democratic participation. An obvious alternative would be to publicly fund televotes through taxation, but this is an option that runs counter to the spirit in which the Reform Party envisions this technology being used.
One of the main attractions of televoting carried out through this model is that it "reduces the unit costs of democracy" by eliminating the need for the costly bureaucratic administration and subsidies accompanying general elections in Canada Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, press conference, June 24, Removing the financing of such public exercises from the private realm would also likely curtail the ability of opposition interests such as the Reform Party to freely wield and configure this technology to suit their own purposes.
Certainly, private interests should not be barred from using these technologies, nor should they be prevented from financing their projects in whatever legal ways they please. As it stands, any "special interest" group can pay to sponsor a self-promotional teledemocratic event, just as they can disingenuously manipulate public opinion using traditional polling techniques in ways the Reform Party finds offensive. The point is that when it comes to public actors such as political parties using televotes to affect public policy, and when these actors make claims about the democratic nature of these processes, they must be held to a higher standard than the one reached by the user-fee model.
Teledemocracy, in fact, holds great potential for individuals or groups to make specious claims about public opinion in order to legitimize their established ideological positions and policy demands. The only difference between this model and traditional opinion polling in this regard is that here the wielders of public opinion can make claims, again specious, that the process by which preferences were gathered was more democratic and less distorting than random sampling.
This assertion is difficult to sustain in light of the fact that this model of televoting is prone to exactly the same sort of manipulation based on agenda setting and question orientation that plagues most opinion polling. So far, the Reform Party's endeavours in the field of teledemocracy have been unable to escape this criticism.
One of the most convincing critiques of the Hawaii Televote model is that it does not involve citizens in setting the agenda of issues to be addressed either in televotes or electronic town hall meetings Arterton, Despite their apparent gravity, and near-saturation levels of coverage in the Canadian mass media, it is not clear that the subjects of the Reform Party's electronic town halls to date--national unity and the public debt--were those which citizens themselves saw as pressing concerns requiring immediate, direct democratic attention.
In the case of Referendum '94 , it is clear that the selection of violent youth crime and the YOA as topics for community consideration had little to do with a thorough effort to solicit from citizens a sense of which issues most concerned them. When asked how he came to identify this issue as significant enough to merit the application of an electronic referendum, MP Ted White listed a number of indicators. These included: the volume of coverage the issue of violent crime receives in the mass media, the testimony of a teacher who had noticed an increase in discipline problems in the classroom corresponding to the cessation of corporal punishment, personal observations of declining levels of respect for authority amongst the younger population, and anecdotal accounts of youths loitering and spitting at the entrance to the local McDonald's restaurant Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, personal communication, June 22, Capitalizing on a vague and unsubstantiated "general feeling that there is some order that has broken down" Ted White, personal communication, June 22, , constitutes neither an appreciation of the actual gravity of the issue, nor a genuine attempt to glean community priorities from an open and comprehensive process of prioritization and agenda setting.
The Reform Party has indicated that it intends to reserve the application of teledemocratic technologies to "major concerns" and "serious issues" Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, personal communication, June 14, In the absence of a clear enunciation of the criteria involved in making such determinations, and if the procedure employed to date is any indication, it is difficult to see how the formation of political agendas by citizens through a bottom-up process is integral to the Reform Party's application of teledemocratic technologies.
The Reform Party states a preference for the "universal suffrage" of teledemocracy over traditional opinion polling partly because, in the latter practice, it is too easy for partisan pollsters to find exactly what they are looking for by embedding a bias in the questions posed to respondents. However, in each of the experiments under consideration here, the questions posed to respondents seemed highly unlikely to produce results other than they ultimately did. For instance, given the tumultuous uncertainty characterizing the Canadian federation in recent decades, it is highly unlikely that the Canada Speaks question asking respondents if they wished to see the national unity issue "settled once and for all" would elicit anything other than an answer of "yes.
What is the value of these questions and the predictable responses they produced if nothing new or unexpected was learned through them? What does "once and for all" mean? Who are "the Canadian people"? And what is a "bottom-up process"? That Canada Speaks suggested neither answers to these questions nor a coherent policy direction is of little concern to the Reform Party because these were clearly not the goals of this exercise. The goal of this exercise was, instead, the legitimization of policy positions already held by the Reform Party. By asking questions lacking in specificity, the Reform Party could be confident of evoking responses that could be easily construed as supportive of their established agenda in this area.
Even in the case of Referendum '94 , where the questions asked were somewhat more clearly defined, there was little danger of a result that ran counter to the Reform Party's expectations or current policy. Certainly no set of questions, on their own, could encompass the entire range of considerations required to make a sound democratic decision on any issue. It is generally conceded by even the most pretentious democrats that any solicitation of the public will should be accompanied by a concerted effort to encourage the thorough edification of that will prior to its expression.
One of the criticisms often levelled at direct democracy initiatives is that rather than being exercises in conscientious participation, they merely exploit the unreflective, irrational reactions of an overwhelmed and underinformed populace. The Reform Party appears to strike an ambivalent posture in relation to these charges. On the one hand, they are justifiably reluctant to stipulate that certain bases for democratic judgment are more legitimate and worthy of attention than others.
According to MP Ted White: "I don't feel that it is my duty to make a judgment about the reasons people choose to vote Yet, like any party engaged in public discussion, Reform wishes to be seen educating the voters whose opinions they are soliciting.
Did a substantial level of civic education occur in these exercises? The evidence would suggest not. Despite an acknowledgment that "you need lots and lots of public discussion to make sure everybody is ready for the vote when it comes" Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, personal communication, June 14, , it does not appear that the Reform Party made a concerted effort to contribute to this readiness.
In the case of Canada Speaks , aside from the brief televised forum itself which took place at the end of the voting period , pre-poll education on the issue under consideration consisted of a Reform Party advertising broadsheet that "was not widely distributed" Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, personal correspondence, October 28, and a tour by Reform Party Leader Preston Manning organized primarily to promote the event itself, rather than to engage the arguments surrounding the national unity question.
The householder distributed prior to Referendum '94 was somewhat more comprehensive, but unfortunately it also suffered from distribution problems. Apparently confident that "there is tons of information out there" Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, personal communication, June 22, , the sponsors of Referendum '94 did not organize any public meetings or forums where citizens could engage one another on this issue.
Time constraints were cited as the reason for the inability to organize ongoing educational sessions Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, personal communication, June 14, However, it is difficult to imagine what the source of these constraints might have been, other than a desire to capitalize on the currency of the issue or to keep the entire exercise compressed to enable its easy packaging as a discrete news event. In , a meeting of academics, politicians, and technologists on the subject of electronic town hall meetings produced a "report card" against which such events could be judged Firestone, The criteria for a successful democratic exercise of this kind were as follows: that participants should be as fully prepared and educated prior to the event as possible; that the meeting should be equally accessible to all citizens concerned; that the agenda and responses should be free from outside manipulation; that participation should extend beyond simple "yes or no" type questions; and that deliberation be encouraged over instantaneous judgment.
It seems clear that the Reform Party televotes and electronic town hall meetings to date have failed to meet all of these democratic standards. The foregoing analysis was based on the assumption that under certain ideal conditions, teledemocratic technologies can be used to elicit and communicate a clear, unambiguous expression of community will in a way that is conscientious, inclusive, and undistorted by manipulation.
The Reform Party televotes were judged in terms of their status as constative utterances, or descriptive expressions, of citizen preference, subject to assessment according to their truth-value. The measurement of actual practice against a set of democratic ideals was useful insofar as it revealed the extent to which the Reform Party neglected to satisfy the requisite conditions for the sort of meaningful direct participation to which it is rhetorically committed.
However, the partisan and electoral exigencies of contemporary political life, coupled with the availability of increasingly sophisticated techniques of opinion management, make it highly unlikely that such conditions will ever be met in the teledemocratic spectacles organized by elected, partisan policymakers. The political momentum yielded by the appearance of synchronicity with public opinion is too valuable to be left to the contingencies of an open, conscientious, and unmanipulated process. Accordingly, the modern science of opinion management is geared not towards the discovery of the "truth" about the public will, but rather towards its creation.
In this climate, the conditions required for a confident and credible statement of what the whole of the people truly want in any given case may be so demanding as to be effectively impossible to realize. Yet it is probably safe to predict that the profile of spectacles such as those under consideration here will continue to grow and will become a more significant element of our political life.
If we concede that teledemocracy in the real world suffers from a disinclination, or perhaps even an inability, to facilitate a clear locution of democratic will, then simply proving the point over and over again by measuring actual exercises against this expectation will not enrich our understanding of either their current function or their potential. Instead, we must accept that these are not the expectations which inform these practices, and we must re-orient our investigation to a more pertinent set of questions. For instance, where should we begin to look for the source of this technology's appeal to neo-conservative, populist political actors like the Reform Party?
What does it achieve for them? Furthermore, if we are resigned to this shortcoming, then at what level can we hope to retrieve a democratic use for these technologies? In what sense can they be used to encourage and nurture a more, rather than less, democratic political culture? In this section, I would like to suggest that the answer to these questions and, indeed, the key to a deeper appreciation of the significance of teledemocratic politics, lies in an account of the performative aspects of this set of practices.
In its linguistic usage, a performative utterance is a type of sentence that prompts an action to be performed by virtue of its expression. It is via these performative iterations that language actively constitutes and constructs social and political reality, rather than merely acting as a neutral medium for its description or representation. The particular cultures or discourses that are fostered and sustained depend on the way that these practices are carried out, and the manner in which their technologies are deployed.
The Reform Party appears to be well aware that the primary value of teledemocratic exercises is performative rather than constative. In fact, the evidence suggests that the Reform Party is relatively unconcerned with either the inadequacy of these exercises as reliable and accurate opinion-gathering devices, or even the veracious portrayal of the responses they do receive. In each of the cases under scrutiny here, the Reform Party has been quick to point out that it is aware that the process involved is not "scientific," and that the resulting sample is not "statistically valid" as a representation of opinion at large.
This was illustrated in the case of a locally televised forum in Calgary on April 17, , in which Preston Manning sought direction on the issue of assisted suicide, a practice to which he was personally opposed. When most respondents indicated a preference for legalization, the Reform Party Leader failed to commit himself to voting in favour of such a measure.
This equivocation led at least one Party insider to suggest that Manning "is not serious about voting according to the consensus of the constituency" Flanagan, , p. The same could also be said of Referendum ' Once again, a commitment to adhere only to a thorough expression of citizen preferences was clearly not a priority of this exercise. Similarly, a disregard for the need to communicate an accurate portrayal of public opinion may also account for the Reform Party's spectacular inflation of the actual rate of participation in the Canada Speaks televote.
Apparently, creating the illusion that 10, people were involved in this exercise was more important to the Reform Party than either a truthful account of the real numbers or an accurate estimation of Canadian opinions about national unity and federalism. Why might this be the case? Why would a party publicly committed to the unmediated representation of majority opinion solicit and depict it so carelessly? The answer is that an accurate representation of public opinion is not the goal motivating the Reform Party's use of teledemocratic technologies.
Instead, it is the performative aspiration of creating a democratic discourse conducive to the realization of other aspects of the Reform Party's ideological agenda that directs these applications. Before making a case for how the technological exercises discussed here were configured to achieve this, a brief characterization of the main elements of Reform's ideological program is necessary. Investigations into the ideological foundations of the Reform Party have yielded a high degree of consistency. According to David Laycock, an expert on Canadian populism, "the major thrust of the Reform party project is to redefine Canadian public life by substantially contracting political--and often democratic--modes of decision-making in policy spheres that deal with distributional issues" Laycock, , p.
Richard Sigurdson agrees: "For Manning, the crucial goal is to dismantle the federal bureaucracy and privatize as much government activity as possible" Sigurdson, , p. It appears that the Reform Party's core ideological commitment is to the protection of the "natural" market distribution of economic, political, and social values. In this view, attempts by the state to use re-distributive policy instruments in order to redress substantive inequalities are condemned as unnecessary interventions in the market, which in turn necessitate taxation regimes that unduly burden individual property-holders.
The chief beneficiaries of this public largesse are the "special interests" and the "new class" of bureaucrats who are their patrons. In the Reform Party's estimation, "a special interest is seen as any group that requests publicly provided benefits that require governments to skew market distributions of resources" Laycock, , p.
Reform Party of Canada
The Reform Party positions itself as the "representative of the unrepresented," ready to champion the cause of the silent majority of individual citizens battling the tyranny of vocal and organized minorities Laycock, , p. Given this self-image, it is curious that the Reform Party has pursued a strategy that results in a contraction of the public sphere of democratic decision-making. By portraying traditional representative structures as captured by organized interests bent on perverting the market allocation of value, the Reform Party is able to make a seductive case for diminishing the political arena in which these interests operate.
Once free from the nefarious charms of organized interests and the bureaucrats beholden to them, "ordinary Canadians" are able to exercise their discretion as consumer-voters and express their wishes in a free market of political and economic options. As if by magic, public, collective, and political concerns are properly converted into isolated, individual, private choices, and an entire layer of relations between civil society and the state spontaneously vanishes Laycock, Considered in this context, Reform's campaign on behalf of direct democracy emerges as simply instrumental to their broader goal of reducing the role of organized interests, state bodies, and representative structures in the public policy process.
This reduction of citizens in communities to individual consumers in markets is a key element in the Party's strategy to depoliticize and privatize public life. Teledemocracy as practised by the Reform Party is tailor-made for this contraction of the public sphere. Traditionally, plebiscitarian televoting schemes have identified the shortcomings of the representative system--most notably the influence of special interest groups--and have explicitly targeted these perceived deficiencies Hollander, ; Slaton, This coincidence of the technology's strengths, and one of the key points in Reform's ideological agenda, probably accounts for much of the Party's enthusiasm for teledemocracy.
This goal was publicly affirmed by the Party prior to each of the televotes under scrutiny here, and when asked about his affinity for this technology, MP Ted White readily confirmed its primary appeal: "It is going to break down special interests" Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, personal communication, June 14, Indeed, plebiscitarian teledemocracy removes the practical need for any type of group or institutional mediation in the formation and articulation of individual preferences. This negative consequence of plebiscitarian teledemocracy becomes a strength in the Reform Party's view because it is precisely these institutions and processes that foment special interest group claims which implicate the state as something more than a protector of property and enforcer of market freedom.
By locating Reform's priority in these exercises in the marginalization of the mediating institutions and interests that involve the state in distributional decisions, we begin to understand why democratic values such as educating and enriching citizens by encouraging ongoing participatory processes are unimportant to them.
When asked what ideas he had for continued citizen involvement in finding a solution to the problem of youth crime after Referendum '94 , Ted White responded by saying: "I think they've done their piece on this Clearly, he could not have answered otherwise, because to recognize the educative value of ongoing participation is to endorse precisely the role that mediating groups and institutions play in a vibrant democratic political culture.
The reduction of democratic participation to a series of isolated transactions in an open market where votes are currency also explains the Reform Party's mistaking "pay-per-vote" for universal suffrage. In its neo-conservative guise, democratic equality consists of an equal right to accumulate and dispose of one's property in the marketplace as one sees fit; it does not necessarily entail equal access to political participation regardless of means.
This market orientation, shared by the Reform Party, explains the Party's willingness to "reduce the unit costs of democracy" by enfranchising only those who pay to participate Ted White, MP, North Vancouver, BC, press conference, June 24, Citizens who hold strong opinions on a particular issue should be willing to pay to have that opinion heard.
On the other hand, special interest groups and costly state agencies simply artificially amplify the interests of people who do not value their opinion sufficiently to finance its expression on their own. Appropriately, in the Reform Party's view, user fees for participation merely enable the invisible hand of the market to naturally muffle the voices of those who are overly reliant on the intrusive hand of the state.
The most appealing performative benefit of these technologies is that they enable political parties to diminish democratic public life while claiming to enhance it. As practised by the Reform Party, teledemocracy is reduced to an elaborate and safe public relations performance. Without risking an elicitation of responses that do anything other than vindicate pre-established positions, plebiscitarian teledemocracy allows its practitioners to present themselves as champions of citizen empowerment and consultation.
In terms of issue selection and question design, the Reform Party's teledemocratic agenda appears oriented towards "the construction of problems to justify solutions" to which they are already ideologically committed Edelman, , p.
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By using this technology, the Reform Party is able to raise issues and manufacture opinions conducive to shrinking the public sphere, using a process that itself embodies this goal, while appearing to do exactly the opposite. Contrary to claims regarding their celebration of the potential of "ordinary Canadians," Reform Party televotes and electronic town hall meetings amount to little more than carefully managed spectacles.
It might be argued that the conduct of a few Reform Party MPs surrounding the federal government's controversial gun control legislation in Bill C indicates that the Party is somewhat more committed to the will of the people, "come what may," than I have argued here. Indeed, three members from urban ridings--Ted White of North Vancouver, Ian McClelland of Edmonton, and Jim Silye of Calgary--voted against the party line and in favour of the gun control bill, in accordance with scientific polls conducted in their constituencies Hansard, However it should be noted that gun control is not a "distributional issue" to which the Party is committed as a core ideological value, and can therefore be more safely submitted to the vagaries of scientifically solicited public opinion.
Also, it is instructive to note that, in this case, two of the Party's leading figures--Preston Manning and Stephen Harper--voted against the legislation despite the fact that their seats are in the same urban area as the one in which Silye's polling data indicated popular support for the bill.
Manning declined to poll his own riding on the issue because he was confident his constituents would not be willing to pay for a gun registration program, and he dismissed a national Angus Reid poll showing that Canadians were 2 to 1 in favour of firearms control Ha,