Archie McLean, The Edmonton Journal
Published: Thursday, January 08 2009

The Alberta government caucus is jumping into the 21st century next week with the launch of a new website packed with social and interactive media. isn’t quite finished yet, but when it launches Monday, it will feature individual websites for each of the PC party’s 72 MLAs and links to their social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Youtube.

The idea, says Troy Wason, the caucus’s senior communications officer in charge of social media, is to give an online voice to the party’s backbenchers and to allow constituents to interact directly with their MLAs. “We’re interested in creating a two-way dialogue,” said Wason, who spent nine months working on the project.

Each site will contain basic information such as MLA biographies, but also caucus news, pictures and events calendars. There will be a default account setup on Twitter and other social media sites for MLAs who don’t have them.

Jonathan Rose, a political communications expert at Queen’s University, said political communications technology is in its infancy and it’s not immediately clear how it will benefit the caucus.

“If the point is to increase your reach, the jury is still out as to how effective these are at expanding support,” Rose said. “If the point is to consolidate existing support and to mobilize them quickly, then it might be more useful.”

With voter turnout last election at a record low, Rose said it may help reach out to young people and others who aren’t politically engaged.

Wason agreed that political organizations should be doing more to engage the under-35 crowd. While the site may not mobilize hundreds of new followers, it plants a flag in the online world.

“We’re saying, ‘Here we are. We’re in your backyard,’ ” he said. “If somebody chooses to be a supporter of Metallica rather than the premier of Alberta, that’s their decision, but you can’t say we’re not there.”

The province’s two main opposition parties also have an online presence. Both have caucus sites — and The Liberals also keep a blog on their site and on Wednesday, MLA Kent Hehr joined PC MLA Doug Griffiths as the only two members with Twitter accounts.

NDP Leader Brian Mason is the most active MLA on Facebook, with 1,319 friends, while his caucus colleague Rachel Notley has 867.

Liberal caucus communications director Larry Johnsrude applauded the Conservatives for setting up an interactive site, but lamented the massive caucus budget they enjoy. “We don’t have near the resources that they have, but I guess that’s just the reality,” he said.

Johnsrude said his party may try to appeal for more money to do a similar project. Caucus budgets are separate from party or government budgets. They are set by the Legislative Assembly Office based on the number of members a party has in the legislature. A 72-seat majority in an 83-seat legislature means the PC caucus wields a huge budget.

With technology changing so quickly, Wason said the site’s launch is just the beginning of its evolution. “Even I don’t know where this is going to go.”

© The Edmonton Journal 2009