Why politicians are changing their Twitter names for the election

You may have noticed that during this 41st Canadian federal election, your Member of Parliament has changed his or her Twitter handle. He or she is probably doing this to avoid the perception of conflict of interest: MPs are not meant to use their MP offices to further their personal interests. Another question to ask is: which names are best for an election?

Here are a few examples: Gerard Kennedy, who is the incumbent for the electoral district of Parkdale-High Park, has changed his from @GKennedyMP to @GKennedyPHP; former Minister of Industry, the Hon. Tony Clement has changed his from @TonyClementMP to @TonyClementCPC. Mr. Kennedy decided to use his electoral district affiliation (PHP=Parkdale-High Park) while the Hon. Mr. Clement has decided to use his party affiliation (CPC=Conservative).

Many Members have removed “MP” from the end of their names and replaced it with an acronym for their electoral district (informally called ridings) or for their party affiliation.

So what are the specifics of why they may be doing this?

Once elected, a politician becomes a Member of Parliament, that is to say a Member of the House of Commons. The House of Commons is exactly that: the House of the People. For us, federally, it is the House of the People of Canada. This makes its Members trustees of public confidence. As such Members must put the public interest ahead of all other and are not permitted to derive personal benefit or gain from their decisions. The rules governing conflict of interest come from the Parliament of Canada Act, the Conflict of Interest Act, and, of course, all MPs are subject to the Criminal Code.

Specifically, Members of Parliament are guided by the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons, which was adopted in 2004. What does it say? I will quote it (you can download of PDF version of it here). I have bolded the parts that may be interpreted to apply to Twitter handles.

1. The Purposes of this Code are:1. The purposes of this Code are to

  • (a) maintain and enhance public confidence and trust in the integrity of Members as well as the respect and confidence that society places in the House of Commons as an institution;
  • (b) demonstrate to the public that Members are held to standards that place the public interest ahead of their private interests and to provide a transparent system by which the public may judge this to be the case;
  • (c) provide for greater certainty and guidance for Members in how to reconcile their private interests with their public duties and functions; and
  • (d) foster consensus among Members by establishing common standards and by providing the means by which questions relating to proper conduct may be answered by an independent, non-partisan adviser.

Principles
2. Given that service in Parliament is a public trust, the House of Commons recognizes and declares that Members are expected

  • (a) to serve the public interest and represent constituents to the best of their abilities;
  • […] (c) to perform their official duties and functions and arrange their private affairs in a manner that bears the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that may not be fully discharged by simply acting within the law;
  • (d) to arrange their private affairs so that foreseeable real or apparent conflicts of interest may be prevented from arising, but if such a conflict does arise, to resolve it in a way that protects the public interest […]

Rules of Conduct

  • […] 8. When performing parliamentary duties and functions, a Member shall not act in any way to further his or her private interests or those of a member of the Member’s family, or to improperly further another person’s or entity’s private interests.
  • 9. A Member shall not use his or her position as a Member to influence a decision of another person so as to further the Member’s private interests or those of a member of his or her family, or to improperly further another person’s or entity’s private interests. […]”

So you can see why your Member of Parliament may not want to be perceived as using their MP office to serve their personal interests, as this could potentially be interpreted as a conflict of interest, even it is just a conflict of interest in spirit.

So which politicians picked the best name? All politics are local!

This is a matter of focus. Gerard Kennedy is very effective grassroots organizer who is very well known in his electoral district. He asks a lot of questions during Question Period. By picking @GerardKennedyPHP he is making a direct link to his district and showing the people of Parkdale-High Park that his primary affiliation is to his community, that he puts them first. Tony Clement (@TonyClementCPC) and Mark Holland (@MarkHollandLIB) have chosen to put party affiliation first.

Which is a better choice? In my opinion, the old adage that “all politics are local” is more true in the world of social media than ever before. In social media, oral culture rules. That means that you are participating in a permanent “town square” – people expect the same personal touch on Twitter and Facebook that they expect from their MP if s/he was right in front of them shaking their hand.

So, for me, local identification on social media should be a politician’s first choice. Chances are, constituents and the media are already powerfully aware of which party the politician belongs to – why not take advantage of the opportunity for local branding that a Twitter name offers? It’s low hanging fruit in terms of political communications and sends a personal, local, grassroots message to potential voters.

 

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