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Internet Petitions for the CBC Bring False Hope

05/30/2013 03:25 EDT | Updated 07/30/2013 05:12 EDT

At least half-a-dozen petitions aimed at stopping Prime Minister Stephen Harper from taking control of the CBC are buzzing around the Internet. Pressure groups are putting a lot of effort into this campaign, but the question is, does sending petitions to Ottawa have any effect on the Conservatives? Are they just wasting everyone's time?

The many petitions contain all the right language:

"Prime Minister Harper is using his latest budget bill to seize unprecedented power over the CBC," say Friends of Canadian Broadcasting andLeadNow in a joint appeal. "Independent public media is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy, and we cannot stand by and let the CBC be silenced and controlled for partisan political gain."

"The government would be able to have dictatorial control over the terms and conditions of employment of non-union staff -- and any collective bargaining among unionized staff -- at the CBC and Radio Canada," says a petition started by SumOfUs.

These and other petitions rightly attack the federal government for brazenly over-stepping its mandate in regard to the CBC, a supposedly independent Crown Corporation. However, both the public and organizations that lead campaigns need to revisit history and be reminded of which tactics do, and do not, work.

Petitions delivered to the government in the House of Commons are seldom an effective method of achieving change, unless they are accompanied by other, more effective actions.

Conservative groups do influence the Conservatives on right-wing issues. The way the Canadian Taxpayers Federation bombards right-wing governments across the country pays off.

Internationally, groups such asAvaaz, with 21-million members worldwide, claim that the huge petitions they circulate, concerning issues such as helping to save elephants in Thailand, are effective. Celebrities such as Al Gore say their work is important.

In Canada, petitions supporting progressive causes do not count for much in Ottawa unless the public also happens to strongly support the same cause. LeadNow and SumOfUs have channelled more than 86,000 messages to Harper opposing the Canada-China Foreign Investment Protection Agreement. At the same time, tens of thousands of Canadians have expressed their opposition to the deal in other ways, so the messages may not have been very influential.

Harper has had the destruction of the CBC high on his 'To Do' list for decades. Diminishing the power of what Harper sees as an aggravating, liberal-minded, taxpayer-funded force would be a viewed by right-wingers as a great victory.

Organizing only petitions is a half-hearted measure that does a disservice to the progressive movement.

Unfortunately, poorly thought-out petitions can have a negative impact on some people who really care about issues. Those who sign on are hopeful that they have made a contribution to the cause. But, in the case of the CBC petition, it is false hope. When the petition has no impact whatsoever, they'll resign themselves to defeat.

If online petitioners and other organizations are really concerned about the future of the CBC, their time would be better spent developing more effective campaigns. They could form one umbrella movement for a CBC campaign. If they have a difficult time coming up with an effective strategy, an experienced organization like as Greenpeace International would be able to advise them. What is needed is a fully developed plan that has a variety of tactics.

For instance, if some of those same people who signed the CBC petition clogged up the communication lines and shut down the government for a day once a week for a month -- I bet Harper would pay attention!

Footnote: When most Internet campaigning organizations launch online petitions they're concerned about more than bringing change. They also want to collect the names and email addresses of as many people as possible so they can contact them later to ask for donations to support the group's activities.

For some groups, there must sometimes be the temptation of launching petitions that are particular popular with the public to make sure new names for fundraising are generated.