OTTAWA – When a minister tweets, is it ever really a personal account, or should he or she be required to abide by federal laws and responsibilities?
Those blurred lines around government information have raised questions since social media came on the scene, and are now getting a closer look from an unexpected corner.
Canada’s commissioner of official languages has launched an investigation into John Baird’s Twitter account to determine if the foreign affairs minister is running afoul of federal laws around bilingual communication.
Graham Fraser had received a complaint that Baird’s tweets were often only in English, and decided the situation was worthy of further scrutiny.
The case is being used by the watchdog’s office to examine the larger issue of ministerial social media accounts and whether they fall under the Official Languages Act.
In a similar case, New Brunswick’s official languages commissioner recommended in 2011 that officials should post messages in both official languages when they are communicating as a representative of the government.
“If you look at the minister’s account, a lot of it is related to his role as minister. There’s enough in there that warranted accepting looking at it,” said Nelson Kalil, a spokesman for Fraser.
“All ministries have responsibilities with regard to communicating with the public and using their social media, so it’s a nice template for us to have look at that responsibility.”
Baird’s department has responded by saying that the Twitter account in question — @HonJohnBaird — is his personal account, and does not fall within the ambit of the Official Languages Act.
Baird’s Twitter profile describes him as “Canada’s foreign minister and MP for Nepean-Carleton.” A majority of his posts are on foreign affairs issues; some are repeated in French, others are not. Some tweets appear only in English on his personal account, and then are posted in French on the department’s Twitter account.
Baird had a previous Twitter account, @JohnBairdOWN, which is now defunct.
“We are surprised that the official languages commissioner has chosen to investigate the Minister’s personal Twitter account that falls outside of the scope of the Act,” said Baird’s spokesman Rick Roth.
“The Minister’s personal Twitter account is just that, his personal account. That said, he tweets from that account in both of Canada’s official languages.”
The issue of personal versus public has also come up with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s social media accounts, which include a mix of official and partisan messages. His office has argued that as both prime minister and leader of the Conservative party he must dabble in both, saying there is nothing untoward about government staff overseeing his posts on official matters.
Likewise, Harper’s weekly video diary, 24/Seven, is published to YouTube by bureaucrats using taxpayer-paid resources, but includes content taken by political staff, such as footage of the prime minister’s wife Laureen.
Still, MPs and ministers often change their Twitter addresses altogether during election campaigns, ostensibly to draw the line between their official government profiles and their partisan ones.