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Stephen Harper to reach out to Canadians on YouTube

Prime Minister Stephen Harper fires back at the opposition during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 8, 2010.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper has befriended Canadians on Facebook and followed them on Twitter. He's posted videos of campaign announcements and clips of public appearances on YouTube.

Now he's trying to launch a dialogue about the new federal budget on the video-sharing site - the first time he'll use it in an interactive way to reach a demographic that gets much of its news online.

In what's designed to be a democratic online discussion, the Prime Minister will appear on YouTube at 10:45 a.m. EST on Thursday, sharing his reaction to last week's Throne Speech, according to a post on the blog

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Then he'll ask Canadians to respond with questions at and vote on the questions they want him to answer in a YouTube interview on Tues., March 16, at 7 p.m. EST.

The Prime Minister's Office, which was recently approached by Google to do the video chat, says it's a new way to hear from Canadians and further ramp up the leader's presence online. Mr. Harper has had a YouTube channel since 2006, but it's been home to far less interactive clips such as commercials and public appearances (his rendition of The Beatles' With A Little Help From My Friends became a YouTube hit. He's been on Facebook since February 2007 and Twitter since September 2008.

It shows that the Prime Minister understands, to a certain extent, that you can't just use social media to speak, you have to use it to listen as well. Carmi Levy, technology and media analyst

"It just speaks to the reality now that people are getting their information online," PMO deputy press secretary Andrew MacDougall said. "It's important for the government, especially in a time when we're still facing a lot of challenges in the economy…to be able to communicate with them directly."

It's also a chance to reach younger Canadians, he added, a demographic the Conservatives are especially keen to attract.

But like others in Canadian politics, the Harper government is a little "late to the party" and should have been more interactive with social media a long time ago, says Carmi Levy, an independent technology and media analyst in London, Ont.

So far, Mr. Levy said, Canadian politicians have only used social media to push a message, not to engage voters, unlike United States President Barack Obama who used social media to shore up support in his 2008 campaign.

"They seem to have forgotten that social media really are social," he said, though he's encouraged by word of Mr. Harper's online appearance.

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"It shows that the Prime Minister understands, to a certain extent, that you can't just use social media to speak, you have to use it to listen as well."

Mr. Harper will be the second world leader, next to Mr. Obama, to do a town-hall-style chat on the video forum for political discussion online.

Mr. Obama did an exclusive interview from the White House after his State of the Union address in January.

One of the top-voted on questions for Mr. Harper so far is from Robert Davis of Toronto, who asks: "How does this budget address the urgent need to provide stimulus but at the same time prevent a [structural]deficit from limiting future governments saddled with high debt service cost?".

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