Long before Boaty McBoatface, there was another great name debate…
We’ve all seen the headlines, but I bet the National Environment Research Council (NERC) never saw it coming. Someone at the NERC had the great idea to open up the naming process of their brand new £200 million research vessel to the public. I mean, what a good way to get more people involved and interested in scientific research in this country, right? And then came the famous suggestion of Boaty McBoatface that, thanks in large part to social media and the way interesting news can go viral in a matter of hours, caught not only a wave of popular support from within Britain, but was reported upon by news outlets around the world, which in turn just added to the numbers and at one point crashed the poor NERC’s site.
Longtime fans of Stephen Colbert shouldn’t have been surprised. Colbert was an expert at getting his viewers to nominate him (or a name of his choosing) in similar naming contests, whether it was for bridges in Europe or hockey mascots closer to home. I loved Steagle Cobeagle the Eagle!
Anyway, like the NERC’s attempt at public involvement, the British government also makes concerted efforts to allow the British public to have a direct say in governmental policy and discussion by allowing anyone to create and submit a petition. British citizens and UK residents have the right to create an online petition and, once 5 people have signed it, the petition will be checked for standards and then published on the government’s website for petitions.
If 10,000 people sign the petition, the government will issue a response. If a petition gets 100,000 signatures, the petition will be considered for a debate in Parliament.
Most of these do get debated, and the creator might be contacted to provide more information ahead of the debate. It’s a great way to get involved and bring people together when you feel that there is a cause or issue that needs to be addressed. Just the other day I caught the start of a public petition on Jeremy Hunt’s contract negotiations with the NHS being broadcast on BBC Parliament. These debates are recorded and can be found online.
So where is all this headed? Well, during the 2000 Canadian federal election, an optimistic prime ministerial hopeful, Canadian Alliance party leader Stockwell Day, proposed a policy as part of his campaign platform that if an issue or question received signatures from at least 3% of the electorate (equal to approximately 350,000 signatures), a national referendum would automatically be triggered. Likely put forward as a means of demonstrating public engagement and government accountability, the proposal could have had disastrous financial consequences if enough Canadians felt strongly enough to sign these petitions and trigger an unimaginable number of referendums.
The long-running Canadian political satire show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, decided to challenge the legitimacy of this proposal head on with their own proposal for a referendum question. In one of his classic monologues featuring only himself, a tv screen, and a pointer, Rick Mercer suggested that the Government of Canada should force Stockwell Day to change his name to Doris.
And with that the floodgates opened. Keep in mind that this is before Web 2.0, social media, YouTube, viral videos, and web exclusives. Following the directions of a televison show that aired for 30 minutes only once a week, Canadians hopped on the referendum bandwagon and added their names to the growing online list (myself included). In the end, 22 Minutes had reportedly gathered over 1.2 million signatures, Stockwell Day did not win the election, and the referendum bill never took shape. But the video and its legacy lives on.
Imagine how many signatures they could have gotten had they made the proposal today…