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Analysis & Commentary

Political promises... and punishment

By Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen  

Promises are the currency of politics, and although they are most plentiful during an election campaign, their value is never greater.

That's because election campaigns are acts of faith– a voter listens to what a political party says it will do if elected, likes or dislikes it, and decides whether to support it or not.

To many, a promise is sacred. It is the greatest test of credibility and honesty. If a party leader says he will cut taxes, create jobs and eliminate the deficit if he is elected prime minister, he will be judged, when he seeks re-election, on whether he did indeed cut taxes, create jobs and eliminate the deficit.

Grade five and six students from Ottawa talk about the importance of promises.
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Grade five and six students from Ottawa talk about the importance of promises.
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A promise, in a sense, is a social contract with the voter. It is commitment to be met in the future, delivered over the five-year mandate of a government, in exchange for a vote, to be delivered at the ballot box now. Politicians who keep their promises rarely let voters forget it. As political consultant Barry McLoughlin puts it, the eight most powerful words in politics are: "I did what I said I would do."

If that is so, then, why do politicians break their promises so often? And why do they get away with it?

It may be that the political promise, like the political resignation, has become devalued today, even passé, a quaint anachronism reminiscent of a time when politics was kindler, gentler and played by other rules. Perhaps that is so because parties make so many promises– party platforms are books of many pages of many promises– they think they can renege on some of them. Perhaps honour no longer means much.

The most recent example of a broken promise is provided by the Ontario Liberals, who ran for election in 2003 promising no new taxes. But in their first budget, they imposed a regime of health-care premiums, a tax increase by another name.

Curiously, brazenly, Premier Dalton McGuinty did not deny that he had broken his promise ("I won't lower your taxes," he had said in his campaign commercials, "but I won't raise them, either"). Instead, he explained that he was responding to a high deficit that he had inherited from the Conservatives and that Ontarians would forgive him.

Here Mr. McGuinty invoked the rationale of all governments when they break promises: that circumstances change, which they always do; and that the voters will forget the breach of faith, which they sometimes do.

Broken examples

For example, Jean Chrétien's Liberals said they would abolish the goods and services tax when they ran in 1993. In fact, Sheila Copps even vowed to resign her seat if the government failed to live up to that promise.

But when they took office and looked at the books, the Liberals decided they couldn't give up the revenue. So the GST stayed, and Mr. Chrétien tried to play down that he'd made the promise, even when his campaign speeches were replayed over and over. Ms. Copps, for her part, tried to deny the same thing, but relented under heavy criticism. She resigned her seat, forced a byelection, ran and returned to Parliament, her honour restored.

But Mr. Chrétien was never punished for breaking that promise. He won majorities again in 1997 and 2000.

In 1974, Pierre Trudeau promised that he would not impose wage and price controls. He ridiculed Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, who supported them. "Zap, you're frozen!" said Mr. Trudeau. Yet just 15 months later, he imposed wage and price controls. He said things had changed.

Was he punished for his reversal? Not really. In 1979, Mr. Trudeau did lose power to Joe Clark's Conservatives, but freezing wages and prices wasn't the reason.

Over the years, governments of all stripes have broken promises of varying importance. In 1984, Conservative leader Brian Mulroney showed no interest in free trade with the United States ("The issue of free trade affects Canadian sovereignty and we will have none of it," he declared) or reopening constitutional negotiations. Yet in his first term of office, Mr. Mulroney did both– signing the Free Trade Agreement with the United States and the Meech Lake Accord with the provinces. Both contributed to his massive personal unpopularity, the devastation of his party, and the realignment of national politics in the election of 1993.

In 1984, Mr. Mulroney also savaged the patronage appointments made by the Liberals. He attacked Prime Minister John Turner in their televised debate ("You had an option, sir!" a pained Mr. Mulroney cried) and Mr. Turner never recovered. In his nine years in office, however, Mr. Mulroney made many patronage appointments; in the foreign service alone, he made almost double the number the Liberals had in their 16 years under Mr. Trudeau.

That didn't hurt Mr. Mulroney in 1988, but it did undermine his credibility, as breaking promises can.

Sometimes parties make vague promises deliberately, allowing them latitude when they take power. In the referendum in Quebec in 1980, for example, Mr. Trudeau promised that he and his colleagues would put their "seats on the line" to ensure constitutional renewal if the federalists won. They did, and that summer Mr. Trudeau embarked on the most ambitious constitutional reform in Canada's history. Against the will of eight provinces– including Quebec– he moved to patriate the British North America Act from Britain and entrench a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Ultimately, he succeeded.

When critics said that Mr. Trudeau had never promised a Charter and patriation, that he had betrayed Quebecers, he shrugged and said that anyone who knew his thinking on this issue could not be surprised. He had a point, and although his party lost the next election, it wasn't fought on the Constitution.

The perennials

Some promises appear and reappear in election after election. One hardy perennial is pledging to fix universal health care. Another is improving federal-provincial relations, or spending 0.7 per cent of the country's GDP on foreign aid, an international standard established in 1969. Both Liberals and Conservatives made that promise for years, but Canada's contribution has never exceeded 0.54 per cent. Like most election promises, Canadians either didn't know or didn't care.

While critics will gleefully exploit a broken promise, they will also criticize keeping a foolish one. In 1993, for example, Mr. Chrétien promised to scrap the contract the Tories had signed to replace the ageing fleet of Sea King helicopters. As prime minister, he cancelled the contract and refused to sign another. Over the next 10 years, the cost of that promise– paying penalty clauses and maintaining old helicopters – was an estimated $1 billion. The critics fumed.

Few thought this was good public policy, arguing that it was one promise that the government might wisely have broken. Then again, today's politics seems to mean never having to say you're sorry.

Andrew Cohen, whose weekly column appears in The Ottawa Citizen and other CanWest newspapers, teaches journalism and international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa. His latest book is While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World, which was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2003.

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