Political promises... and punishment
By 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.
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.
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
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
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.
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,
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.
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.