Nova Scotia·Opinion

Solely a marketing document: Election platforms come with giant asterisks

The governing party has advantages and disadvantages when it comes to devising a platform, columnist Graham Steele writes.

Politicians dislike being called promise-breakers, so they have techniques to protect themselves

The three leaders of Nova Scotia's major parties — Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie, Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil and NDP Leader Gary Burrill — will have plenty of political tricks of the trade at their disposal when their parties write and release election platforms. (Canadian Press)

Right now, somewhere in the backrooms of each Nova Scotian provincial party, an election platform is being written and tested.

Let's have no illusions: An election platform is solely a marketing document.

Like a flyer for a pizza joint or a coupon for laundry detergent, an election platform is designed to entice you to buy. It is not a blueprint for actual government.

Shopping for votes

The politicians know that you get only one vote every four years. That one vote is supposed to cover every issue that you care about.

Voters don't guard that vote as jealously as they should, and the politicians know it.

So they hire the best political-marketing talent available to pry it from your fingers. They are, in author Susan Delacourt's phrase, shopping for your vote.

Once your ballot is safely in the box, the marketers' job is done, and they hand the reins back to the politicians.

Targeted promises

The platform-writing team is a very small group reporting to the campaign director.

These platform gurus rely heavily on opinion research — polls for the big picture, and focus groups for the details.

They're trying to figure out what you want, and then give it to you.

Their techniques for doing so are getting increasingly sophisticated.

There are giant databases, and we're all in them. The parties can slice and dice the electorate in a hundred ways, and find that one promise that will appeal to whichever demographic they're targeting.

Whether these micro-targeted promises are sensible or even doable is very much a secondary consideration.

Do the opposite

The opposition parties have an advantage and a disadvantage when it comes to devising a platform.

The advantage is they know what's making people mad at the government. They simply have to promise to do the opposite. That's how Premier Stephen McNeil saw off the Dexter government.

The disadvantage is they don't have the institutional resources to do serious policy analysis or costing. Their promises tend to be high-level — like "we'll create jobs" or "we'll cut red tape" — or unrealistic.

The governing party also has an advantage and a disadvantage when it comes to devising a platform.

The advantage is that they can (and do) turn to the civil service for analysis and costing. Their excuse for using civil service resources for partisan purposes is that they're the government, so they're exploring government policy options.

The disadvantage is that they have to be more specific and realistic than the opposition parties. They can't make really wild promises, because they might (gulp) actually have to implement them.

Giant asterisk

Politicians really dislike being accused of being promise-breakers.

They've developed two techniques to protect themselves.

The first is to add an overarching condition to the platform, like "as finances allow" or "within the framework of a balanced budget". It's a giant asterisk. Their fingers are crossed behind their backs.

Another version of the asterisk, to be applied in case of victory, is "the books are worse than we thought."

Rather than an admission that the party didn't know what it was talking about before the election, it's permission to break any inconvenient platform promise.

The second technique is to re-frame, after the election, what was actually promised. We saw this last week as Premier McNeil argued, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that the Liberal promise to "ensure a doctor for every Nova Scotian" had been kept.

Ballot-box discipline

Sometimes you'll hear people say that politicians should be forced to keep their promises, on pain of losing office.

Is that even possible? There would have to be some kind of independent agency to investigate and rule on whether a promise had been kept.

There would have to be baseline data for every promise, and then follow-up data. I can't imagine how that would work.

Is it even desirable? If we forced politicians to keep their promises, we might be forcing them to implement bad ideas.

Some promises should never have been made in the first place. Sometimes circumstances really have changed, and what was a good idea at the time is no longer a good idea.

In the end, the only reliable discipline is at the ballot box.

If voters want politicians to stop breaking promises, they should stop voting for promise-breaking politicians.

That'll get their attention.

I promise.


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.