Promises, promises: The Liberals made a lot, maybe too many

Only the naive person views the politician without skepticism. But a politician's words are still important, not least because what he or she says they will do is generally in line with what they do.

Research suggests, though, that governments actually tend to do what they said they would

Justin Trudeau stands on stage at Liberal Party headquarters in Montreal early Oct. 20, 2015 after his party won the 42nd Canadian general election. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Only the naive person views the politician without skepticism. But a politician's words are still important, not least because what he or she says they will do is generally in line with what they do.

That's the finding across three studies of campaign promises dating back more than 70 years, though there are differences in methodology. More often than not, federal governments in Canada keep their promises.

Research into campaign promises between 1945 and 1979 found federal governments came through on 72 per cent of their commitments.

A study of Brian Mulroney's first term, from 1984 to 1988, determined 74 per cent of promises were kept. And, more recently, analysis of federal terms between 2000 and 2015 found commitments were kept in full or in part at rates of 78, 72, 68, 62, and 84 per cent.

As of now, the federal Liberals have a plausible chance to meet that historical standard.

And yet, they might still set a record for broken promises — or commitments "not pursued," as the government's new website phrases it.

Counting commitments

The Liberal site is not, technically, a tally of campaign promises. It is a status report on the objectives and tasks listed in the mandate letters Justin Trudeau issued to each of his ministers. Mandate letters are not new, but Trudeau is the first prime minister to release his publicly.

Those letters were informed by the Liberals' election platform, so there is significant overlap. But for a strict tally of campaign promises, there is the analysis done by researchers at Laval University.

Comparing the Laval and Liberal assessments reveals some discrepancies.

For instance, while the Laval analysis considers the promise of a balanced budget in 2019 to be broken, the government says the commitment is merely encountering "challenges." Barring the sudden discovery of $20 billion or so — like how you might find a $10 bill in the pocket of a jacket you haven't worn in awhile — the Liberals will likely have to concede at some point that this commitment isn't being meaningfully pursued.

While the government believes it is "on track" to "improve access to information to enhance the openness of government," the Laval researchers note it is not moving to "ensure that access to information applies to the prime minister's and ministers' offices."

And while the government says it is has made good on a commitment to increase funding for Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board, the academic analysis notes the sums involved fall well short of the $25 million promised in the Liberal platform.

Mind you, the platform analysis still gives the Liberals credit for more success: 110 promises kept in full or in part, compared to 67 mandate items completed by the government's estimate.

Meeting the historical standard

Neither tally necessarily rules out the possibility of the government being able to eventually claim something like success on, say, 75 per cent of its commitments. 

Of the 308 measurable items listed by the government's count, 285 are listed as completed or "on track." That's 92 per cent.

In the estimation of the Laval researchers, 70 per cent of promises have been kept in full or in part or are in the works, while three per cent have been broken. Another 93 promises are yet to be analyzed.

The Laval analysis includes 353 promises. To reach 75 per cent, the Liberals would need to make good on 265.

That might be considered a successful term. But it would also mean 88 broken promises. 

If it seems a lot, it's because it probably is, at least comparatively.

But that goes to a larger issue: the Liberals made a lot of promises.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison discusses the launch of his government’s 'mandate letter tracker,' adherence to 'deliverology' 9:06

Promise inflation

The Laval researchers counted 140 promises in the Conservative Party's 2011 platform. In 2006 and 2008, the Conservative government began its terms with 192 and 101 promises respectively.

In 2000 and 2004, the Liberal Party platforms included 83 and 87 pledges, respectively.

Liberals might argue the extent of their 2015 platform speaks to the depth of their ambition or the breadth of important issues facing the country. And the average voter might not have expected them to make good on 100 per cent of what they proposed anyway.

When the Canadian Election Study surveyed voters after the 2011 election, only 6.9 per cent of respondents said political parties keep their promises "most of the time." Sixty-two per cent said "some of the time," while 29.1 per cent said "hardly ever."

Unless one feels deeply about particular issues — say, electoral reform or whether the budget is balanced — the quantity of unmet promises might not matter much.

But maybe the Liberals still made too many promises — or too many specific promises, like committing to a precise amount of new funding for the NFB.

Breaking and explaining

In fact, there is a case to be made for severely limiting political promises.

Any new government is bound to encounter circumstances or information that make it reconsider its proposals. Parties should not be encouraged to promise a shiny object for every conceivable interest. And, for fear of encouraging cynicism, the possibilities for disappointment should be limited.

Nonetheless, a tally of broken, challenged or unpursued commitments does put an onus on the government to explain itself and justify its decisions.

Unfortunately, it could end up with a lot of things in need of explaining. And the Trudeau government has not shown much interest in explaining anything in great detail.

Now, at least, it has a website that offers limitless space for explanation.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.