Promises, promises

With nearly a month to go before the May 2 election, we are going to hear promises from the leaders of all of the political parties every day, but most will be as likely to be kept as pigs are to fly, writes Martin O'Malley.

The well-established tradition of breaking election campaign promises

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper unveils the party's platform during a campaign event in Mississauga, Ont., on April 8. Platforms are one thing, but implementing what's in them tends to get forgotten after the election campaign is over. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

When I was in Grade 9, there was an election for high school president, and one of the candidates told us that if we elected him, he would abolish homework. He promised this to the entire student body from the stage in the school gymnasium.

What they're promising


  • Allow couples with children under 18 to split up to $50,000 in income to pay less tax, but only once the federal books are balanced.
  • Provide financial support, such as loan guarantees, for the Lower Churchill hydro mega-project in Labrador.
  • End the long-gun registry.


  • Introduce grants for post-secondary students of $1,000 a year over four years, $1,500 a year for lower-income students, at cost of $1 billion a year.
  • Expand CPP benefits, allowing people to voluntarily save an additional five to 10 per cent of their income in a CPP-backed fund, and boost the guaranteed income supplement by $700 million a year.
  • Create a $1-billion family care plan to let people take time off work to care for seriously ill or aging relatives.

New Democrats

  • Cap credit card interest rates at five percentage points above prime, and limit transaction fees retailers are forced to pay credit card companies, saving a typical card holder an average of about $60 a month.
  • Cancel $2 billion in government subsidies for oilsands, and put the money toward clean energy.
  • Invest $165 million to train and recruit 1,200 doctors and 6,000 nurses over the next 10 years. Lure back 300 Canadian doctors living abroad.


  • Reduce the federal deficit by $10.7 billion over three years.
  • Spend $1.6billion over three years on home energy retrofit grants.
  • Legalize and tax marijuana to bring in $2.5 billion over three years.

Source: The Canadian Press

No homework? Well, that's a no-brainer. Of course, he got my vote, and he won the election and became school president, and, of course, we kept having to do homework. Someone told me that I shouldn't be surprised, because it was just an election promise, and election promises are made to be broken. Scratch one innocent.

There was a story Thursday in the Winnipeg Free Press, written by Julian Beltrame of The Canadian Press, that said Stephen Harper promised to double the annual limit on contributions to tax-free savings accounts from $5,000 to $10,000.

But there was a condition attached to Harper's promise: "We will, of course, do this once the budget is balanced," he said.

As Beltrame explained, the federal books aren't expected to be balanced until 2015-16.

Maybe I missed something back in Grade 9. Maybe the candidate said he would abolish homework but added, sotto voce, "when pigs fly." He might have added it quickly, muffling it with a cough, away from the mike.

There's nearly an entire month left before the May 2 election, and we are going to hear promises every day — promises reeking of sincerity, promises as likely to be made into legislation as pigs flying.

There are times when breaking a promise is legitimate and acceptable. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt pledged in 1940 to keep the United States out of the Second World War, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, all bets were off. Legitimate and acceptable as Roosevelt's change of heart may have seemed, he still faced an angry voter backlash in the 1942 midterm elections.

Gilles Duceppe avoids making campaign promises altogether so he can emphasize that his Bloc Québécois has only one objective: to prevent Harper from forming a majority government.

My all-time favourite political promise — more a boast than a promise, really — came from former Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, who said in the lead-up to the 1976 Olympics, "The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby."

The cost overruns from those Games took 30 years to retire, but it was a political cartoon by the famous Montreal Gazette cartoonist Aislin  when the $1.5 billion debt was announced that remains indelibly fixed on my brain's laugh-track. It shows a pregnant Drapeau on the phone saying, "Ello, Morgentaler?"

With files from The Canadian Press