Day 6·Opinion

Party platforms aren't as important as you think

Ontario's PC party has been criticised for the lack of clarity in its long delayed election platform. But journalist Jen Gerson says we might be better off without them.

'Maybe a platform should just be a statement of values, organizing principles and general priorities.'

Ontario election candidates, from left: Andrea Horwath, Doug Ford, Kathleen Wynne and Mike Schreiner. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Since the 1990s, it's been standard practice for Canadian political parties to produce platforms explaining what they'll do if elected.

Platforms provide the parties with a space to lay out their planned policies and how they'll pay for them — and many voters have come to expect them.

In the lead-up to the province's June 7 election, both the Ontario Liberals and NDP criticized the Progressive Conservative Party for releasing an uncosted platform just a week before the election and after advance polls had already been open for more than two weeks. 

But journalist Jen Gerson says platforms aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Here's what she had to say on Day 6:

I have a problem with the way that parties produce and we understand platforms.

Parties release them and they make grand promises about spending priorities and cuts, but they're often making these promises with imperfect understanding.

Jen Gerson, Calgary-based freelance journalist, says it's time to change how parties make platforms. (Jen Gerson)

Once they get into power, they realize that the money isn't quite what they thought it was. The civil service isn't exactly as willing to change as they had hoped. Governing is really hard.

So most of the time, most governments wind up breaking their platform promises. That undermines the voters' trust in the whole system. Every politician lies, right?

Of course I bring this all up in the context of the Ontario election that's going on right now. On June 7, voters there will go to the polls. Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative party has only just released its platform, and of course, it's not nearly as detailed as anyone had hoped.

And I'm not here to defend the PC party or Ford. If you're gonna promise major tax cuts, as they have, you need a halfway-credible plan for how you're going to get there.

Maybe a platform should just be a statement of values, organizing principles and general priorities.- Jen Gerson

But if you want to complain about the PC party's half-baked back-of-the-napkin platform, or for that matter Andrea Horwath's NDP platform, which had a $1.4-billion hole, can we also note that in the last budget, the Liberal government of Ontario promised a $6.7-billion deficit? When the auditor general took a look, it turned out it was closer to $11.7 billion.

So here's an alternative idea: instead of making promises that we all know politicians won't or can't keep, maybe a platform should just be a statement of values, organizing principles and general priorities.

Maybe it's more important for me as a voter to know simply that you want to prioritise reducing tax rates than to know exactly how many points you want to reduce them by.

The other problem I have with the way we treat platforms, is that it reduces the whole democratic process to this transactional experience where people make promises of breaks, or goodies, or cuts in exchange for votes and legitimacy.

We are in an era when cynicism in politics is absolutely rampant. Maybe it's time that politicians stop making promises of things and instead start asking for the breathing room to actually govern.

Jen Gerson is a freelance reporter based in Calgary. She writes about politics. To hear her perform her rant, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.