The180·The 180

The problem with political promises

This week, the Liberal government abandoned the idea of electoral reform, despite a very specific election promise. The decision has been subject to derision from all sides. But what if the problem wasn't that the PM abandoned the promise? What if the problem was that he made a promise at all?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with the public at a town hall at the University of Winnipeg, Thursday, January 26, 2017. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

The Liberal government will not reform the federal electoral system, despite promising to do so when elected.

And depending on where your party politics lie, that decision has been called a betrayal, a cynical display of self-serving politics, and a lesson for voters to not believe anything Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says again. 

But to Kelly Blidook, an associate professor in political science at Memorial University, the problem really isn't that the government abandoned its promise, it's that it made one in the first place. 

We've created a system in politics where we want promises and we also sort of want to be able to call people liars. And I think we should accept that while promises are an important part of our democracy, we're a little too fixated on establishing promises and then measuring whether they're kept or not. I think that's a simplistic way of looking at how government works and how trust works.- Kelly Blidook

Blidook says everyone — from politicians to voters to the media have a role to play — in changing what he calls a 'culture of promises'. 

"The world is a changing place, there is a lot of information that parties don't necessarily have as they're making those promises, and I think as they accumulate that information we should be open to the idea that they are going to have to potentially change the pledges they have made."

While loathe to let the prime minister off the hook, Blidook says trust in politicians and government could be built if the  focus was less on what promises were made and kept, and more on dialogue, debate and policy outcomes. 

Do we want a government that is going to say exactly what it's going to do and then do it come hell or high water, or are we comfortable with the idea that they used the best information available and then made the best decision? I would encourage people to consider that alternative view point and not always feel the need to lambaste someone simply because they see what they think is a lie.- Kelly Blidook