OPINION: Punish politicians for dishonesty

Ottawa advocacy group Democracy Watch is pushing for a law to hold politicians to account when they fail to deliver on election promises.

There are plenty of promises during an election campaign, but that doesn't guarantee politicians will keep those promises after the votes are tallied.

According to research from Laval University, between 1945 and 1979, politicians were keeping about 72 per cent of campaign promises. Since then, that number has dipped as low has 65 percent.

Ottawa advocacy group Democracy Watch says it's time for an "Honesty in Politics" law, that would hold elected officials to their word. Duff Conacher is co-founder of Democracy Watch and a visiting professor of political science at the University of Ottawa.

(The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.)

What would an "Honesty in Politics" law entail?

First of all, during elections there would be a penalty and a complaints system for violations of promises made... In between elections, there would be a complaint process and penalty for people who are misleaders, instead of leaders -- that would apply to everyone in politics: not just government and government officials, but also the opposition, political staff, etcetera. And also a system to allow for switching of parties between elections, but only for reasons that are justifiable, such as if the party that someone is elected under violates all of their promises and therefore has essentially abandoned the platform that the person ran on, but not for career ambitions, to try and get in with a better party.

What agency or body would be responsible for enforcing these rules?

Politicians have imposed honesty requirements on all sorts of Canadians: federal government employees are required to be honest and can be fired if they're dishonest. Judges make the decisions as to whether you've been dishonest or not and that's what we think should happen, as well -- have an ethics commissioner or some other specialized court... And then the penalty we propose is that you would be fined: a significant fine. If you mislead voters, break a promise and if you switch parties for an unjustifiable reason between elections then you would be forced to resign and run in a by-election.

So if we have some kind of federal ethics commissioner responsible for this, how do you prevent this system from just becoming a highly politicized, quasi-judicial quagmire?

Well, it's a quagmire now, without any resolution. It's spin and counter-spin and every day it's a big reason why people don't pay attention to politics: you get spin from the government politicians and officials and then counter spin, that's often just as misleading, from the opposition parties and it turns a lot of people off. It would be far better to have a system that's more like a court. You're not going to stop all of the misleaders with such a system -- no law works 100 per cent of the time -- but you're going to stop the most blatant lying that is really turning off a majority of the population and causing voter turnout to drop and people not to engage in politics because why would you? It's a speculative fiction drama that's often not very interesting and the actors in the drama aren't very interesting, either. 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.


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