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Deceit and democracy: Do broken election promises matter? Part 1: Liberals with the truth

| March 27, 2016
Photo: The Carillon

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This is the first of a two part series by Osgoode law professor and former NDP Member of Parliament for Toronto-Danforth, Craig Scott. Part 2 will be appear on Monday, March 28.

Breached promises in Tuesday's federal budget raise questions about honesty and accountability in our electoral democracy. 

Have the Liberals driven the final cynical nail into a coffin in which we should bury any pretense that campaign platform promises can be relied upon by voters? Have they banished naïveté from Canadian politics for good by yet again "proving" that the malleability of at least some campaign commitments is the price of (Liberals) keeping Conservatives from power?

Do political parties need to start formulating their platform planks less categorically or at least better distinguish those that are unalterable versus those that may need to be modified in light of evolving circumstances such as unexpected economic realities, compromises required by minority or coalition government contexts, or belated but sincere realization a promise was a mistake?

Might we need some sort of legislative reforms that provide for some consequences for continuing disregard of promises, perhaps annual reporting mechanisms on the state of delivery of each platform plank that could also include a procedure that, at some point later in a government’s term, requires a Prime Minister to explain and justify in the House of Commons why his or her government has departed from or not yet delivered on clear commitments?

This critique may come as a surprise to some -- including many who are left of centre or who see themselves as generally "progressive." Many are so happy with the change in tone and style of Prime Minister Trudeau's government from the previous government, and with its general willingness to invest in areas identified in the campaign as priorities, that they are giving the government a pass on gaps or failures. Indeed, criticism of any sort is often received as if it is nothing but a continuation of negativism that the PM's Laytonesque messaging of hope and optimism was meant to leave behind.

I proceed from a very different point of view. Criticism is needed because it is very dangerous for the government -- any government -- to exploit the kind of good will that this government is currently enjoying. The burden of both parts of this piece is to show that some degree of exploitation is indeed what is transpiring.

Liberals with the truth

Before turning to the inaugural Liberal budget's connection to the problem of deceit in our democracy, it should first be noted that, setting aside the budget, it is already arguable the Liberals have shown in five months that they consider promises to be a bit of a crap shoot for the voter. Three examples give some flavour of a caveat emptor reality:

  • "We will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber" turns out to mean that F35's are back on the table.

  • "We will end Canada's combat mission in Iraq" actually leads to a deepened engagement with a new mix of contributions that necessarily involve vigorous combat assistance  -- whatever word games the Liberals try to play, Canada assisting "primary combatants" (the military's new buzz phrase) makes Canadians "secondary combatants" not non-combatants.

  • We will welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees "through immediate government sponsorship" has ended, by late February, with something like a third of the 25,000 being privately sponsored. And so on.

The CBC's tell-it-like-it-is Neil Macdonald laid bare the extent of the problem even before this budget in an online analysis on CBC.ca one month ago. "It's probably time to dispense with the notion that the Trudeau government is really much different from its predecessors," he observes. "On matters of policy, and governance, it appears just as capable of blithely making promises it knows it can't keep, and then blithely breaking them. It is capable of speaking out of both sides of its mouth."  

For many political observers, this was to be expected. No, not because all politicians are like this. But specifically because the Liberals have long made it virtually part of their brand to say one thing and do something else -- alongside their particular skill of saying two contrary things in the same time period. Take as just one example of the former skill the serial child care promises in Red Book after Red Book in the Chrétien era, reneged on by government after government. Take as just one example of the latter skill the manner in which the Liberal platform appropriated the slogan of proportional-representation (PR) advocate Fair Vote Canada Make Every Vote Count by framing their lead electoral-reform commitment as "We will make every vote count," even as the fine print of the subsequent paragraphs talked about ending the first-past-the-post system after studying "a wide variety of reforms" where PR is listed as just one possible reform. 

To boot, entitled arrogance seems to be resurfacing. Macdonald ends the critique he wrote on February 25 by noting: "As one veteran Liberal, someone I've come to know over the years, put it to me: "What did you expect?" The answer: "Pretty much exactly what's happening." Indeed. 

So, in this context of Liberals being liberal with the truth, what is my beef with the budget?

Let's start with what we can think of as the macro promise relating to the size of the planned deficit. In Part 2 of this article, we will then consider the status of various micro commitments that were promised within the planned deficit range.

"Less than $10 billion in each of the next two years"

The Liberal election platform states the following on page 12:  

"We will run modest short-term deficits of less than $10 billion in each of the next two fiscal years to fund historic investments in infrastructure and our middle class.

After the next two fiscal years, the deficit will decline and our investment plan will return Canada to a balanced budget in 2019."

On Day 1 of the budget, critical questioning from the media started and ended with two related questions: why did you renege on your promises to limit a deficit to $10 billion and to emerge from deficit within four years?

It's a valid and important question, not least for the swathe of fiscally conservative voters who the Liberals peeled off from the Conservatives' voter universe and for whom the limit was actually important. Of course, it is impossible to know what percentage ranked this so highly that they would not have voted for the Liberals had the Liberals actually said during their campaign what the government’s Ministers and spin team now say, in full dissembling flight, was "really" a promise to go into deficit to stimulate growth with no limits placed on the amount of the deficit. 

But, say for the sake of argument that, of the 39.6 per cent of the national vote received by the Liberals last October 19, only two per cent was secured based precisely on the promise the deficit would be "modest and short-term" and, in any event, held to a $10 billion ceiling. Even that small percentage of two per cent would likely have relegated the Liberals to minority status in the House of Commons, with all sorts of consequences for how our democracy would have moved forward in a post-Harper era -- including making more likely a fair reform to our electoral system because of the NDP's and Greens' commitment to proportional representation alongside the Liberals' professed openness to it.

So, yes, breach of the $10 billion promise does matter in two senses. It was framed as a clear commitment with no express caveat, and it almost certainly helped deliver the Liberals their House majority. 

That said, the Liberals could approach their departure from the $10-billion platform plank differently from how they currently are. They could seek to transparently justify their departure with some integrity by frankly accepting that they have indeed contravened the letter of the promise while arguing they are still abiding by the spirit, for reasons they feel are defensible and that they feel should persuade most of the above postulated two per cent of the voters for whom the modesty of the deficit was crucial. 

Circumstances do change and, however cliché it may sound, the books may hold surprises for incoming governments, such as the extent of the lost revenues due to the oil price collapse. But the key here is that governments should be obliged to describe in detail the changes in circumstances, explain honestly why they were not anticipated, and justify persuasively their decisions in light of the changes.

I had assumed some weeks ago that this was what they were already setting up as a transparent defence when, well in advance of the budget, the finance minister released the news that there would be an unexpected $18 billion in lost revenues, which already had analysts noting that something like a $29-billion deficit would be needed to still deliver the investments intended with an initially expected $10-billion deficit. Instead, following budget day, Liberal ministers are going so far as not even to acknowledge that the words "modest short-term deficits of less than $10 billion" ever appeared in black and white during the election campaign. The "answers" of International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland on CBC Radio's Metro Morning on March 23 deserve to be immortalized as Exhibit #1 of this Liberal rhetorical strategy.  

Before concluding Part 1 of this two-part article, allow me, as a former NDP Member of Parliament, and 2015 election candidate, to address the elephant in the room. A frank and transparent approach would be exactly the same form of justification the NDP would also have needed to make had we been the ones to form government and had we decided we also wanted to deliver on the spending within our own plan that postulated balanced budgets, in the face of a post-election realization that we were being faced with an automatic $18 billion drop in revenues as a starting point. 

Admittedly, an NDP government would have had a greater challenge. First of all, the NDP parliamentary caucus did vote for the misguided Balanced Budget Act 2015. Some MPs voted for it on advice that it had enough latitude for departing from an annual balanced budget in times of economic crisis -- and it is possible, although not certain, that the current plummet in revenues due to crashing oil prices and a global slowdown might qualify. Some of us contemplated that it would likely need to be repealed and replaced with a saner statute that refers to balance being achieved over time and not artificially year to year. In any event, it remains a real legal commitment and, as such, an NDP government would have been more likely to see the need to address this rule-of-law hurdle at the same time as embracing an $18 billion deficit in order to deliver on our campaign promises. This is in contrast to the Liberals. They also voted for the Balanced Budget Act 2015 but I see no reference to the Act in the budget document. Ignoring votes in the House is par for the course for a party that also voted in favour of an NDP House of Commons motion for a $15/hour minimum wage only to attack the NDP for this very commitment during the election campaign.

Secondly, the NDP campaign platform did not embrace a modest deficit as a necessity for us to deliver on our investment and programming commitments. Correctly or incorrectly, our finance team felt that planned extra revenues (including eliminating the stock-option loophole for corporate executives and raising the large-corporation tax rate) and a measured roll-out of physical infrastructure investments could be done within balance. While "balanced budget" was meant to be a planned modality for delivering on our priorities and not some overriding pillar of the NDP campaign, the initial manner in which Tom Mulcair addressed our balanced-budget plan came off as being so fervent that many in the media started "reporting" that ours was an absolutist commitment to a deficit regardless of future circumstances.  

The NDP then made the mistake of never actively disassociating itself from this impression -- other than Tom belatedly using an example of a serious recession being enough reason not to worry about balancing the books. Given the interaction between our leader's attack on the Liberals' willingness to go into deficit and the impression created in media reporting, many voters probably (and reasonably) believed that a balanced budget was a central campaign pillar for the NDP. As such, it would be naïve to think that an NDP government would not carry that perception as an albatross around its neck.

The manner in which a balanced-budget plan was defended by Tom helped give journalists, no doubt spurred by Liberal communications spinners, some sort of licence to add an at-all-costs gloss. Even today, journalists like Thomas Walkom misrepresent the NDP position as when, in a Toronto Star column on March 24, he writes that ours was a "campaign promise to balance the books regardless of circumstance." This is not what Tom or the platform stated, but it is also true that the NDP largely hoisted itself on its own petard by not aggressively dispelling this media interpretation during the election.   

Returning to, and concluding with, the issue of the current government and their current messaging on the additional $18 billion in deficit, the key point is that Liberals are so far choosing a top-line talking point that essentially pretends they never made the specific $10 billion promise in the first place and ignores that they never expressly stated that their ceiling could be superseded if their economic premises proved wrong.

At least until the Liberals stop this duplicitous messaging and acknowledge they have blown through something expressed as a clear commitment, they most definitely deserve censure for breaking their overarching deficit-quantity promise. 

In Part 2, to appear on Monday, I discuss why the $10-billion promise may not be the most important of the broken promises.

Craig Scott is Professor of Law, Osgoode Hall Law School of York University; former Member of Parliament for Toronto-Danforth and Official Opposition Critic for Democratic and Parliamentary Reform


Photo originally appeared on The Carillon and is used with permission.

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