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Strictly holding governments to election promises not only impractical, but undesirable

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Oh, promises, promises, this is where those promises, promises end.
Oh, promises, their kind of promises, can just destroy a life. – Dionne Warwick

In Deceit and democracy: Do broken election promises matter? Part 1: Liberals with the truth and Part 2: The role of the media, former NDP Member of Parliament Craig Scott focuses on the keeping of political "promises," particularly those made by the new Canadian Liberal government, evaluating what they "promised" in their 2015 electoral campaign in comparison to what they delivered in their 2016 budget.

Early on Scott asks:

"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?" 

Good questions, and ones which I would like to explore here. 

"Broken promises" have become a leitmotif in contemporary politics and political analysis. Opposition parties and media routinely enumerate them in a running scorecard that is supposed to evaluate the integrity of a government, and they are regularly invoked in election campaigns as reasons why we ought not to trust and/or defeat governments.

On the one hand "breaking promises" seems egregious conduct in any context, including the political. However, is it really anything more than a rhetorical political game? What is a "promise" and what constitutes "breaking" it? John Maynard Keynes famously said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Is the "breaking of promises" anything more than pivoting according to changed circumstances? Are we being excessively pedantic in trying to hold governments to an inflexible code of conduct? 

Promises? What broken promises?

Anyone who has cast their critical attention to the contemporary Canadian political scene (or, indeed, that of many jurisdictions) will understand what this about. During an election political parties attempt and outdo one another in what they offer the electorate. The countervailing force is what this will cost. The bigger the bang for your buck the greater the chance of electoral success. This frequently devolves to a dance of subtle linguistic deception, hinting at things to be undertaken in terms that leave sufficient ambiguity as to allow subsequent re-interpretation along less expansive lines.

I'd warrant that this has always been an element of partisan politics, however, in the last four decades of the neoliberal era this has been sharpened to a fine point by the demonization of taxation as a legitimate mechanism whereby governments raise revenues to undertake constructive measures for the benefit of the population.

Real ChangeThus, faced with highly attenuated opportunities for raising revenues, promising more involves threading a proverbial sticky wicket. And where does this lead? Anyone with political acumen has taken note of policy planks that try and sound maximally expansive while remaining minimally committal. Scott parses part of the Liberals' election pledge with regard to a New Health Accord, which says (in part):

"We will restart that important conversation and provide the collaborative federal leadership that has been missing during the Harper decade. We will negotiate a New Health Accord with provinces and territories, including a long-term agreement on funding."

Scott argues that this represents a "broken promise" since a crucial component of the Harper decade's legacy on healthcare was the decrease in the escalator formula for providing healthcare transfers to provinces, and no new increase in the escalator were announced in the 2016 budget. True enough, however read carefully the above pledge and no such explicit commitment is present in the Liberal's "promise" in this area. The Liberals promise to "restart an important conversation" and "negotiate a new health accord" which includes "a long-term agreement on funding." There is nothing explicitly there on an escalator formula, or indeed anything that could actually stick to them politically. It's not hard to "converse" and "negotiate" and inevitably some "agreement" on funding will emerge. 

Real ChangeIs this therefor a broken promise? Is such phraseology selective omission? Is not being overly explicit a good thing in allowing an incoming government some room to maneuver before they have actually seen the accounting books, and in the face of changed economic circumstances, (i.e., the fallen price of oil), or are these weasel words designed to convey a sentiment without actual substance? 

Let's examine another example, this one with respect to Political Financing:

"We will close political financing loopholes. When fixed election date legislation was introduced, it left a loophole that allows unlimited spending in the period before an election is called. That creates an uneven playing field. We will review the limits on how much political parties can spend during elections, and ensure that spending between elections is subject to limits as well."

Again, this sounds positive and addresses an important issue, but parse the sentences carefully and you'll see that the Liberals only commit to "reviewing limits" and "ensuring spending" is subject to them. This conveys a sentiment but there's no specific "promise" here than one can sink one's political teeth into. Is this a good thing or bad? Is it reasonable for political parties to make highly specific commitments prior to election? Commitments that might involve negotiations with stakeholders and carefully crafted legislation? Or is the absence of tangible commitments simply meaningless political hot air? 

Where do the broken promises end? 

It's my argument that this situation arises for two principal reasons: 

1) In a partisan environment, particularly in a hyper-partisan climate fostered by a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, parties are incessantly pushed to try to politically "wedge" one another and stake out positions that differentiate them from their competitors. A superb policy is of limited electoral use if it is also held by your competitor(s) since it doesn't contribute to the narrative of selecting your party rather than another. This is true in political climates other than FPTP as well, however, FPTP accentuates the zero-sum dynamic. 

2) If you succumb to the neoliberal propaganda that proposing to raise revenues through taxation is completely off the electoral table, then you're really stuck in terms of making firm electoral promises. Where is the revenue going to come from?

Maybe the economy will improve and more sales and income tax will come rolling through the door -- but maybe it won't. Or perhaps a recession might occur that is utterly beyond the power of any government to control (for example sparked by a fall in resource prices, something Canada is particularly vulnerable to in our continuing role as "hewers of wood and drawers of water"). Then there is no way to pay for a firm promise and you'll be forced to break it. And the opposition parties and media will excoriate you accordingly. Ergo, better to give the appearance of commitment while providing a semantic escape hatch. In other words, take care to promise nothing specific.

This is such a well-worn part of the political game that many people simply accept this as par for the course. But is it necessary? Does it convert what should be serious and substantive politics into gamesmanship? Does it foster political cynicism? Is there a solution to such prevarication? 

In my view, a move to a better (i.e., a proportional) electoral system, would be a positive step for many reasons, including ramping down hyper-partisanship, and in being conducive to a climate in which cooperation is not a political anathema. Coalition governments spread the responsibility for actions and correspondingly distribute credit for achievements. The net result is to foster more reasonable expectations, and less hyperbolic criticism.

Similarly, understanding the necessary role of taxation (the original and best mechanism of crowd-funding) allows governments more latitude to raise revenues to fulfill promises that satisfy policy objectives.

It is also important not to weigh every issue solely on this balance beam. Is it consequential that the Liberal's "broke" their promise of admitting 25,000 Syrian refugees by December 31, 2015 and instead reached this benchmark a couple of months later? In my view, it is not. Indeed, it was prudent not to overtax the capacity of the refugee administration system so as to introduce chaos into the process. Arguably, the Liberals were overly optimistic in committing to the timetable in the first place, but better to be over-enterprising and scale back if circumstances warrant, than be too timid from the get go.

On the other hand, the promise by the Liberals to end the $750 million stock option tax loophole that benefits corporate executives, seems to me to represent a real and consequential "broken" promise.

Justin Trudeau & Bill MoreauJustin Trudeau pledged that the Liberals would limit the amount employees can claim through stock-option deductions. Post-election, Finance Minister Bill Morneau immediately began to backpedal on the pledge, announcing in the November 2015 fiscal update that, "Any decision we take on stock options will affect stock options issued from that date forward," in other words grandfathering all existing options. [See: Tax changes won't apply to existing stock options, Morneau says.] The 2016 federal budget introduced no limitation on the stock option tax loophole. This represents a specific commitment to address a specific issue, and breaking this promise breaks political faith.

Governments must be held to account, and a Prime Minister and their cabinet should, as Craig Scott suggests, be required to, "explain and justify in the House of Commons why his or her government has departed from or not yet delivered on clear commitments." However, an overly simplistic "broken promises" scorecard approach reduces complex political balancing to "gotchya" politics and introduces counterproductive equivocating in political commitments that fail to serve the public interest.

We have to create a political climate where politicians can say what they mean and mean what they say -- and are expected to do both.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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