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Deceit and democracy: Do broken election promises matter? Part 2: The role of the media

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This is the second of a two part series by Osgoode law professor and former NDP Member of Parliament for Toronto-Danforth, Craig Scott. Read Part 1 here.

In Part 1 of this two-part article, I initiated a discussion of the significance of election promises for our democratic political culture by first focusing on pre-budget Liberal government departures from their campaign commitments, and then by considering the Liberals' campaign plan to limit their deficit to $10 billion. I also devoted much of the piece to acknowledging an NDP government would have had an even greater challenge to meet its spending commitments, but that ultimately a transparent, frank justification for taking an unexpected $18 billion deficit as a starting point would have been an option, just as it is currently an option for the Liberal government.

This is an option the Liberals seem loathe to embrace. Instead, the Liberals are employing a messaging strategy that acts as if the words "modest short-term deficits of less than $10 billion in each of the next two fiscal years" never appeared in their platform.

In Part 2 I argue that we need to scrutinize whether deceit has been involved in the Liberals' campaign promise of a range of things that were to have been part of the $10 billion deficit overspend. I argue that the Liberal government produced a budget on March 22 that leaves the same spending room as the budget (and its specific spending promises) as in their campaign platform. This is because Tuesday's budget has accounted for the claimed $18 billion in lost revenue by planning for a $29 billion deficit, thereby leaving intact the $10 billion in head room.

Multiple broken promises within the preserved spending room

What sorts of abandoned promises are we talking about?

Whether taking each commitment on its own or a number of them cumulatively, the Liberals have ditched multiple commitments that helped secure them significant numbers of left-leaning voters. Commitments like the promise to kill the stock-option tax loophole for corporate executives; like the promise not just to increase but also to equalize the funding for Aboriginal students' education; like the promise of an "immediate" $3 billion in funding for home care regardless of what terms are negotiated for the next federal-provincial health accord; and like the negative impact on revenue of the so-called middle-class tax cut in contrast to the Liberal campaign's claim that it would be offset by the added tax revenue from a boost in the marginal tax rate for the highest-income bracket.

Then there's what we could call the decency vote that the Liberals courted by promising to provide lifetime disability pensions for wounded veterans -- promise made, promise broken.

And there's the cross-cutting demographic of voters of various political stripes who would have been reassured when the Liberals said that they would lower small business tax rates to nine per cent, a promise made by all three major parties but a promise nowhere in evidence in the budget.

These are just some of the examples that are immediately obvious in comparing the budget to Liberal election promises. And they don't include examples of major initiatives that the Liberals were careful to keep framed in fairly soft terms in their platform text but that were nonetheless messaged in a full-throated way with the likely goal being to make voters think these things would transpire under the Liberals even if not explicitly promised.

Yet a number of these major initiatives are not in evidence in the budget even in terms of acknowledging future contingencies. One example may suffice to give a sense of the backsliding that may already be underway, if the absence of contingent budget implications are anything to go by: a federal-provincial Health Accord.

According to the Liberal platform, "[w]e will …provide the collaborative federal leadership that has been missing during the Harper decade…[and] [w]e will negotiate a new Health Accord with provinces and territories, including a long-term agreement on funding." Well, part of "the Harper decade" was a unilateral decision of the federal government to impose a new escalator on federal health funding transfers to the provinces that would result in $3 billion/year less in transfers starting in 2017. Voters might be forgiven for thinking that new "collaborative federal leadership" must mean an escalator considerably higher than the one unilaterally imposed by the Conservatives.

Yes 2017 falls within the immediate budget horizon of the present budget. While there are several fairly low-budget commitments set out in the budget in lieu of an agreement, there are no contingency funds set aside in the event that a new health accord contains an escalator that reverses or seriously ameliorates the imminent download on the provinces. And, as already noted, even the campaign commitment to an immediate $3 billion in home care funding in advance of a new accord is missing from the budget. Call me skeptical but this is starting to have the flavour of the Paul Martin years' strategy of downloading costs onto the provinces as a core element of federal budgeting.

The role of the media going forward

Initially, the media reporting on the budget appeared to follow Liberal communications strategy. Liberal strategists must have been positively gleeful that the media focus in the first two days of budget coverage was mostly on the quantum issue related to the $10 billion, staying away from gaps on specific commitments. Continuing on this path would have allowed the government to message and be praised for bold 'progressive' spending -- including by left-of-centre analysts who seem to be ecstatic that the Liberals even delivered on some of their commitments -- while simultaneously benefiting politically from creation of a Liberal-Conservative clash aided by the fact that the Conservatives' focus is primarily on sheer size of the over-all deficit.

As soon as the budget speech had been delivered, the NDP started to itemize the commitments that have been reneged upon, while also pointing out the fact that the Liberals' $29 billion budget safeguarded the spending room for exactly those commitments. By Day 3 of budget coverage, the media had begun to pivot in this direction and to start asking questions about specific promises.

Journalists will be doing a service to critical inquiry as a necessary feature of a healthy democracy if they continue to focus at least as much on the 'micro' promises as on the 'macro' promise of deficit quantum. At minimum, Canadians should be helped to achieve greater clarity on whether there are gaps in commitments or abandoned commitments despite the Liberals having the same budget room as assumed by them at the time of their commitments. Besides added factual clarity, such journalism will also help clarify whether there is a debate to be had on accountability for election promises, especially in the context of a government that emphasizes values like transparency, honesty and accountability.

Taking one step further into the realm of advice, journalists should demand that the Liberals answer which of the following explains their over-commitment and their under-delivery:

  • Did they just get the math all wrong, and, if so, was this accidentally on purpose? For example, when the Liberals insisted during the campaign that their tax re-distribution plan would also be at least revenue neutral, was it just incompetence that led them not to acknowledge that it would plainly be a net drain on revenues -- or other motivations?

  • Did they decide, since the election, either to substitute new priorities or to increase funding beyond promised levels on some of their commitments to the detriment of other commitments -- and, if so, which and why?

  • Is the explanation for some broken promises to be found in the fact that the Liberals added a 'fudge factor' into the budget by rejecting private sector forecasts in favour of a more pessimistic fiscal buffer, thereby setting themselves up for the classic Paul Martin move of under-delivering now in order to be perceived as over-performing later -- notably, by coming in with a much lower (or even no) deficit just before the next election? And does such a strategy have as its corollary that key promises will be sacrificed precisely in order to over-perform at the macro level?

  • Did they, as has been their track record in election after election for decades, deliberately make promises without full regard for the truth -- namely, knowing that some of the promises could not be, and would not be, actually honoured?

Who cares?

Let me end by addressing the question: Does any of this really matter?

Only if you think elections should be fought on good faith promises that Canadians won't feel like dupes for believing.

Only if you believe it is reasonable for Canadians to expect that breaking of promises should be exceptional and, where abandonment does prove necessary in the eyes of the government, this should be transparently justified based on sincerely unexpected circumstances or on a realization that a promise honestly made turned out to be a bad idea.

Only if you think that general 'progressive' outcomes cannot in themselves justify all the means used to achieve those results.

Only if you think that our democracy is ill-served by a government appropriating virtues like honesty, transparency and fresh difference for itself, but then acting on some fronts in ways that rather undermine those values.

Finally, and least 'sunnily' on my part, only if you are bothered that an election can be won and a government run on the basis of calculated hypocrisy as a mode of politics.


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

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

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