Opinion-Policy Nexus

Election promises are fraught with danger for politicians.

Both Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau are learning about the perils of promises, although their enlightenment is coming from opposite directions. Trudeau is being savaged in Parliament, on the internet and in some quarters of the mainstream media for breaking a promise – to wit, that a Liberal government would replace Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system and to do it before the next election in 2019.

Meanwhile, Trump has stirred up a hornet’s nest for himself and his new administration not by breaking election promises, but by keeping them, without regard to the legal, political and diplomatic consequences. His “Muslim ban” – the executive order suspending the admission of refugees and halting the entry of travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries – has caused a storm around the world.

His determination to keep his promise to build that multi-billion-dollar wall and to make Mexico pay for it has infuriated the Mexican president, while his refugee ban has angered the prime minister of Australia, who has 1,250 refugees penned up offshore awaiting previously approved passage to the United States. 

There is more trouble ahead as Trump works down his list of promises to be kept. Here, at random, are a few of them:

Get rid of Obamacare and replace it with something "terrific" (whatever that may be, no one knows); defund Planned Parenthood; target and kill the relatives of terrorists; bring back waterboarding; bring back jobs from China; deport 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.; cut the federal budget by 20 per cent; renegotiate NAFTA; force Nabisco to make Oreo cookies in the United States again. And this (No. 24 on a list of 72 Trump promises compiled by the Washington Post): be unpredictable. 

The irony is that Trump doesn’t really need to keep his promises. He operates in a twitterverse of alternative facts and false news. His core supporters don’t much care whether he lies or tells the truth; they voted for him to shake up what they regard as broken system – and he is doing just that. Other voters who supported him – mainstream Republicans along with many Democrats – found comfort in the belief that Trump lies constantly and probably had no intention of honouring his more far-fetched promises.

Those voters deluded themselves, and now they are looking to Congress to see if the Republicans there can find the backbone to stand up to the new president.

While they are looking for backbone, let’s return to the uproar on the Rideau. Trudeau could have spared himself a bushel of grief if he had been more circumspect with his electoral reform promise in the 2015 campaign. He could have declared his “intention” to review FPTP with a view to replacing it, but not attached the 2019 deadline.

But that’s not what he did, and now he stands accused by NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, among others, of lying to the Canadian public.

Lying is a grave allegation in our parliamentary system. It’s been made before in similar contexts. It was made about Justin’s father, Pierre, when he introduced wage and price controls after empathically rejecting them in the 1974 election. It was made again after the 1993 election when Jean Chrétien discarded his promise to find a new revenue cow to replace the goods and services tax. (He didn’t actually promise to scrap the GST, just to replace it, not that the nuance meant much in the end, as Chrétien acknowledges in his memoirs.)

Did Justin Trudeau lie? A lie is often defined as a statement that is made with the intent to deceive. Did Trudeau intend to deceive the electorate in 2015? Or was he the leader of a third party who did not expect to win but who hoped to attract reform-minded voters by making a  promise he didn’t think he would be called on to keep? 

At the very least, he misled the electorate and deserves to be called on it.


Monday, February 6, 2017 - 09:26