This week’s Sixth Estate Document Collection update is a record of futile and abandoned promises: the major political parties’ election platforms of the past ten years. Election platforms are not, or at least not always, a summary of the actual political beliefs of a political party’s leadership. Instead, they’re a statement that those leaders think their chosen target audience will find appealing. They’re marketing documents. And much like when you rush out and buy cheap gimmicks because they’re on sale, there’s often a let-down when you realize you’ve been sold a bill of goods by slick salesmen. We can and must demand better from our political parties.
However, historically speaking, it’s also useful to look at election platforms precisely because of what the above implies: a vision that, at that point in time, each party thought was the best compromise between what it knew its respective base was expecting, and what it thought other Canadians could be convinced to vote for. Pundits often refer to this, quite misleadingly, as a political party’s “move to the centre” — i.e. move to a place from which they can appeal to more voters. Has that “centre” changed? Looking at old election platforms can tell us.
The election “platform,” as such, is actually a relatively new invention. Parties have always campaigned based on a fairly cohesive set of slogans and promises, and these have always taken the form of written propaganda. But a single, comprehensive agenda for government really only became the centrepiece of the election campaign with the publication of the Liberal Red Book in 1993. Whether or not it’s been a net benefit for democracy is debatable. The longer and more detailed the platform, the more voters might think they know about the government’s intentions. But a cynic would just say that the more promises a platform makes, the more promises a party can break.
The purpose of this collection is not to determine whether any given party has kept its promises. That’s an important question, too, although at the moment there is no party leadership in Parliament that (at least in its present form) has governed a majority Parliament, so really no party can be subjected to that sort of criticism: none of them have a record. Yet. For the moment what’s interesting about the material is what has changed, and what hasn’t changed, over the past decade and more, about what political parties think Canadians expect from their government.
Take the Conservative commitment to open and transparent government, for instance. In 2006, Harper came to power on the back of a wave of anti-Liberal sentiment. Jean Chretien had presided over phenomenal corruption and patronage, and the Gomery Commission proved to be the tipping point. His longtime foe Paul Martin finally unseated Chretien in 2004, only to find himself presiding over the party’s deathwatch. And the Conservatives promised reforms so that government would never be corrupt again. Harper promised free votes for MPs, elections for Senators, an end to patronage appointments, firm rules for lobbyists, an end to corporate and union financing of political parties, fair and transparent government contracting, whistleblower protection rules, new respect for Access to Information rules, and a Parliamentary Budget Officer.
Five years on, they have delivered on only two of those promises — new election donation restrictions, and a Parliamentary Budget Officer, albeit one that the Conservatives now say is unprofessional and unreliable because he disagrees with them on the cost of the F-35 fighter. All the others have either remained unchanged, or in the case of Access to Information rules, actually been weakened even further so that the public’s ability to know what is happening in government behind closed doors is less now than it has been in a generation. And yet they do not seem to care. The 2011 platform made no mention of how it had failed to maintain these lofty promises. Instead it promised even less: term limits for Senators, the elimination of the most equitable and competitive political party financing tool (so that new political parties are effectively banned), and an Open Government website that will provide links to public reports published by Statistics Canada. Five years in power has taught Harper that openness and transparency are not good, after all. This May, many Canadians agreed with him that they did not need to know what happens in their government and that they did not need to have senior public officials appointed on the basis of merit rather than political connections.
It’s not only the Conservatives that are drifting, however. Take healthcare, for instance. In 2000, the Liberals promised to increase healthcare spending by about $5.5 billion per year in 2011 terms, in addition to the existing Canada Health and Social Transfer payments. They also said they would rigorously enforce the Canada Health Act, train more doctors, and tighten tobacco regulations. The Conservatives promised to fully reverse the Chretien-Martin healthcare cuts, sign an agreement to provide stable increase in the future (which Martin ultimately did in 2004, creating the current 6%-per-year guarantee), train more doctors, accelerate the certification of foreign doctors, and put more resources into researching and reviewing new drugs.
And in 2011? The Liberal promised better food labelling and regulations on salt and transfats, but said they would respect the fact that funds were limited. The Conservatives promised new wait times limits, but no new funding. By 2010, only the New Democratic Party was still promising major new investments in universal healthcare.
Obviously these are election platforms only. Cynical as we Canadians have become, we realize that election platforms are just an exercise in promising what they think people are prepared to hope for, not what they actually intend to do in power. But that’s just the point. Over the last decade, the political system has increasingly abandoned even the pretense of a firm commitment to democracy and accountability of the sort the Reform movement once championed, as well as the universal social institutions like medicare that the left once demanded the defence of. Major political parties are coming to the conclusion that they just don’t need to talk about those things. That says something about them… and it says something about us.Tweet