Time for a Truth in Politics Act

Andrew Coyne on how to stop politicians from lying, or at least reward the honest ones
Time for a Truth in Politics Act
Photograph by Cole Garside

If there is one thing Gilles Duceppe would like you to know about Stephen Harper, it’s that he’s a liar. The Prime Minister, he says, is “lying” about his past dalliances with coalition government, “lying” about Employment Insurance rules, lying, well, generally.

There’s a lot of that going around. Harper has much the same to say about Michael Ignatieff: when he tells you he won’t form a coalition government after the election, he’s lying. “He did it before, and he’ll do it again.” Jack Layton pretty clearly thinks both Harper and Ignatieff are liars, even if he never quite uses the word. Ignatieff, for his part, challenges Harper with the old line that “if he’ll stop telling lies about me, I’ll stop telling the truth about him.” And so on and on.

The sad thing is, all of these liars are telling the truth. A culture of lying has overtaken our politics, and every party has been caught up in it, to a greater or lesser extent.

Politics has never been noted as a place for unsparing honesty. At best, it consists of telling people what they want to hear; it deals in shades of truth, selective facts, exaggeration, blarney and spin. But in most places at most times, it has been expected that politicians will stay within some sort of limits. If you wish to deceive, do so by the sly omission, the evasive answer, the non-denial denial. Equivocate if you can, mislead if you must, but don’t say straight up, without room for ambiguity, in a manner that is intended to be believed, something that you know is false.

Small fibs, told in haste, are one thing. But the more solemn the vow, and the more important the matter, the greater the expectation that a statement could be taken at something approaching face value: if not wholly true, it would at least not be wholly untrue. But somewhere along the way that taboo was broken in Canada, and nowhere more so than in that most fundamental unit of democratic currency, the campaign promise.

Perhaps it began with Pierre Trudeau, who campaigned furiously against wage and price controls in the 1974 election—that famous, mocking “zap, you’re frozen”—only to introduce them shortly afterward. There followed Brian Mulroney, who unctuously upbraided John Turner for his patronage sins (“you had an option, sir”) as if he were not himself about to take the practice to new depths; Jean Chrétien, who promised to abolish the GST and renegotiate NAFTA, but did neither; Stephen Harper, who, having promised he would appoint no one who was not elected to either cabinet or the Senate, on his first day as Prime Minister appointed his unelected Quebec organizer Michael Fortier to both—a pattern that was to be repeated in everything from fixed election dates to the taxation of income trusts.

This is hardly reserved to federal politics. The list of Dalton McGuinty’s broken promises would fill a scrapbook, but the most notorious was surely his pledge, signed in public as a sort of contract with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, not to raise taxes without a referendum—which was no more than a promise to obey the previous government’s Taxpayers’ Protection Act. Six months after he was elected, he had raised taxes, amending the law to eliminate the referendum requirement.

Examples abound, from coast to coast. The former Liberal premier of New Brunswick, Shawn Graham, elected on a promise not to sell New Brunswick Power, proposed to do just that once safely elected. The current premier of Nova Scotia, New Democrat Darrell Dexter, came to power promising he would neither raise taxes, nor cut spending, nor run a deficit. He proceeded to do all three. I need hardly dwell on British Columbia’s Gordon Campbell, and his disavowal, prior to the 2009 election, of any intent to harmonize the province’s sales tax with the federal GST, except to note that neither the promise nor Campbell are still operative.

All three parties, both levels of government. These were not, it must be stressed, casual slips of the lip, minor items at the bottom of each party’s wish list. They were central planks in their platforms, often the major point of divergence between them and their opponents, in some cases arguably the key to their victory. The taxpayers’ pledge, for example, was vital to McGuinty’s efforts to shake the tax-and-spend label the Conservatives had hung on him: he would not have won without it. In many cases, moreover, the sins were not of omission—a failure to do something they had promised, against which they could plead the crush of events—but of commission: things they had promised not to do, but went ahead and did.

Facts change, of course, and a politician has a right to change his mind, the same as anyone else. But in none of the examples cited do the explanations, of unforeseen circumstances and unexpected deficits, ring true: we’ve simply heard these stories too often. The promises, rather, were in most cases of a kind that simply could not be kept: they were that foolish, and the people who made them knew it at the time. The point is not that politicians should persist in policies they know to be disastrous, just because they’ve promised them. The point is that they should not make such promises in the first place.

This is not politics as usual. It’s something far worse. It is not just corrosive of public trust. It makes it impossible for the public to form any sort of judgment about the people who seek to lead them. Elections are not referendums, of course, and a platform is only one of the criteria by which we choose between leaders. But how can the public assess even the general direction the candidates would take if they can have no confidence in any particular piece of evidence offered to that effect? It is not an answer to say they can “throw the bums out” at the next election, when the question of who said what four years before would have to contend with 40 other issues. The public should not have to choose between honest government and health care. It should be a given.

That it plainly is not is reflected in growing public disenchantment. Elections Canada surveys find this breakdown in trust to be the primary cause of declining voter turnout—to all-time record lows, if anyone has forgotten. It is the most common response when voters are asked what questions they would put to their leaders at election time: why should we believe you?

The mystery is why we put up with this. We do not, as a rule, in other areas of life. If a company lies to consumers about its products, it faces stiff fines or worse. Likewise, if it cheats its investors: a prospectus cannot be false or even misleading. There are laws against libel and slander, as there are for those who fill out false information on welfare or immigration forms: all enacted by the same politicians who grant themselves licence to tell worse lies to many more people.
Even within the political world, there are provisions against lying, in certain circumstances. Politicians are forbidden to lie to each other—witness the odium of Oda—or about each other, a provision in the election laws of Canada and eight of the provinces. But lie to the public, about a major campaign promise? All part of the game.

To be sure, free and feisty political debates are critical to democracy. Any proposals to police political speech, even to prevent out-and-out deception, must be viewed with skepticism, as certainly they would be if applied to the media. The only known Canadian attempt, British Columbia’s electoral fraud law, has avoided such stifling effect mainly by being almost impossible to enforce: it requires complainants to demonstrate not only that the fraudulent promise affected the outcome of an election, but that they personally suffered damages as a result.

But the problem remains. It is not so much that liars are prospering, as that honest politicians have no way of establishing their bona fides: so discredited is the profession generally that everyone is disbelieved equally. So perhaps the solution lies not in some blanket ban on political lying, such as the ethics-in-government advocacy group Democracy Watch has proposed, to be enforced by a public complaints process—a recipe for abuse, I fear, and anyway, not something the parties are ever likely to accept. Perhaps, rather, it is to let politicians opt in to legal liability if the claims they are making prove false.

Again, there are examples of this in private life: from bonded couriers to sworn affidavits, people have found ways to show they are trustworthy, by willingly assuming certain penalties if they are not. Suppose, then, there were a provision of the Elections Act, which a candidate could invoke at his discretion to cover particular statements or documents—such as a platform—with provisions for fines or other sanctions if they are found to be materially false. No gotchas over some stray comment on the campaign trail, but when they really needed to be believed they’d have some means of persuading people.

Such statements would no doubt be drafted with caution, as they are in private life, with conditions attached to cover different eventualities: “We will balance the budget, provided the economy grows by more than two per cent annually.” Fine. Voters could decide how much weight to attach to them accordingly—as they could any declarations issued without such backing. Over time, I have a feeling opting in would become the norm, rather than the exception.
I can think of no other single measure that would do more to restore public faith in the political process. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? It is broke. Let’s fix it.