Promises, promises

On Afghanistan and everything else, why does Stephen Harper even bother making promises anymore?

What then are we to do with the entire notion of a campaign promise? I was there in September of 2008, the first week of that year’s election campaign, when Stephen Harper strolled into a fake media “breakfast” (he ate no food and drank only water) to announce that Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan should end in 2011. Coyne went ballistic. But at least he noticed that since the it-all-ends-in-2011 thing constituted a 180-degree turnabout from Harper, maybe another 180 was still possible. “You just never know.”

And indeed it was so. Though the prime minister has a hard time finding his voice on the issue this week, armies of leakers are suggesting on his behalf that the military mission won’t end in 2011, but that hundreds, even as many as 1,000, will remain to do training in Kabul. (Harper apologists, who are constantly having to figure out why his latest zig-zag was coming all along, will patiently explain that this will become a training mission, which is different from a combat mission. But it was precisely the notion of a training mission that Peter Kent ruled out in June when he said “there’s no wiggle room at all.” Now there’s room for a mambo parade.

We are left wondering, not for the first time, why we put the Conservative leader to the trouble of making election promises since he is only going to ignore them. Remember the $900 million diesel tax cut? Neither does he. Remember the promise never to go into deficit? Now you don’t have to. Remember six or eight carbon cap-and-trade schemes the Conservatives ginned up to block Stéphane Dion? Never mind.

Of course the laments on this can be multi-partisan. Chrétien’s vow to scrap, kill and abolish the GST. Gordon Campbell, RIP, on the HST. Some people are so livid over all this promise-breaking that they try to concoct schemes to hold politicians to their electoral vows with various penalties for infringement.

But what if the problem isn’t promise-breaking but promise-making itself?

I’m at least half serious. (It can be hard to tell.) The notion of the fully-costed, detailed and itemized campaign platform is actually relatively new in Canadian politics. I’m reminded of this by Dynasties and Interludes: Past and Present in Canadian Electoral Politics, a handy new survey of Canadian electoral history by academics Lawrence Leduc, Jon H. Pammett, Judith I. McKenzie and André Turcotte. They cover campaigns going right back to Confederation, and note that while “big economic problems…force themselves onto the electoral agenda and necessitate a response from the parties,” “most major parties prefer to treat such problems on a high level of generality and stress their capacity to tackle them rather than to implement a specific program to implement a solution…. The fate of parties proposing specific policy responses like Reciprocity in 1911, the Little New Deal in 1935, Wage and Price Controls in 1974, or the Green Shift in 2008 has not been a happy one.”

Leduc and his colleagues call Jean Chrétien’s 1993 Red Book “a departure from previous election campaigns in Canada.” Since then, of course, the model has been locked in: Chrétien was essentially forced to produce Red Books in 1997 and 2000, or he’d seem less interested in policy once he had the job than he had been to get it. Other parties responded in kind. (Jean Charest’s 1997 platform document was called Let the Future Begin, which struck me as a new peak of banality: have you ever tried to stop the future from beginning?) And even though the Chrétien Liberals tried to bury their platform in the news cycle in 2000, and Paul Martin scrummed on abortion on the same day as he released his 2004 platform, thus obliterating any coverage of his policies, and Stephen Harper brought his platform out as late as he could in 2008, parties that seriously contend for power have felt the need, since 1993, to produce costed omnibus platform documents as the price of doing business.

But does it make any sense? Harper’s diesel tax cut was dumb and pointless and we are better off for his failure to implement it. His twin matching Afghanistan flip-flops reveal, among other things, the folly of predicting the progress of a shooting war. Is it possible to return to a time when character and background were all leaders needed to campaign on? Feel free to discuss.