Promises, Promises

When a political party’s platform contains well over a hundred promises, it is likely that some of them will prove to have been ill-considered. The successful Liberal campaign in 2015 is no exception.

It turned out that bringing 25,000 government-supported Syrian refugees to Canada before year end was logistically impossible. If achieved, it would have created huge problems with finding lodgings.

It is self-contradictory to promise an open competition for Canada’s next fighter plane but exclude the F-35, which happens to be the most advanced fighter on the planet and the most popular choice among our NATO allies.

It is not smart to promise wholesale adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples when a literal reading of that declaration would, among other things, mean establishment of a third parliamentary chamber for aboriginal peoples, and the need to buy back all of British Columbia and many other parts of Canada.

The government appears to be walking back from unwise commitments like these, and we should be glad they are. Platforms by parties seeking to replace a government are often created with cursory analysis, and important nuances are often washed out to keep the proposal simple and appealing.

Once given the responsibility to govern, it is better to make well-reasoned choices for sound policy than to adhere woodenly to commitments that do not stand up to scrutiny.

A strong competitor for least-well-considered promise is the commitment that “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.”

How our votes are counted and weighed is much more important than when refugees arrive or which plane we buy.

The first-past-the-post system has served Canada well since Confederation. Yes, there are defensible arguments for other systems—such as proportional representation, preferential voting, and various hybrids.

But it is ridiculous to declare a priori that the existing system is to be excluded from the competition of ideas about how our next election is conducted.

To add to the farce, the government is urging Canadians to hold self-directed focus groups to discuss their preferences, but is resisting the proposal that they should have an actual say by way of a referendum.

Referendums are not without problems. Consider the narrow win in Britain for those who want it to leave the European Union. So far, it is all the political leaders who are leaving.

Prime Minister David Cameron staked his future on the vote and has understandably resigned. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was so ineffective in support of remaining in the EU that his own caucus voted 172 to 40 that he should resign.

“Leave” champions Boris Johnson (who surprised everyone by not running to replace Cameron) and Nigel Farage (who is resigning as leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party) are rightly embarrassed at the mounting evidence that the central promises of their campaign (you can have all the benefits of EU membership without the parts you don’t like) were a fraud.

It is much harder to walk back from a question answered by a referendum than to let go of a few election promises.

The question itself can be a big problem. Consider, for example, the Quebec vote in 1980 which purported to offer “sovereignty-association” (you can have a separate country while keeping all the bits of being in Canada that you like).

If the Liberals of 2016 relent and decide to have a referendum, what question would they ask? To allow voters the option of keeping the existing first-past-the-post system would right away invalidate their commitment that the next election would be held under a different system.

To only allow voters to choose, say, between some version of preferential ballot and one of the many variations of proportional representation would be absurd, given that the appetite for change is largely confined to political junkies.

And what of the parliamentary committee that is supposed to be working on this? The Liberals have relented on its makeup and now represent a minority of its members.

The Liberals like preferential ballot. The NDP and Greens like proportional representation. The Conservatives and BQ would like things to stay as they are. It is very unlikely that the committee can muster a majority report, let alone a consensus.

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef’s advocacy for this initiative has been ineffective and, at times, incoherent.

It is hard to imagine a way forward that does not cause the Liberals to become more and more embarrassed by the ill-considered premise of their position.

The wonderful thing about having made lots of promises is that there are bound to be some good ones. The Liberals would do well to let this one quietly die and work on the ones that will bring them credit.


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