Promises, promises…

Photo by Sophia Photography

Photo by Sophia Photography

During an election campaign promises rain down. They come in waves, always with the purpose of feeding the news cycle. No party is immune, each wanting to gain momentum towards polling day.

Almost daily, the party leaders, crammed into a room with smiling, agitated supporters, offer a new commitment. Stephen Harper announces a new tax credit, Thomas Mulcair promises a balanced budget, Justin Trudeau commits to more affordable housing.

During an election campaign political parties run on promises. Promises are indeed an integral part of any campaign. The Conservatives as much as the Liberals and New Democrats use promises to unveil their political platform. One at a time, but all things seem to come in threes.

These promises are often each more enticing than the last. For example, Trudeau promises $20 billion over 10 years for public transit while Mulcair promises $1.3 billion per year for 20 years and Harper reminds us of his one billion dollar a year commitment.

However, these promises also lead to confusion, not to mention the cynicism bred in a part of the electorate.

For example, even though mandates are for at most four years – elections are now on fixed dates at the federal level as well as in several provinces – political parties make promises spanning a decade or sometimes even two. But how do you keep your word in 2020 when your mandate ends in 2019?

In simple terms, it is hard to keep a promise when your party has been relegated to the opposition benches.

More to the point what becomes of these promises after the election campaign? Is it all smoke and mirrors, empty words spoken to seduce the electorate? Or do the parties match words with deeds? In short, do the political parties fullfill their campaign promises?

Obviously, the parties that lose their bets on election day will not be able to follow up on their promises. The rules of the game in Ottawa allow for members of the opposition to table bills but, more often than not, these are defeated or subject to financial limitations.

Stephen Harper, Conservative candidate. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Prime Minister

Stephen Harper, Conservative candidate. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Prime Minister

What about the winning party? Does it translate its electoral promises into bills and budgetary lines? For example, is the Conservative party platform from the 2011 elections a reality today?

That is the question posed by a team of researchers from Université Laval. Their results are surprising: 78 per cent of their promises have been fulfilled, 7 per cent partially so and 15 per cent have been broken.

That is to say, Stephen Harper and the Conservative government have essentially kept their word. In other words, the promises of the Conservatives were sincere.

The research undertaken was extensive. The team compiled 140 promises from the 2011 electoral platform of the Conservatives. Only concrete commitments were taken into account.

For example, the Conservatives were promising that every detainee under federal jurisdiction would undergo a screening test at least once a year. This promise become a reality in the context of bill C-12.

All the details are available from the Harper Polimeter website. The research team has done similar work for the recent Parti Québécois government and is currently tracking the fulfillment of the promises of the Québec Liberal Party.

That being said, although Harper and his party have kept their word for the most part, recent polls show the Conservatives losing ground in voting intentions. Which just shows that the fulfillment of electoral promises is not the road to re-election.

Rémi Léger is a professor of political science at SFU.

Translation by Barry Brisebois