50 Years of Election Promises, Public Policy and Democracy in Canada

Sacha Forstner and Katerina Stamadianos

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during the 2017 Invictus Games opening ceremonies in Toronto, Canada Sept. 23, 2017. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

How can we hold government officials accountable to the public who elected them?

Whatever the method, we first need to determine what exactly we are holding them accountable for. To do so, we often compare a government’s policies and actions to the promises they made during their election. Typically, the more platform promises “kept,” the more accountable the government appears, and vice versa—the more promises “broken,” the more elected officials seem to lack competence and integrity. But “50 Years of Election Promises,a panel at the Canada’s Policy Transformations conference, offered some insights that challenge this perspective. While tracking promise fulfilment can be useful, the broader question of government accountability and results-delivery is more complex than popularly imagined.

To open the discussion, panelist Francois Pétry, who studies campaign promises at Laval University’s Centre d’analyse des politiques publiques, offered data on pledge fulfilment at the international level. According to Pétry, the average democratically elected government in the western world fulfills 63% of its campaign promises between elections. This success rate, however, is dependent on each country’s specific institutions and the characteristics of its government. For instance, newly elected governments and coalition governments are generally less successful at implementing campaign promises than their seasoned, majoritarian counterparts in other countries.

Canada, which has a majoritarian system with historically few single-term governments, scores above average on this lineup: an average of 68% of promises made by the governing party during elections wind up being fulfilled. Pétry said that thus far in its administration, the Trudeau government has fulfilled 31% of promises in full and 39% in part, with 26% unfulfilled and 3% broken. Pétry’s estimate is more generous than that of the government’s own mandate tracker, which claims the government has fulfilled only about 20% of its goals to date.

Despite such encouraging statistics, Pétry argued that citizens generally perceive their government as fulfilling far fewer promises than they actually are. To make matters worse, voters regularly rely on analytical “shortcuts” (like partisan preference) to “guess” how effective their government is at fulfilling its pledges. Pétry suggested that this behavior is actually the product of informational barriers – getting informed is difficult, so voters lean on certain key assumptions before they go looking for facts. As such, the popular conception of promise fulfilment, and, by extension, the public’s ideas about accountability, can often be skewed.

Pétry also warned that the single-minded pursuit of promise fulfilment can itself be a policy straightjacket. This concern is not new to the public policy realm, especially in light of the Trudeau government’s commitment to the method of “deliverology”, a model of public management developed by an advisor to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, which focuses on organizing government specifically to deliver on election promises. Pétry’s colleague and the executive director at the Centre d’analyse des politiques publiques, Lisa-Maureen Birch, offered a critical take on deliverology and its creator Michael Barber. Noting that the federal government paid Barber $200,000 to instruct the cabinet on the concept, Birch expressed exasperation that his presentation failed to confront the great challenges to all public policy-making in Canada: the federal-provincial relationship and the differences between each level of government’s respective bureaucracies.

Birch drew on existing scholarship to warn that deliverology’s focus on achieving strict targets risks distorting the wellbeing of the public administration system through its ignorance of the bigger picture, and its unwillingness to acknowledge the public service’s existing expertise. Moreover, the government’s obsession with achieving specific, targeted promises too often sacrifices its ability to realize the policy’s true purpose. To Birch, such an approach is not the hallmark of a truly innovative approach to policy making and can have adverse effects on policy implementation. This raises questions about whether promise fulfilment is really all that effective in determining government accountability.

Final panelist Stuart Soroka, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, echoed this anti-rigidity sentiment. Citing his own research, Soroka argued that by focusing on promise fulfilment, politicians risk losing sight of public opinion. Given research evidence to support the existence of a recent surge in diverging preferences amongst the Canadian electorate, Soroka believes that popular assessments of governments have become more complex and harder to navigate. In other words, governments become less and less able to use strict promise fulfilment as a determinant of their accountability.

Historically, voter preferences used to congregate around consensus on a single issue. Such a structure meant governments could easily predict the public’s stance on an issue, and develop responses accordingly. However, Soroka explained that recent trends indicate that voter preferences on key policy issues are becoming increasingly polarized, and are even subject to “partisan sorting,” wherein a voter’s preference can be at least partially explained by their political party affiliation. Such polarization makes it increasingly difficult for governments to accurately predict the public’s response to policy choices.

Taken together, the panelists raised several questions that challenge the use of promise fulfilment in determining popular assessments of accountability. Should we appeal to pledge fulfilment to determine accountability if the public perceives this fulfilment in a different way? Is strict promise fulfilment effective? Should the government hold steadfast to promises if the public’s opinions are divergent and mutable? These questions do not have easy answers. Nonetheless, they highlight the complexity of the relationship between a government’s campaign promises and their policies in practice.

Sacha Forstner holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of Waterloo, where he specialized in Canadian politics and served his student government in a policy advocacy role. His interests include post-secondary education and skills development policy, transportation policy, federalism, the Canadian Crown, and the politics of public administration in the Westminster system. An avid traveler, he recently returned from an extended stay in Japan, and strongly believes in the power of a comparative approach to policymaking as way to generate meaningful solutions to societal problems.

Katerina Stamadianos is a Masters of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto, where she studied International Relations and Ethics, Society, and Law. Katerina is primarily interested in urban and health policy, as well as how arts and culture initiatives can be fostered by the policy realm. You can catch her riding her bicycle around town. 

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