Promises and Policy: A Study of Two Parliaments

By Garner, Christopher | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Promises and Policy: A Study of Two Parliaments


Garner, Christopher, Canadian Parliamentary Review


Christopher Garner is a doctoral candidate at Nuffield College, University of Oxford.

Academic studies and public opinion polls show that a high percentage of Canadians believe that politicians have no intention of keeping their promises. A recent recent (unsuccessful) recall campaign in British Columbia made failure to keep electoral promises the basis for a recall petition. This article looks at the experience of two national Parliaments 1974-1979 and 1988-1993; and considers whether governments do keep their promises. If not what are the consequences for the democratic process.

A number of academics have pursued the question of what is at the root of the decline in trust and respect for political institutions. Neil Nevitte has argued quite elegantly that Canada is experiencing a trend similar to that found in all other post-industrial states: a shift in values leading to a decline in deference. (1)

At the centre of this decline in deference by the general public are structural changes which have been taking place in society since 1945. These changes in the nature of work, levels of education, and economic well-being and security in turn affect value shifts among newer generations. The result is a paradox of increasing levels of interest in politics by the public with a concurrent decline in the support for, and identification with, traditional forms of political representation. Canada's once deferential public now demands a greater degree of input into how things are run.

Michael M. Atkinson approaches the question of decline in trust and efficacy from a different angle. (2) He argues that at the root of Canada's dissatisfaction are two competing visions of what democracy ought to be. On the one hand Canadians subscribe to an integrative ideal of democracy, based on the Burkean model of representation. Here deference is a product of the trust we have in our institutions; institutions that govern for us, not with us.

On the other hand is the aggregative ideal, wherein leaders and institutions are encouraged to be responsive to popular opinions. In this theory, politics is a means of satisfying the interests and preferences of citizens, in the same way in which producers are expected to satisfy the demands of consumers. It is this ideal to which Canadians are increasingly subscribing.

Furthermore, Canada's institutions were designed along the lines of the `integrative' ideal in the form of a Westminster-style parliament, wherein political parties compete openly for public support in forming a government based on an election manifesto. Upon gaining popular support the winner is expected to carry out their manifesto, mustering all of parliament's powers to do so. This is, after all, what is commonly implied by `giving a government a mandate'.

The constitutional and theoretical basis of government in Canada, then, is by its very nature integrative, paternalistic and Burkean in theory and practice.

What we are presented with in these explanations is an image of great discord between what we have as our form of representation and that which we want. If this is true, it only seems logical that dissatisfaction and disdain will follow.

Do governments do what they say they will do? The answer disgruntled Canadians give is, simply put, no they do not. This feeling lies behind the negative characterizations of politicians. But if the proponents of this view are correct then we have a fatal flaw in our democratic system. After all, elections are about giving governments a mandate for action, and if they do not achieve this, something is seriously wrong.

A study of this issue noted that:

To the extent that parties discuss policies during campaigns, they typically emphasize quick fixes selected on the advice of professional pollsters and party strategists. They eschew coherent programs... Canadians' inability to use elections to choose among policy options is further exacerbated when victorious parties `forget' about their campaign promises or enact policies contrary to them. …

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