Thursday, May 24, 2007

Knowing when to break a promise

In a political world where the agenda is often driven by the 24-hour news cycle, and where political parties have opposition research, war rooms and rapid response down to an art, politicians are ever more reluctant to go back on a promise, even a bad one. But the world would be so much better off if they did.

I’m thinking of the news today that Quebec Premier Jean Charest fully intends to go ahead with his campaign desperation promise of a tax cut. It was panned by people outside Quebec since Charest plans to fund it with increased money from the Feds intended to go to health and education, and by opponents within Quebec as crass political opportunism. Undeterred, Charest plans to keep his promise:

The income-tax cut will highlight the budget to be tabled today, with Mr. Charest arguing that the Liberal Party is the only one standing up for middle-class Quebeckers.

"As of tomorrow the real question will be: 'Who speaks for the middle class? Who defends the middle class in Quebec? Who will defend the tax cuts?' The Quebec Liberal Party will do it," Mr. Charest shot back as the PQ demanded that the money received from Ottawa in the last federal budget be invested in health and education.

Now, this tax cut just doesn’t make sense economically, and it certainly didn’t seem to help him much last election. So, why is he forging ahead with the cut, rather than making needed investments in health and education? I’d wager because he views the political cost of breaking his promise as higher than the political cost of making the cut and short-changing social investment.

It’s a common enough scenario in politics these days, with a number of examples springing to mind.

Out in BC in 2001 a then opposition leader Gordon Campbell campaigned on a large income tax cut, a la Mike Harris. When he got into office he found the fiscal picture wasn’t near as rosy as the outgoing NDP had led everyone to belief. He could have explained we couldn’t actually afford the tax cut, so sorry. Temporary hit, but points for maning-up and putting policy before politics. But, afraid of getting hit with the broken-promise refrain, he cut income tax anyway, a bit later jacking-up user fees, medical premiums and the sales tax to compensate for the lost revenue. It slowed down the province’s economic recovery but hey, he kept his election promise.

A tale that went the other way would be Dalton McGuinty in Ontario. He campaigned in 2003 on no new taxes, but found the books in worse shape once in office than the outgoing Tories had led people to believe. With a shortfall in the health budget to make up he could have slashed other needed social programs to make up the difference. Bad policy, but he could say he kept his promise. Instead, he opted to introduce a health premium, explaining to Ontarians why it was necessary to go back on his no new taxes promise. And while it was a story at the time, and still a favourite Tory talking-point, I think Ontarians by and large understood the necessity and have moved on, and perhaps even came to respect him a bit for making the right decision rather than the politically expedient one.

And the onus is really on us, as an electorate, to demand the kind of behaviour we want from out political leaders. If we recognize that breaking a promise isn’t necessarily bad then we’ll get politicians that make good, fact-based decisions. If we demonize any broken promise, no matter the circumstances, then we get rigid, conformist politicians that are afraid to make decisions they know are right.

So, I guess the point is it’s hard to blame Charest for wanting to push this tax cut through, but he still needs to man-up and do the right thing. And if he does cancel the cut everyone needs to resist draging-out the tired flip-flop, broken promise card, but rather give Jean kudos for making the right call.

Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers


bza said...

With the BC situation, I think it was a bit more political and had a lot to do with further discrediting the NDP. Since discrediting your defeated opponent is what new governments often do (ie Harper ad nasuem).

Will McMartin had a pretty good critique a few years ago in the tyee about this subject:

Antonio said...

Charest has to make sure to act differently than Dumont (mario would cancel the tax cut in favor of health and education spending)

Pauline Marois also cut taxes when we couldnt afford them, and she will become PQ leader soon as well.

This budget will pass and make the ADQ look pretty weak, which is Charest's goal.

It sounds like dumb strategy but I will be putting a post up about it later today.

UWHabs said...

The thing about the tax cut promise was that had it happened a week earlier, we wouldn't care about it as much. It's only that the announcement came after the Feds gave Quebec billions.

And for "doing the right thing", he's gotta keep his promises since the government is still relatively unstable there. With the PQ getting a coronation instead of a leadership race, they won't have any troubles going to the polls earlier.

And to be honest, Quebec is very highly taxed as it is. It may not be the #1 priority they should have, but I don't think it's that terrible move on its own anyways.

Antonio said...


in fact with that cut Quebec would move to the average in terms of taxation in Canada.

we also have the lowest corporate rates in Canada.

Mark Dowling said...

"When he got into office he found the fiscal picture wasn’t near as rosy as the outgoing NDP had led everyone to belief."

A situation Charest can't claim since he inherited his own books.

Altavistagoogle said...

If you factor in electricity and property taxes and health premiums, "taxes" are already pretty low in Quebec when compared to development charge* happy Ontario and expensive electricity Alberta.

*A development charge (non-existent in Quebec) is, in Ontario, a massive up-front tax payed at delivery of a construction permit. They are one of the reasons why housing is so much more expensive south of the Ottawa River.

A BCer in Toronto said...

A situation Charest can't claim since he inherited his own books.

True enough, Mark. He still has some good outs though. Assuming that pleading temporary insanity wouldn't be political wise, pleading minority government would likely work.