If there is one thing Gilles Duceppe would like you to know about Stephen Harper, it’s that he’s a liar. The Prime Minister, he says, is “lying” about his past dalliances with coalition government, “lying” about Employment Insurance rules, lying, well, generally.
There’s a lot of that going around. Harper has much the same to say about Michael Ignatieff: when he tells you he won’t form a coalition government after the election, he’s lying. “He did it before, and he’ll do it again.” Jack Layton pretty clearly thinks both Harper and Ignatieff are liars, even if he never quite uses the word. Ignatieff, for his part, challenges Harper with the old line that “if he’ll stop telling lies about me, I’ll stop telling the truth about him.” And so on and on.
The sad thing is, all of these liars are telling the truth. A culture of lying has overtaken our politics, and every party has been caught up in it, to a greater or lesser extent.
Politics has never been noted as a place for unsparing honesty. At best, it consists of telling people what they want to hear; it deals in shades of truth, selective facts, exaggeration, blarney and spin. But in most places at most times, it has been expected that politicians will stay within some sort of limits. If you wish to deceive, do so by the sly omission, the evasive answer, the non-denial denial. Equivocate if you can, mislead if you must, but don’t say straight up, without room for ambiguity, in a manner that is intended to be believed, something that you know is false.
Small fibs, told in haste, are one thing. But the more solemn the vow, and the more important the matter, the greater the expectation that a statement could be taken at something approaching face value: if not wholly true, it would at least not be wholly untrue. But somewhere along the way that taboo was broken in Canada, and nowhere more so than in that most fundamental unit of democratic currency, the campaign promise.
Perhaps it began with Pierre Trudeau, who campaigned furiously against wage and price controls in the 1974 election—that famous, mocking “zap, you’re frozen”—only to introduce them shortly afterward. There followed Brian Mulroney, who unctuously upbraided John Turner for his patronage sins (“you had an option, sir”) as if he were not himself about to take the practice to new depths; Jean Chrétien, who promised to abolish the GST and renegotiate NAFTA, but did neither; Stephen Harper, who, having promised he would appoint no one who was not elected to either cabinet or the Senate, on his first day as Prime Minister appointed his unelected Quebec organizer Michael Fortier to both—a pattern that was to be repeated in everything from fixed election dates to the taxation of income trusts.
This is hardly reserved to federal politics. The list of Dalton McGuinty’s broken promises would fill a scrapbook, but the most notorious was surely his pledge, signed in public as a sort of contract with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, not to raise taxes without a referendum—which was no more than a promise to obey the previous government’s Taxpayers’ Protection Act. Six months after he was elected, he had raised taxes, amending the law to eliminate the referendum requirement.
Examples abound, from coast to coast. The former Liberal premier of New Brunswick, Shawn Graham, elected on a promise not to sell New Brunswick Power, proposed to do just that once safely elected. The current premier of Nova Scotia, New Democrat Darrell Dexter, came to power promising he would neither raise taxes, nor cut spending, nor run a deficit. He proceeded to do all three. I need hardly dwell on British Columbia’s Gordon Campbell, and his disavowal, prior to the 2009 election, of any intent to harmonize the province’s sales tax with the federal GST, except to note that neither the promise nor Campbell are still operative.
Pages: 1 2