Martin's Promises

The sixth week of the federal election campaign was the one the Liberal brain trust had selected, so long ago, as the week the "real" campaign would begin. Prosaic souls like you and me might have thought the campaign would begin on, say, the day the campaign began.
The sixth week of the federal election campaign was the one the Liberal brain trust had selected, so long ago, as the week the "real" campaign would begin. Prosaic souls like you and me might have thought the campaign would begin on, say, the day the campaign began.

Martin's Promises

The sixth week of the federal election campaign was the one the Liberal brain trust had selected, so long ago, as the week the "real" campaign would begin. Prosaic souls like you and me might have thought the campaign would begin on, say, the day the campaign began. But MARTIN takes care to surround himself with more imaginative souls.

Accordingly, the Liberal leader's sixth week began as poetry. It ended as a train wreck, complete with the screams of the wounded. But I don't want to get ahead of myself.

"With three weeks to go until election day, I think it's fair to say it is only now that most Canadians will be giving this campaign their full attention," Martin told a Winnipeg business crowd over breakfast. He launched into a sort of reverie about the nature of Canada and the differences - enormous, he said - between himself and Stephen HARPER. "Un sacré bon discours," a senior Martin adviser had told reporters on the early-morning flight to Winnipeg from Ottawa, and in many ways it actually was a hell of a good speech, which is what the French term meant.

In part Martin's Winnipeg pitch was a sort of rhetoric seminar. The topic of the day was parallel construction.

What are Canadians doing? "They are looking at the parties - and the leaders," Martin said. "They are looking to vote for someone - and for something."

The Liberal leader said Stephen Harper's goal is a "fend-for-yourself Canada." Martin, on the other hand, believes in more elegant sentence structures. He believes "that social policy - the things we do to help each other out and help each other up - is a window on the kind of country we are. And the kind of country we want to be."

What kind of country? "We are stronger together than we are alone," Martin said. Indeed, "we would be stronger if we pulled together rather than if we pull apart."

So you should vote Liberal, because "we will deliver what no other party can - because we believe what no other party does."

There is so much potential in this nation. "Together we will fulfill that potential. Together we will achieve that promise."

We need some of this so we will do some of that. You know it's good 'cause we knew you would. A passing Grit/shows lots of wit/he hopes you'll like/the sound of it/Burma Shave.

Near the end, in what we would call the "shout chorus" if Martin's speech were a Neil Hefti arrangement for the Count Basie band, the Liberal leader abandoned the parallel constructions to hammer home his central point. "One Canada. Not two. Not several. One national government to unite us as Canadians. One national government to speak for us as Canadians. One prime minister to represent us as Canadians. Not two. Not several."

So the week was about the nature of the differences - "profound," he said several times, and "deep" and "fundamental" - between Martin and his tormentor. The strategy was simple. Indeed its simplicity was part of its charm. Here was the strategy: (a) say there were deep differences; (b) make promises that demonstrated the deep differences.

How could it go wrong?

Here's how. Martin's promises could so closely resemble Harper's that the differences wouldn't look particularly deep. Martin's promises might remind people of other, earlier Martin promises that went unfulfilled. Martin's promises might leak out in sketchy advance press reports, ruining the desired impression of a government in command. Martin's promises might turn out to be old policies clumsily repackaged.

Which is indeed what happened. As a kind of bonus, the RCMP started looking into another aspect of the Liberal administration (the 1995 "Option Canada" expenditures for Heritage Canada). And Martin attempted a secret apology, live on Vancouver radio, to British Columbia's Chinese community for the long-ago imposition of racist head taxes. This lasted about as long as secrets normally do when you share them with hundreds of thousands of people, and it served only to make the planeful of reporters travelling with the big guy even surlier. Which, given the general mood on the plane, was quite a feat.

But I want to get back to the nature of the political promise in modern Canadian politics, because there sure are a lot of them. In the Winnipeg speech, Martin viewed all Harper's promises with some distaste. "Mr. Harper has made a promise a day since this campaign began," he said. "Five promises, then 10, now more than 20. And more to come."

I'm not entirely sure Martin would be pursuing a losing strategy if he simply made fun of Harper for doing all this promising. Political vows, after all, are in bad odour these days. Over Christmas, my dad said he was inclined to have the least faith in whoever made the most promises, because my dad lives in Dalton McGuinty's Ontario, where a promise to hold the line on taxes turned into big tax increases. The editorial in that night's Sarnia Observer made exactly the same point.

Martin has decided to follow a different path. He is now matching Harper vow for vow. On Tuesday night, the Liberal arrived in Victoria, made a beeline for the nearest microphone and announced the Liberals will eliminate the $975 "landing fee" new Canadian immigrants have been charged since 1995. We checked our watches. It was late-ish, 6:30 p.m. in Victoria, very close to anyone's final deadline in Toronto. Why the sudden-death policy announcement?

The answer became clear the next morning, when Harper announced he would cut the landing fee to $100. The Liberals must have caught wind of the Conservative announcement and decided to get out ahead of Harper. It was a partial win at best, but smartly played at least. And that was the end of the Liberals' good luck for the week.

Wednesday morning Martin was at a gleaming laboratory-and-teaching facility at the University of Victoria, while real bunnies gambolled on the dew-dipped lawn outside. He had come to announce a "Canada Health Care Guarantee," which was a set of measures to ensure that patients would receive care when they need it. Minor problem: the Canadian Press had caught wind of his announcement the night before, trumpeting a "Patient Charter." Martin's aides, in the plane and in Ottawa, sent grumbly emails warning that the story had unspecified problems and that we certainly shouldn't expect the plan would be called a "charter." Fair enough. We started a betting pool. Would it be a "patient covenant"? Would it be a "vow"? A "bond"? A "pact"?

In the end it was a guarantee, complete with a $75 million Health Care Guarantee Fund to fly patients from wherever care couldn't be found to places where it might. Less-minor problem: Harper had promised something very similar in the first week of the campaign. Inconveniently, Harper's proposal was called the Patient Wait Times Guarantee.

Martin really didn't like our suggestion that there was not a fundamental difference. "There's a fundamental difference," he insisted. "Mr. Harper made a promise. A promise in the air. There's no plan. We have something we've been working on for quite a while. We have a plan. It's a plan that says, 'Here's how we will furnish these last-resort interventions, but here's also how we'll build the capacity close to you to have centres of excellence that can furnish the necessary services.'

"That's completely different from Mr. Harper's position, which is only a promise that says, 'I want to do something,' but he has no plan to fill it out."

So a Conservative promise is only a promise, whereas a Liberal promise is a plan. The morning's other less-minor problem was raised by the guy from the Toronto Star, who asked: Didn't Martin promise - or vow, or pact, or guarantee, or plan - to "fix health care for a generation" back in the 2004 election campaign? If he fixed health care then, why was he promising (vowing, pacting, etc.) to fix it now?

Martin replied, in effect, that nobody could be so crass as to promise to fix health care for a generation. "I don't kid ourselves that in the globalized world in which we live, there are going to be ongoing health care developments," he said. "So I fully expect that we will be coming back here in subsequent years and we will be saying, look, we've solved this problem, we've come this far, but we now want to go further."

It's one of the things Martin does most reliably. He makes absurdly overblown claims for his plans (vows, covenants) and then, when he actually makes real progress on a file, he hopes you don't notice that it doesn't rise to the level of what he originally vowed (pacted, planned) to do. If he wins this election, still a very strong possibility, he's already setting himself up for the same result yet again.

His "Canada Handgun Ban" is a proposal regarding handguns in Canada, but it's no ban: collectors and club members could keep their handguns and any province could decide not to implement the ban at all. Similarly, just as the health-care "fix" of 2004 improved but didn't fix health care, Martin's wait-times "guarantee" of 2006 would probably improve but not guarantee access to care. And he really should stop talking about the state's responsibility to every child when he plans only to provide daycare to some of them. For the rest of the world, "making the best the enemy of the good" is something you try not to do. For the Martin Liberals, it's part of the branding strategy.

I'm levelling these criticisms at Martin because I landed on his plane last week. But you could look at the other leaders' promises with a similarly jaundiced eye. Over at the NDP, Jack LAYTON should feel free to express preferences or druthers all he wants. But it's hard to take any of his promises seriously because he won't be able to implement any from his guaranteed seat in the opposition benches. Even in another minority government, Layton will probably only get three or four planks implemented. Last election he said that if he could only implement one promise, it would be electoral reform. Then he didn't implement it. As for Harper, his mishmash of tiny tax credits for this and that would so complicate Canada's tax system that I'm actually left hoping he doesn't mean any of it.

This happens sometimes. In 1993, I voted Liberal, hoping that Jean Chrétien was blowing smoke when he promised to renegotiate NAFTA, scrap the GST and ignore budget deficits. Fortunately I guessed right. But campaign platforms are no use if they're just kabuki theatre and we're left on our own to guess about what leaders will do in real life. And the very strong feeling abroad in the land, that it is pointless to heed platforms because politicians won't, is a real problem: despite generally rising prosperity over the past decade, Canadian disaffection has risen more rapidly still.

And it's not because politicians are venal. Or at least not only. There is great pressure on them to (a) make lots of promises; (b) overstate the significance of some and undersell others; (c) exaggerate the novelty of their positions in a world where governments are so constrained in their choices that most of the time, prime ministers of different stripes would wind up pursuing similar policies; (d) abandon plans they honestly cherished, simply because the world changes around them.

Here's an example. Frequent readers, if any, will know I've spent a year beating the drums for much more investment and emphasis on research, innovation and higher education. So when the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada sent questionnaires to the party leaders, asking for their positions on these issues, I took a particular interest. The AUCC will release the leaders' answers on Jan. 9 and this week I will lead a detailed discussion of the party policies on my weblog, Inkless Wells ( I hope you'll go take a look.

One of the people I ran the leaders' answers by is the president of a major Canadian university, who spoke frankly on condition of anonymity. President X's comments tell us a lot about why this whole business of making promises is harder than it looks.

First, politicians may face unreasonable demands. The AUCC asked the leaders whether they would pull a separate Canada Education Transfer out of Ottawa's cash payments to the provinces, so everyone could see just how much federal money goes to post-secondary education. Layton, Harper and Gilles DUCEPPE all agreed readily. Only the Liberals failed to pony up. But is that really failure? Maybe not, because President X disagrees with the university lobby about whether a separate transfer is even a good idea.

Once there's a post-secondary transfer, the tug-of-war among provinces for special treatment and asymmetric side-deals won't be far behind. Nova Scotia, which educates more of its student-age population than any other province, will find its share of the transfer insufficient. Other provinces will demand that Quebec stop charging out-of-province students higher fees, if it wants a share of the national money pot. It'll be "a medicare-style shemozzle" in no time, President X said. But here comes the university lobby demanding this change, and it takes real fortitude to say no.

On the other hand, some things may be worth doing but risky to promise because they might be controversial. The AUCC asked the leaders how to increase Canadian universities' links to the world. The leaders talked about scholarships and exchange programs to get our students out of Canada for a while. But President X said it's even more urgent to get many thousands more foreign students into Canada, both to import skills and to export fond memories of Canadian school days in the brains of a rising global leadership class. The risk is that more voters will see a ballooning international student population as a problem than will understand what a boon it is, President X said. "If you're boiling up electoral soup and you're trying to figure out what morsels would be tasty to voters, this might not be one of them."

So a campaigning leader is constantly tempted to promise things that shouldn't be promised and to hide or downplay what's unpopular but may be needed. The cost of a misstep can be entire careers. "The harsh reality," President X said, "is that elections are a really bad time for making public policy." Precisely so. But who would dare say that in a campaign, and hope to survive?

Maclean's January 16, 2006