the time this article was written Christopher Garner was a doctoral candidate at Nuffield College,
University of Oxford.
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
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.
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
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.3
Surely this diagnosis is too
severe. But how can we know if governments act on their promises?
This is especially problematic if, as the study suggests, parties eschew
coherent programmatic commitments, thus denying us the specifics from which to
One way to get around this
problem is found in the study of issues saliency. That is, to know what
parties and subsequent governments intend to do one should look at the general
themes which they present at specific points in time. The inherent
assumption is that parties will only emphasize those issue that it feels are
salient for the electorate, and are vote-gaining issues.
This approach has the advantage
of looking beyond the specifics stressing instead statements that outline a
party’s personality, differentiating it from other parties. Moreover, it
assumes that party platforms are tools for directing votes and for representing
the party’s particular policy space via general emphasis of issues. To
paraphrase Kim Campbell, ‘elections are no place to be talking about specific
Two fundamental hypotheses can
be set out in order to test the strength of mandates in Canada. The first
can be stated as follows: The salient issues in the party manifesto should
be transferred to the Throne Speech when that party takes office.
But as the phrase goes, ‘talk is
cheap’. That is, we can take a look at party manifestos and the
subsequent government’s general intentions without actually seeing whether the
government acts upon those intentions. Thus, our second hypothesis is: The
salient issues found in the Throne Speech should be transferred to government
It is important to outline
briefly the method used for tapping into issue saliency, as it can seem to be a
First, due to the scope of this
article only two parliaments and their preceding elections will be examined:
the 30th Parliament (1974-78), which saw a Liberal government under Mr.Trudeau,
and the 34th Parliament of Mr. Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives (1988-92).
Both of these parliaments represent the second majority governments for
their respective leaders, and as such we can assume that the leaders have
learned the ropes of government and can get their business achieved effectively.
For the sake of clarity seven
salient issue domains have been delineated for coding purposes:
- Foreign Relations: including references to international cooperation,
support for the UN, aid to developing countries, and the need to maintain
- Democracy: which covers such issues as human rights, involvement of
citizens in decision making, and a gambit of constitutional issues
- Political System: entails issues relating to political ethics,
governmental efficiency, and federal-provincial relations (outside of the
- Economic issues: from market regulation, infrastructure and technology
programmes, to demand-side economic policies.
- Quality of Life: takes account of those aspects of governance relating
to social welfare programmes (often referred to as the ‘sacred trusts’)
and educational provisions.
- Social Fabric: covers issues ranging from cultural diversity and
multiculturalism to law and order.
- Social Groups: is reserved primarily for ‘favourable mentions’ of specific
groups, such as labour unions, agriculturists, and underprivileged
minorities (immigrants, handicapped, etc.)
These issues are the basis for
coding each party’s election literature and each governments’ throne speech and
legislative packages. The procedure used in coding both election
literature and throne speeches was to take every sentence of the document and
place it into the relevant domain. The legislative packages are approached
in the same manner, however their place was determined by the subject matter
and directive which each bill contained. Any sentences that did not fall
within the gambit of these seven domains was coded as ‘miscellaneous’.
Although there are recognizable
limitations to this approach one must recall that the objective here is not
to test specifics. We are looking for trends in issue saliency in order
to determine whether governments maintain their respective positions in a given
policy space or, have they ‘forgotten their promises’.
Results from Two Parliaments
The test results of the
hypotheses are presented in Charts 1 and 2 as percentages of the total
manifestos, throne speeches, and legislative packages for each governing party.
Clearly, economic concerns led
the way in all areas of Trudeau’s government, followed by quality of life
issues. This is not surprising as this period was plagued by economic
uncertainty in the form of rampant inflation and unemployment. Secondly,
‘social justice’ issues were at the heart of Trudeau’s own philosophy, and that
of the Liberal Party, and so are not unsurprising by the strength of their
presence. As the fourth session’s throne speech notes: “social services
are essential to closing the gap of rich and poor, and of ensuring a standard
of living for those in adversity.”4
The greater emphasis in the
‘social fabric’ domain in both throne speeches and legislation is noteworthy.
In the manifesto little emphasis is placed on issues such as
multiculturalism and bilingualism, and appeals to national unity.
However, there is a distinct increase in such issues during the course of
The most obvious explanation for
this rise is found in the later part of the Liberal’s mandate, wherein a
reading of the fourth session’s throne speech is steeped in the rhetoric of
‘crisis’. This is not surprising given the events: the introduction
of Bill 101 in 1977 by the Parti Québeçois, which followed on the heals of the
Air Traffic Controllers’ Dispute and rise of national concerns for the future
of Canada’s federation, cumulating in the Pépin-Robarts report of 1978.
This explanation is also
applicable to the rise observed in the ‘democracy’ domain. Here such
issues take the form of expressed concern for constitutional reform, and the
debate over adopting a Bill of Rights for Canada.
An explanation behind the
disparity between manifesto emphasis and that of the throne speeches for the
‘social group’ domain is more difficult to find. The throne speeches for
this period simply do not address any particular groupings. One possible
explanation for this will be addressed below.
Turning to the Mulroney
government’s record, outlined in chart 2, we find a similar trend to that of
the Trudeau government. First, we can note the degree of convergence
between party manifesto, throne speeches and legislative initiatives in the
field of economics. In fact, the convergence between throne speech and
legislation in three other domains –external relations, political system and
social fabric– are noteworthy. The degree to which this convergence takes
place would be enough to turn the head of the most die-hard disgruntled
Again, the two domains that
buck-the-trend are ‘democracy’ and ‘social groups’. The former domain
rises in emphasis over the course of this parliament due to prime minister
Mulroney’s commitment to constitutional reforms aimed at “bringing Québec back
in to the constitution”. In fact, it is worth noting that the emphasis
placed on this issue more than doubles between the second and third throne
speeches. This increase in emphasis has its roots in the debate and
failure of the Meech Lake Accord which led to a plethora of constitutional
committees, cumulating in the Charlottetown Accord and referendum in 1992.
The social group domain requires
a different explanation for the noted divergence of emphasis. The
explanation is two-fold: first, as the rationale behind issue saliency goes,
parties are adverse to specific commitments. To single-out certain social
groups during elections would be incongruent with the idea of presenting vague,
thematic, broad-based appeals to the electorate. Rather, parties are more
likely to emphasize issues which will attract those social groups, without
actually having to commit to policies that are directed at them. For
example, a party’s commitment to social programmes and income support would
attract such social groups as the working poor, and women. Whereas an
emphasis on tarrif protection on agricultural produce would appeal to farmers.
Having emphasized these issues,
the party-in-government is then open to act in a manner which benefits these
groups, through the introduction of policies directly affecting them.
For the most part this seems to be
the case here. However, the throne speech hardly mentions groups,
whereas manifestos and legislative packages have a much higher percentage
reference. Why would this be the case, given the above explanation?
Second, the nature of the throne
speech sheds some light on this question. The throne speech is an
instrument for setting out a general framework for upcoming policy. It
can be seen as an abbreviated version of the manifesto and, for the party in
office, as a ‘state of the nation’ address. Upon examination one finds
that it is more thematic in nature than much of the manifesto: it divides
the government party’s priorities into broadly defined topics, and commits them
to being ‘proactive’ in the resolution of problems, for the most part without
mentioning how it is going to do so.
Where Promises and Politics
The above discussion of the
trends illustrated in charts one and two introduced briefly some of the
substantive reasons for convergence and divergence in the emphases place on specific
issue domains at specific points in time, by both parties. In particular,
these explanations point to a volatile political environment to which the
governments had to respond -e.g. the constitutional issues that reared their
head during both periods.
However, behind these
substantive reasons lie the institutional constraints of parliamentary
government. In particular, certain issues must be dealt with in the House
whereas others need not. For example, the provision of social and
economic services, financial expenditures and appropriations must be dealt with
in parliament. Whereas other decisions can be taken away from the floor
of the House, being dealt with by orders-in-council, which are often far more
plentiful than government legislation. This too may contribute to the
degree of disparity between legislation and its antecedent manifestos and
Moreover, as noted earlier, talk
is cheap; the flip-side of which is, action is costly. It is through such
a lens that the disparity between talk (embodied in the rhetoric of
manifestos and throne speeches) and legislative action in a domain such
as ‘democracy’ can be understood. Talk of constitutional change does not
necessitate the introduction of government legislation until such time as that
change is to be affected. Furthermore, discussions of constitutional
affairs have a significant public audience, as there is a perception by the
public that such affairs are central to their own values. Governments
therefore tend to spend more energy discussing these issues, and mobilizing
popular support for their proposals than in the actual, procedural,
implementation of these proposals. This was definitely true of the two
periods under study here.
This leads us to what can be
called the ‘expectation approach’. The idea here is that governments, and
political parties generally, act in an environment of uncertainty. The
contours of the political canvas are such that the diverse, regional, nature of
Canada leaves government with one option: paint with a broad brush. Vague
and thematic manifestos, and to a lesser degree throne speeches, leave parties
room to maneuver in order to respond to what may be around the next proverbial
As such, governments find it
necessary to emphasize and de-emphasize issues depending on the weight they
give to three factors:
- the saliency the issue has for the public writ large;
- the expected value of pursuing a given issue; and
- the anticipated nature of extraneous events with which
a government may have to contend during the course of its mandate.
These factors have their
greatest impact during elections, but their relevence is felt at all times for
practitioners of politics. The first factor refers specifically to the
function of parties during elections, as they seek to mobilize their
supporters, both actual and potential. For example, Mr. Trudeau’s
Liberals fought the 1974 election on the opposition to wage and price controls,
and a general theme of economic growth. Mr. Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives
emphasized free trade, national reconciliation and the preservation of Canada’s
social programmes. As opinion polls show, these issues were foremost in
the minds of the electorate at the time of their respective elections.
Therefore, it can be suggested
that ceteris paribus, parties emphasize certain issues only if they are
salient in the minds of the electorate.
Factors two and three imply an
amount of cost-benefit analyses mixed with an element of crystal ball gazing,
and have greater weight for a party-in-government. The expected value of
pursuing a given policy is based upon the idea that all political action
entails a cost, especially in terms of time and other resources as the party
seeks to mobilize support for its policy, both inside parliament and within the
This calculation is especially
important for parties in Canada due to the omnipresent competing interests of
regional and linguistic nature. As such, it is necessary for
parties-in-government to spend a lot of their resources in the brokering of
interests in order to gain the needed support. This in turn leads to the
desire for flexible governments; governments that government from the centre of
the political spectrum.
The third factor –crystal ball
gazing– is part of any government, and political party, activity. The
idea here is that parties understand that during the course of their mandate
they will inevitably face events that were not fully planned for. It is
the truism that ‘events will foil even the best laid plans’. However
unpredictable such events are the party-in-government will be expected to
respond effectively. Thus, parties anticipating extraneous events will
design their platforms with what they perceive as being ample room for
maneuver. The result is an emphasis placed on those themes that the party
believes are possible ‘unexpected events’. The rationale here is that such
action helps to prepare the electorate for such events, and should the case
arise, it is easier for the government to then raise support for its policy
This vague, thematic brokering
of interests is one explanation behind the characterization of the
Liberal and Conservative parties as the ‘tweedledum and tweedledee’ of
Canadian politics, as they converge in their approaches to governance and the
issues they emphasize. The two periods under study here would seem to be
no exception. Both parties place considerable emphasis on the importance of a
‘strong economy, social justice, and national unity’. For both a
commitment to parsimony in economic affairs is essential for good governance;
the ‘sacred trusts’ of Canada’s social safety net must be maintained; and the
unity of the often unstable federation must be supported, through proactive
policies and constitutional reforms.
In summary, the party manifesto
and throne speech are designed to be vague and thematic. This allows the
party-in-government room to maneuver and respond to political events that are
beyond its control, and to attempt to shape the preferences of the public with
their platforms and proposals for action. The Trudeau and Mulroney governments
are no exception.
What the above analysis presents
is a view of the trends in issue saliency emphasis at particular points in
time. What the analysis does not do is reveal the changes in policy direction
that may occur within these issue domains. But looking at such specifics was
not, after all, the purpose of examining issue saliency transfer.
However, shifts in policy directions did occur during these two periods
to some degree.
One example of such a shift
occurs during the 30th Parliament in the economic domain. Over the course
of this parliament the Liberal government’s throne speeches moved from emphasis
on support for market regulation and intervention, to that of increasing
economic parsimony. In fact, the fourth throne speech outlines explicitly
that “the primary objective [of this government] is to establish an economic
climate that is conducive to private sector growth” by means of limiting
government expenditure while contracting bureaucratic structures.5
The clearest example of a change
in the direction of policy during Mulroney’s governments came during the 33rd
parliament. The Progressive Conservatives entered government in 1984 with
an economic trade policy which ruled out a Canada-US free trade accord.
However, by 1987 this policy had been clearly reversed, as Prime Minister
Mulroney and President Reagan announced the first stage toward such an
It has been said that in
Westminster systems of government “constitutional theory is simple: a
government can do anything it wishes.” The disgruntled Canadian might
respond by saying that they do what they want, but that what they want is never
what they promise. The trend illustrated for the two Parliaments studied
here suggests that there is cause to side with governments, and not the
majority of public opinion, on this issue.
We have seen that parties do
tend to emphasize the same issue domains when in government as when seeking the
support of the electorate.
We have also seen that where the
emphasis in the salient issues diverge from the manifesto it can be traced to
three possible reasons: First, the government is responding to meta-political
issues such those raised in constitutional affairs. Second, the nature of
the throne speeches excludes references to specifics. And third,
governments face certain institutional constraints, for example in the form of procedures
outlining which actions must be introduced into the House of Commons as bills,
and those which can be taken without legislation.
Canadians do have cause to voice
dissatisfaction where governments change policy direction completely during the
course of their mandate. But as long as governments remain vague in their
election promises commiting little to paper, Canadians must remember that ‘talk
is cheap’, and it is the actions of governing parties once in office that
provide the best ground for judgement.
1. Neil Nevitte. The Decline
of Deference, Toronto: Broadview Press, 1996.
2. Michael M. Atkinson. “What
Kind of Democracy Do Canadian Want?” Canadian Journal of Political Science,
vol. 27 no. 4, 1994, pp. 717-745.
3. Harold D. Clarke, Jane
Jenson, Lawrence LeDuc, and Jon Pammett. Absent Mandate: Interpreting change
in Canadian Election (2nd. Ed.) Toronto: Gage Educational Publishing, 1991,
4. Canada, House of Commons, Debates,
30th Parliament, 4th Session, 1978, p. 1.
5. Ibid., p. 3. This
speech further directs government departments to reduce their budgets by $1B,
and projects a reduction in government spending for 1978-79 by $500M to $2B.