Opinion: Don’t set deadlines you can’t keep, a lesson for Trudeau

Justin Trudeau has broken big promises before. Canada’s budget was not balanced by 2019 and the country still has the same electoral system he once vowed to abolish.

But backing away from a pledge to end boil-water advisories by March 2021 is a significant retreat for a prime minister who has said the relationship with Indigenous people is the most important one for him and his government.

Is this, then, the most important broken promise in Trudeau’s five years in power?

For all the people who will still be boiling their drinking water for the foreseeable future, the answer to that question is clear – as clear as their water is not.

But this candid admission by Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller also has to be seen in the wider pandemic picture of Trudeau’s government at this moment. Deadlines are being demanded. When will the vaccines arrive? When will this COVID-19 crisis be over?

In that light, the announcement on Wednesday was a backtrack and a future warning all in one: this Liberal government has learned the peril of setting firm deadlines.

Broken promises happen all the time in politics – though not as often as a cynical public might believe. Last year, just before the fall election, an independent group of academics published a book detailing how Trudeau’s government had entirely or partly fulfilled about 90 per cent of its 2015 promises.

What’s rare in politics is the full-fledged admission of a broken promise – the kind of apology and retreat on display at Miller’s news conference on Wednesday.

Normally, governments prefer to let broken promises slide away into the mists of distant history, hoping that they will be forgotten before anyone notices their failure to materialize. Trudeau airbrushed his democratic-reform pledge out of existence, we’ll remember, by leaving the words out of the mandate letter of the new minister after a cabinet shuffle. Former finance minister Bill Morneau jettisoned the balanced-budget pledge with talk of being “flexible” to “circumstances.”

Stephen Harper was of the never-admit-a-mistake school of politics during his time as prime minister. So his Conservative government never really did come out and say that it had failed to deliver on its promise to reduce medical wait times – one of Harper’s five famous priorities on assuming power in 2006. Instead, it quietly faded away from memory.

One of the more explosive retreats from a political promise in Canada took place in the mid-1990s, when Jean Chrétien was prime minister and people were starting to notice that he hadn’t scrapped the goods and services tax.

Chrétien, also not a fan of admitting errors, kept saying that he never really promised to do away with the tax. But his finance minister, Paul Martin, believed that a news conference had to be held to tell Canadians that they were stuck with the GST and all the revenue it brought in to government.

This whipped up a storm inside Liberal caucus, especially because senior cabinet minister Sheila Copps had vowed to resign if her government didn’t kill the GST. One broken promise, thus, was forced to become a promise fulfilled – Copps had to stand down and run again for her seat in Hamilton (which she won easily, this time with no career-threatening pledges).

Politicians break promises for a simple reason. They’re easy to make and harder to keep. Things get complicated. “Circumstances” force governments to be “flexible,” as Morneau put it.

In the 1990s, political parties all over the world became hypersensitive about their reputation for breaking promises and started introducing guarantees – the Liberals’ “red book” in Canada, the U.S. Republicans’ “contract with America,” to name a couple. At the same time, grassroots bids emerged to “recall” politicians if they failed to be the representative as advertised in the election campaign.

There’s less talk of that now, though accountability in general remains a big promise. Politicians have just learned to keep it all vague.

Regrettably, this will be the lesson of the boil-water-advisory pledge for Trudeau’s government. It is a relic of a time when this prime minister believed that sunny ways and “deliverology” were the key to success; when Trudeau wanted to be judged by results, not just money spent.

The pandemic strategy is very much the opposite: talk of a “dark winter” in this week’s economic statement and promises to spend money, a lot of it, at some yet-to-be-determined point in the future.

The demands for deadlines and delivery dates on vaccines are bound to increase in the coming weeks.

But anyone who was watching Wednesday’s news conference will understand why no answer is forthcoming: Trudeau is getting out of the business of making promises with times and dates attached.

Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.

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