Opinion

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

City of Red Deer says its roundabouts have sharply reduced the number of injury collisions at a pair of busy intersections. Alberta Transportation wants to incorporate five roundabouts into plans to twin Highway 11 from Sylvan Lake to Rocky Mountain House. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Highway 11 roundabouts will increase safety based on Red Deer’s experience

Injury collisions sharply reduced at roundabout intersections in city

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
One new COVID-19 death in Red Deer, Alberta under 10,000 active cases

Alberta reported an additional 643 COVID-19 cases Friday. The province now has… Continue reading

About 110 students from Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools participated in March for Life rally in Edmonton May 9. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer high school has COVID-19 case

St. Joseph High School in Red Deer confirmed a positive COVID-19 case… Continue reading

Lacombe High School logo.
Two more COVID-19 cases at Lacombe Composite High School

Lacombe Composite High School confirmed two more positive COVID-19 cases at the… Continue reading

World Juniors’ referee Mike Langin makes a called during the Canada vs. Slovakia at the 2021 World Junior Championship at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Dec. 27, 2020. (Photo by Matthew Murnaghan/Hockey Canada)
Former Sylvan Lake man lives his dream at World Junior Championships

Mike Langin was one the 25 Canadian officials who worked during the tournament

Former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley shakes hands with Joel Ward, former Red Deer College President and CEO, as Notley announces that the college is on the path to grant degrees. Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan says university status is not a necessary condition for offering degrees. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Future of Red Deer University increasingly uncertain

MLA’s college update says RDC more like SAIT and NAIT than a university

There are two confirmed COVID-19 cases at Red Deer College. Photo by Mamta Lulla/Advocate staff
Central Albertans were promised a university

Central Albertans were promised a university

FILE - Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron sits for a portrait after receiving his COVID-19 vaccination at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, in this Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, file photo. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/Ron Harris, File)
Hank Aaron, baseball’s one-time home run king, dies at 86

Hank Aaron, baseball’s one-time home run king, dies at 86

Miami Heat guard Duncan Robinson (55) passes the ball around Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Powell, Raptors regroup after blowing lead, beat Heat 101-81

Powell, Raptors regroup after blowing lead, beat Heat 101-81

Tavares scores winner on power play, Leafs beat Oilers 4-2

Tavares scores winner on power play, Leafs beat Oilers 4-2

David Shoemaker, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, speaks during the Olympic Partnership kick off event at the Sobey's office in Mississauga, Ont. on Monday, October 7, 2019. Shoemaker says the IOC remains committed to staging the Summer Games in Tokyo this summer.THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
Canada’s Olympic athletes try to tune out reports six months from Games

Canada’s Olympic athletes try to tune out reports six months from Games

Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley lifts the Voyageurs Cup after beating Vancouver Whitecaps 5-2 to win the Canadian Championship Final in Toronto on Wednesday, August 15, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Forge FC-Toronto FC Canadian Championship final to be played before April 6

Forge FC-Toronto FC Canadian Championship final to be played before April 6

Canada's Penny Oleksiak reacts after her heat of the women's 50m butterfly at the World Swimming Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Friday, July 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Lee Jin-man
Penny Oleksiak, Kylie Masse among six swimmers named early to Canadian Olympic team

Penny Oleksiak, Kylie Masse among six swimmers named early to Canadian Olympic team

Ontario skip Glenn Howard watches a rock as they play Newfoundland and Labrador in draw 15 action at the Tim Hortons Brier curling championship at Mile One Centre in St. John's on Thursday, March 9, 2017. Curling Canada has decided to use the national ranking system as its selection criteria for the final wild-card berths at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Tim Hortons Brier.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Canadian rankings to be used to determine final wild-card spots at Scotties and Brier

Canadian rankings to be used to determine final wild-card spots at Scotties and Brier

Most Read