Fully-Costed Party Platforms Enhance Fiscal Responsibility, Transparency and Accountability
August 21, 2015
Cynicism about party platforms abounds. People glibly say, politicians will promise anything to get elected, and then….well you know how it goes from there. But party platforms are more than just campaign promises. In fact, they play an essential role in elections, by giving the voters crucial information on the different parties’ governing philosophies and plans that are needed to make informed voting decisions. And in a parliamentary system such as Canada, for better or worse, platforms can actually be implemented if a party wins and forms a government with a comfortable majority. Indeed, that is the expectation of voters backing the winning party and even of the losers.
The preparation of a platform provides a vehicle for the widespread participation of party members and even the broader public in developing the party’s proposed agenda. Consequently, extensive consultations usually take place at party policy conferences and other for a within the party about what the party should propose to do in the election. And platform committees are usually established to sift through all the proposals received separating the wheat from the chaff and charged with preparing a platform document consistent with the party’s underlying philosophy of government and economic management.
There can be more or less buy-in by the party grassroots to a platform depending on the extent to which all concerned parties feel they have had an opportunity to provide input and that their input has at last been taken seriously if not accepted. A platform cannot be imposed from the top down, but must emerge from the bottom up. At the same time, guidance must be provided from the top to make sure that the platform is more than just a shopping list to be purchased on credit. But guidance cannot be too heavy handed, or the party won’t be united or energized enough to fight an effective election campaign. No party wants to go into an election with disgruntled militants who feel their brilliant ideas have been callously disregarded and who consequently go into the campaign in passive-aggressive mode, shunning the grunt work required to raise money and get out the vote.
Platforms serve the necessary role of providing a framework designed to keep all electoral participants “on message.” They thus constitute the hymnal from which all candidates should sing, perhaps not happily but at least not too discordantly, if the party wishes to please the electorate. Without the integrating framework of a platform, individual candidates often exhibit a bothersome tendency to focus on their own pet schemes, many of which can be very costly and/or flakey. And the public can understandably become confused about the extent to which the party is really committed to implementing those ideas if elected. With a platform, the line between candidates’ unconstrained musings and party commitments should be clear, making it much easier to rein in those big egoed souls that usually make up political teams, and to nip in the bud rogue promises that will create problems if the party wins.
Incidentally, the Syriza Party in Greece set a new low for reneging on campaign promises. Having run on a platform pledging to repeal the unpopular austerity measures forced down Greece’s throat (and even after calling a referendum rejecting another bailout contingent on more austerity, they turned around and agreed to an even more stringent deal. Quite the about face! Needless to say, this does little to enhance the reputation of party platforms as credible statements of intentions and feeds cynicism. It is not only candidates that can have problems constraining themselves. Even the Leader can get into trouble. In the 1988 election, the Liberal Leader John Turner allowed the list of election promises to grow to gargantuan proportions without cutting them off and when finally challenged by the media had to confess that he didn’t actually know how much they would all cost, which didn’t do much in that election to reassure voters that the Liberals had a firm hand on the country’s finances and were ready to govern. This taught the Liberals in general, and Jean Chretien in particular, a very valuable lesson that lead to the creation of the Liberal Red Book, which, in my perhaps biased opinion, set the standard for subsequent platform documents.
While the Red Book, subsequently released for the 1992 election contained a lot of flowering rhetoric to rev up the public and to please various constituencies within and outside the party, its novel feature was a detailed costing of the proposed platform, including proposed cuts in existing programs and an estimate of the resulting impact on the deficit. This was summarized in a simple table on page 111 of the document that listed all the promises and added up their total cost. It also included a proposed list of cuts to existing programs (called “Conservative programs” to emphasize their undesirable status) that was deemed to be sufficient to finance the promises plus a small amount of deficit reduction. If a promise wasn’t on that table with a cost estimate next to it, then it wasn’t a really firm policy commitment. An important feature of the Red Book was that it acknowledged the fact that the deficit was unsustainably high and that any new proposed spending had to be financed out of cuts in existing programs. This is the type of fiscal discipline that is characteristic of all good party platforms. It also set an overall target of 3 per cent of GDP for the deficit, the implications of which for future fiscal policy were not fully spelled out.
Mancur Olson in his classic The Logic of Collective Action identified the tendency of politicians to promise (and deliver) costly goods and services to certain groups and to pay for them with more diffuse (and hence less visible) taxes on the general public. The chosen groups respond with electoral support, while the general public remains oblivious to the costs and consequently does not withhold support. A good platform should make clear any taxes required to finance the campaign promises and their incidence. This is obviously a lot to expect as most politicians are reluctant to propose tax increases on the middle classes who earn most of income (and provide most of the votes) and limit themselves to calls for tax increases on the rich and corporations who are pretty good at tax avoidance and don’t usually end up coughing up the money expected. Nevertheless, a solid platform at least makes the parties agenda more transparent.
Preparing a good document and implementing it are, of course, two different things. There has been much debate over the years about whether the Liberals actually delivered on their policy commitments in the Red Book. But no one, but the blindest partisan, could question the seriousness with which Jean Chretien took the promises it contained as he used to carry around the list (p.111) and check the items off. In 1996, at his insistence, the Liberals published A Record of Achievement: A Report on the Liberal Government’s 36 Months in Office, which provided an update on the Liberal Government’s actions in implementing the Red Book’s commitments. The most contentious promises were those relating to the GST and the NAFTA. The critics claim that the Liberals promised to scrap the GST and tear up the NAFTA, whereas the Liberals hold up their efforts to achieve a harmonized sales tax and the NAFTA side agreements reached on labour and environmental standards. This is all very debatable, and somewhat wonky but at least, thanks to the Red Book, the promises were clear, even if their delivery, not so much.
Most sensible people would agree that even the best-intentioned government should not implement all its election promises. If the situations changes drastically making a particular promise inappropriate, then only a fool would proceed blindly to implement it. And only a fool, or the opposition seeking electoral advantage, would blame the government for its non-fulfillment. But reneging on election promises should be the exception rather than the rule if the electoral choices of the public are to be respected and the process to be taken seriously.
Platforms are more important for opposition parties than for governing parties. They show the public that the party has a coherent plan that can be implemented if it is elected. And that the promises made will not break the bank. The governing party, on the other hand, has less need for a platform since it is running on its record and has already introduced a fiscal plan, which presumably it will continue to pursue if returned to office with a fresh mandate. However, to the extent that it introduces new programs and policies over the course of the election, like is almost always the case, it too should introduce a fully costed platform document.
Given the importance of high-quality, fully-costed party platforms in enhancing fiscal responsibility, transparency, and accountability and in facilitating informed electoral choices, it is important that all parties produce such documents for the upcoming fall election. This may be just common sense, but given the nature of politics it doesn’t always happen. It is an unfortunate fact that party platforms can be made to hide as much as they reveal. It is the job of the media and policy analysts to lay platforms bare, thus holding political parties to high standards of full, true and plain disclosure.