There are no guarantees in politics. Delivery is not free. If you are not satisfied, you will not get your money back.
It is now the rage for politicians to offer voters a "guarantee," a piece of consumer-marketing hucksterism that is particularly ill-suited for the process of choosing a government. Politics is now rife with commercial gimmicks, sure, but this particular piece of Madison Avenue flimflam should be recognized for what it is, because it is increasingly popular.
In Ontario, Patrick Brown's Progressive Conservatives just unveiled a long list of political promises ahead of a provincial election next June, calling the whole bundle the "People's Guarantee."
But it's not just Mr. Brown, or his Tories. Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh ran for his party's leadership with a platform that included a Canada seniors guarantee, a working-Canadians guarantee, and a Canadians-with-disabilities guarantee. Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta's new United Conservative Party, has issued a grassroots guarantee.
More than a decade ago, Stephen Harper came to power with his "five priorities," which included a patient-wait-times guarantee. Remember how that fixed everything? No?
Reducing wait times requires dealing with complex issues in provinciallyrun health-care systems. But Mr. Harper's campaign strategists didn't think voters would go into the weeds: They just wanted government to fix it. The patient-wait-times guarantee, for those who bothered to read it, was a promise to set benchmarks for wait times, and work with provinces to develop a guarantee to ensure patients received services in acceptable times.
But in 2014, the Health Council of Canada reported that wait times for surgery were roughly the same as before. Some other indicators were worse. By then, the guarantee was mostly forgotten. And what did Mr. Harper guarantee, anyway? What was going to happen if he didn't deliver?
Political guarantees are promises with a little show biz. Promises are mistrusted, but who doesn't love a guarantee?
Mr. Kenney, anxious to keep both wings of his merged party behind him, has a grassroots guarantee, with a stamp-like "guarantee" logo and the leader's signature beneath it. That sure looks official. But it's just a promise that all party policy will be developed by the grassroots, and not imposed by the leader. Yet leaders can usually get their parties to rubber stamp their policy, and even if Mr. Kenney breaks his promise outright, there's no free pizza.
Mr. Singh, running for the NDP leadership, promised to roll together several benefits and tax credits for seniors, suggesting that would be a marvellous tonic for those over 65, but without much detail. And he offered similarly vague guarantees for low-income workers and people with disabilities. The key point: What precisely is guaranteed is not mentioned.
Mr. Brown took the show biz further. He signed a pledge stating that if he doesn't fulfill five key promises in his first term, he won't seek a second. That's a guarantee, right?
Well, not much of one. Aside from the fact that he'll be the judge, there is a fair bit of bait and switch in the whole exercise. Mr. Brown's People's Guarantee is an 80-page booklet with a laundry list of dozens and dozens of promises. But look closely: Mr. Brown's signature is only affixed to five.
One of them, the promise to pass Ontario's first "Trust, Accountability, and Integrity Act," is effectively a guarantee that he'll pass legislation with that title. (Lifted from Mr. Harper's promise to pass an Accountability Act, which was less stringent in practice than in the platform.)
And then there's the "guarantee" of "22.5-per-cent lower income taxes for the middle class." Surely a guarantee like that should come with a note that the cost of that tax cut will be largely made up by an increase in carbon taxes that many middle-income earners will pay.
And this guarantee is curious: The full People's Guarantee platform promises to reduce taxes on both the middle class and the lower tax bracket – but that lower-bracket cut isn't on the list of five promises that Mr. Brown guarantees. Does that promise still count?
If you are offered a guarantee, read the fine print. A political guarantee is less about providing accountability than shifting it, and dressing up promises in a false formality that doesn't fit. They are no substitute for clarity, detail, explanation and accountability. Buyer beware.