So where, in the pantheon of leaders abandoning their pledges, should we rank Justin Trudeau's shattered promise on electoral reform? He's got a lot of good company on this kind of thing, as he has with leaders who vacation on yachts in lieu of tugboats.
Is that a problem, that he's like others?
On promise repudiation, there is, to be sure, ample precedent. It's standard practice, you might say. Try our two admired wartime leaders, Robert Borden and Mackenzie King. They initially vowed not to bring in conscription. They proceeded to do so. How about good old John Diefenbaker and his grand visionary scheme for the development of the Canadian North? Turned out that a road or two was built to connect igloos.
There was Pierre Trudeau, who vowed not to introduce wage and price controls before proceeding to introduce wage and price controls. Brian Mulroney? He swore up and down that he wouldn't touch free trade with a barge pole. Thankfully, he changed his mind. There followed Jean Chrétien, who left the impression that, "Hey, under me, no GST." U-turns, anyone? After reversing himself on taxing income trusts, Stephen Harper brought in a fixed-election-date law that he promptly violated in his first re-election bid. Among other fairy tales was his pledge to run an open government.
But if you think our prime ministers have been adept at the art, pause for a moment to consider Washington's wagonload, beginning with Woodrow Wilson's 1916 commitment to keep the United States out of the First World War. Herbert Hoover's election team came forward with a promise in 1928 for "A chicken in every pot." The Great Depression ensued.
In his 1964 election campaign, Lyndon Johnson spoke thusly on Vietnam: "We are not about to send American boys 9,000 or 10,000 miles away to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."
It was best not to read the lips of the first George Bush, who infamously intoned, "Read my lips, no new taxes," before levying new levies. Memorable also in the snake-oil sweepstakes is Bill Clinton's 1996 proclamation that "The era of big government is over." Not to be outdone was Bush Jr. with his war-inducing vision of Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
Oh well, even Winston Churchill once boasted about his "public deceptions." As for the probity of Conservative colleagues, however, he could be quite unforgiving. "He occasionally stumbled over the truth," Churchill said of Stanley Baldwin, "but hastily picked himself up and moved on as if nothing had happened."
Perspective, though, is needed. In some cases, such as the yacht-friendly Mr. Mulroney on free trade, breaking pledges are in the public interest. It's good Mr. Chrétien didn't follow up on the GST, nor perhaps Mr. Harper on his income-trust vow. Circumstances change and rather than hold, stubborn to the bone, to past pledges, leaders sometimes need to adapt. In some cases courts, legislatures, public opinion or depleted treasuries mean they have to undo commitments.
Mr. Trudeau has offered a number of reasons for his electoral reform volte-face. No great public demand. No consensus on a new election system. Referendums are too divisive. Proportional representation is ill-advised because it could allow extremist groups to get a foothold.
None of these rationales stacks up well. Essentially, what happened is that his choice of a preferential-voting system was finding little favour and he decided – having badly managed the file – the whole business wasn't worth the bother. A good thing, at least, is he didn't go the authoritarian route and use his electoral majority to ram through his desired new system.
Politically, the damage on his reversal might be limited because the Conservatives were never in favour of a big change to begin with.
But his big flopperoo is not something that will be forgotten. It will endure as a stain on his credibility. Although he is in heady historical company, that in fact is the problem. He promised to be different. Old politics won't cut it.