In these first weeks of the new Liberal government, few issues have captured more attention than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's election promise to bring 25,000 refugees from Syria by the end of the year.
Was this target ever practically achievable? Should it be re-thought, particularly having regard to the Paris terrorist attacks, and the possibility that a massive influx of new refugees would strain our capacity to ensure that no one who represents a security threat manages to gain safe harbour in Canada?
With Tuesday's announcement delaying the timetable for completion by two months, it's now time to mark the difference between two kinds of questions. First there is a question of policy. Should Canada expand its admission of Syrian refugees, and if so, how many and on what timetable? Then there is a question of politics. The Liberals promised 25,000 more Syrian refugees by year-end. They imposed the deadline. They won't meet it. Will we now congratulate them for having had the wisdom to adjust their commitments to ensure they can be properly implemented, or simply attack their promise-breaking?
Put another way, once elected, is it the promise that matters, or good policy?
I have no doubt about the answer to the question. Governments are elected to make good decisions, and to persuade the citizens of their merits. They should govern according to clear and consistent goals and principles. They should make and keep credible, responsible promises that will advance those goals and principles. They should also change course when the evidence calls for a different approach.
As was famously said by the British economist John Maynard Keynes: "When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?" But Mr. Keynes, of course, was never elected to public office, and never required to revisit an election promise, particularly one made in a campaign that concluded only a few weeks earlier.
It is interesting that the federal Liberal policy platform document attached no timetable to the Syrian refugee commitment. The written promise was "to expand Canada's intake of refugees from Syria by 25,000 through immediate government sponsorship." This was clearly a call to action. But a doubting public wants to know not just what a government will do, but when. So during the campaign, the promise became 25,000 new refugees by "year-end."
The number was always ambitious, the timetable doubly so. We all know that sometimes we need specific targets to force us to complete difficult tasks. But this number was set high deliberately, to speak to the deeply held view of many that Canada needs to turn a more actively compassionate face to the world. In the continuing aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, as other countries publicly revisit their refugee policies, questions of national security are now interwoven into the already complex issues involved in large-scale refugee admission and settlement. So again, is it the policy or the promise that matters?
In 2001, I was a cabinet minister in the first term of the B.C. Liberal government. We were elected on a platform with hundreds of commitments, including a list of specific action items for the first 90 days in power. We worked our way through the list. Most promises were kept. Some were not. Still others were broken. What I found was that while we tried to take credit for the fact that we were keeping our promises, virtually no one cared or kept count. What people cared about was the substance of what we were doing, not the fact that we had promised to do it. And people also cared when we did something that was directly the opposite of what we had promised.
Broken promises matter more than kept promises. But in the end, voters want governments to make good decisions. You can test this proposition by asking yet one more question: What is it that voters will remember in four years about Canada's commitments to Syrian refugees? I suggest the answer is this: We will remember that Canada significantly enhanced its role in responding to an international refugee crisis, and that thousands of refugees from the Syrian civil war were properly settled and have become our neighbours and fellow citizens. Partisans aside, most of us won't remember whether the number of refugees was 25,000 or a bit more or a bit less, or whether they arrived in December or some other month.
I don't know as much as I ought to about Canada's capacity to identify and safely process and settle an influx of 25,000 new refugees from the hell that is war-torn Syria. But I do know this: To make bad decisions simply because they were promised is bad government. The first true political test of this new government may be that they have found the fortitude to do the right thing.
Geoff Plant was British Columbia's attorney-general from 2001 to 2005. He practises law with Gall Legge Grant & Munroe in Vancouver.