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This article was published 24/11/2017 (1150 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


It’s important for politicians to try to keep promises made during election campaigns. Failure to do so can breed voter disenchantment, with both politicians and politics in general. It is also democratically dubious: many voters case their ballots with these promises in mind, so it is not an overstatement to regard breaking them as a betrayal of voters’ trust.

Psychologist Susan Kraus Whitbourne applied research from marketing psychology to how we react to politicians’ broken promises. According to this marketing research, consumers tend to be angrier when a product fails than happy when it lives up to expectations. Further, when products are deemed to be poor, we tend to generalize our anger to other similar products.

Applied to politics, this finding helps to explain both why voters often get very angry over broken promises, and why such broken promises can poison their view of all politicians. No wonder 59 per cent of Canadians, as reported in a 2016 Samara poll, think that parties and candidates "only want their vote."

But are politicians really serial promise-breakers?

In a 2009 analysis of several studies that explored the question of government promise-keeping, political scientists François Pétry and Benoît Collette estimated that parties fulfil an average of 67 per cent of their campaign promises once in office. This is not a perfect record, but far from the image of reckless politicians who change their minds with the same frequency that Manitobans change their long underwear in winter.

For the most part, voters get the policies they vote for.

This raises the question why voters tend to view politicians as promise-breakers. Pétry and Collette suspect this may result from widespread media coverage of broken campaign promises. Headlines such as "10 key promises Trudeau has broken since becoming PM" are common. In contrast, less catchy headlines such as "Trudeau keeps promise" may be of little interest to readers.

But let’s flip things around and ask: are there situations in which politicians should break their promises? I think the answer is "yes."

Politicians sometimes have trouble squaring their ambitious campaign promises with the cold reality of governing, once in office. Candidates simply cannot know of all potential problems and limitations to the promises they make until they are elected.

Further, both economic and political conditions can change rapidly over the course of a politician’s term in office. As the circumstances within which politicians made promises evolve, those promises can make less and less sense. In these cases, it is reasonable to think a politician would not keep all her election promises.

In short: politicians should do everything possible to keep their campaign promises, but only if it is in the public interest to do so.

Consider Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, who, leading up to this week’s municipal budget, raised the possibility of substantial cuts to Winnipeg Transit’s budget. Bowman envisaged a worst-case scenario of cuts to 59 routes, layoffs for 120 transit operators, and an extra 25 cents per ticket in order to make up a $10-million shortfall he argued would result from a cut in transfers from the Pallister government.

As it turned out, Bowman’s nightmare spectacle never fully came to pass. There will be service reductions on 23 routes beginning in June, and the cost of a single bus ride will increase 25 cents, to $2.95, on Jan. 1. But the full doomsday scenario was not unleashed. Still, Bowman’s worst-case scenario hardly sat well with some decisions he has taken in order to make good on his previous campaign promises. For example: the mayor has held firm on his previous campaign promise to equip some Transit routes with free Wi-Fi, at a cost of $300,000.

When asked whether it made sense to continue with the pricey Wi-Fi experiment when Winnipeg Transit was facing severe cuts, Bowman testily replied that the cash for Wi-Fi was coming from a separate innovation fund.

I doubt anyone, including the mayor himself, is convinced by this argument. It defies common sense to spend on luxury items when the fundamentals of the transit system are on the chopping block. No one — or at least no one we want running Winnipeg — goes out and buys a top-of-the-line BMW when they can’t afford meals for their families.

Bowman’s predicament provides a useful illustration of when politicians are justified in casting aside campaign promises. Bowman had no way of knowing, while campaigning in 2014, that the provincial government would do away with its subsidy for Winnipeg Transit. Now that the city is facing a $10-million shortfall in Winnipeg Transit’s budget, the $300,000 to be spent on Wi-Fi could clearly be put to better use.

Politicians may cynically break promises, but they may also cynically keep promises for their own benefit, when doing so is clearly not in the public interest.

Governing is about more than checking off promises from previous campaigns. And voters are smart enough to tell the difference between an incumbent who is meeting promises for the sake of their own re-election chances, and an incumbent who has governed to the best of his ability and is willing to defend potentially unpopular decisions, including breaking his promises when it’s necessary to do so.

Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.