Pamela Palmater: In an era of waning political trust, anything can happen in this election
Published Tuesday, August 24, 2021 2:06PM EDT Last Updated Tuesday, August 24, 2021 3:07PM EDT
TORONTO -- In the lead-up to Canada’s 44th general election on September 20, federal leaders are travelling the countryside, hosting press conferences, and shaking hands with Canadians, trying to gain our support for their respective parties at the polls.
“Vote for us” they say, trying to convince us that theirs is the right party to lead us through the rest of the pandemic, tackle the climate change crisis, and bring about substantive reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. To this end, each leader makes political promises – what they promise to do for us, if elected.
But what is the actual value of a political promise? Ultimately, that’s a matter of trust.
But how many Canadians really trust politicians to live up to their political promises? According to an Angus Reid poll in June 2019, nearly two-thirds of Canadians (64%) say politicians can’t be trusted and more than a third believe they are motivated by personal gain rather than sincere interest in serving Canadians.
What little trust there was has eroded significantly since the pandemic. According to the Leger survey in May 2021, the majority of Canadians (60%), said that their trust for politicians had been permanently eroded. We also know there is an association between trust in public institutions and the level of voting (less trust = less voting).
So, if political trust is the glue that holds democracies together, then what does that mean for Canada? How valuable are all these political promises in this election, if the majority of Canadians do not believe they will ever be implemented?
With little trust in political promises or politicians, most Canadians are left with few options but try to engage in strategic voting in hopes that the worst party does not form government (a form of harm reduction); try to figure out which is the least-worst party; or skip the vote altogether. None of these options inspire confidence in Canada’s governing institutions, but here we are, at the tail end of our summer, while the 4th wave of the pandemic starts to pick up speed, forced into an unnecessary snap election.
So, with trust eliminated as a consideration in the vote (and an added degree of crankiness for interrupting our summer), the next step is to put these promises to the test. That’s a big ask of Canadians, when even Ottawa’s Parliamentary Budget Officer, Yves Giroux, said that his office will not be able to provide a comprehensive costing of campaign promises in this snap election.
There are certainly more than a few Canadians thinking to themselves, “How convenient.” Without a full costing of the campaign promises of each party, that effectively prevents Canadians from knowing whether or not specific campaign promises are even possible.
Knowing this, there are many non-government organizations who keep track of political promises, engage with economic, legal, scientific, and community-based experts to help take up the work of providing fact-checking and analysis of each party platform.
They help provide critical analysis through a feminist, Indigenous, human rights, environmental, or economic lens; and provide some assessment about the potential impacts each platform may have on critical social supports, healthcare, and education, to name a few. While this is extremely helpful, for some Canadians, it can also be overwhelming.
Ultimately, many Canadians will likely do their own assessment of these political promises, knowing that the best predictor of future actions is past behaviour. In that case, the two ruling political parties are in trouble.
Tracking the implementation rate of past political promises is much easier in the age of social media and instant access to information and online analysis. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has not been able to fool unions into thinking he’ll protect workers’ rights. UNIFOR National President Jerry Dias said the Conservatives’ “grab-bag of gimmicks” cannot erase its history of anti-labour activity.
Many Indigenous peoples have not forgotten the decade-long Stephen Harper-era attack on Indigenous rights. Similarly, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s failure to fulfill his promise of clean water in First Nations is just one of many unkept promises and likely the reason why the Liberals have not yet released their platform.
While the New Democrats have not formed government at the federal level, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will not be able to shed the legacy of provincial NDP governments, especially in Manitoba and B.C. around ongoing breaches of Indigenous rights.
What does all this mean for Canadians? With this significant erosion of trust in politicians, it means that anything can happen in this election. Not a good scenario for the parties.
Canadians who are still in the midst of a devastating pandemic, have long called for strong, ethical, and stable leadership that provides pandemic social supports for everyone, not just the middle class; implements a comprehensive plan to end the genocide of Indigenous peoples; and take urgent action on the climate crisis which is burning all around us. An unnecessary, snap election in the context of little political trust is like rolling the dice on our future.
That does not inspire much trust. We deserve better than that.
Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer specializing in Indigenous and human rights law. She is the chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University