Ideas and Impressions: Truth is not a campaign-winning formula

By Jason Moscovitz

This issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin went to press before the October 21 federal election. So, as I write, I don’t yet know who won. What I do know is how incredible a campaign it was. Doing politics was always hard, but in today’s lightning fast world of information flow, it’s just plain crazy.

In our political galaxy, incumbent prime ministers face the toughest task in the supercharged world of elections. In recent decades, both Conservative and Liberal prime ministers have needed to defend their records, and they’ve needed to defend their mishaps and blunders in office.

And while campaigns are like the finals of a blood sport, those involved love doing it and no one loves the action more than the leaders themselves. They believe they were born to campaign, that no one does it better, and after a big electoral win, they believe they are invincible.

A campaign is like a freedom ride from the restraint and reality of governing. In a campaign, politicians, as we’ve just witnessed, promise the sun and the moon while acknowledging the deficit will go up further before it comes down. Damn the deficit, Trudeau and the Liberals set the tone for making promises. The others were eager to follow.

The fiscal looseness of the campaign was striking. Day after day, there were more announcements of costly promises. And the usually more fiscally conservative Conservatives joined the spending spree to keep pace.

Creating a blueprint on how to make life better for middle class Canadians is noble – but over-extending promises is not. Getting elected is the easy part. Governing gets to be not so much fun when there is not enough money to fulfil promises made.

So while political leaders love to roll up their sleeves and campaign, they play a dangerous game. Because politicians make promises to win, no one should ever wonder why voters are cynical about politics. Promising too many beneficial tax changes is questionable, as thoughtful as the promises may be. There is something about political life that is not always rational. Ego trips can often hinder straight thinking.

For more than the past half-century, from John Diefenbaker to Justin Trudeau, those who won majority governments got intoxicated by what they thought was the love voters had for them. Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien all got hit by the same victory fever. Stephen Harper got it too, although his blandness served as cover. But rest assured, in the end, ego drove them all.

After a big impressive win, leaders believe they can convince voters of virtually anything. In an election campaign, they believe the mere sweetness of their voices making nice promises is enough to keep them in power. Hiding the truth is also part of it. Hiding Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s existence was Andrew Scheer’s best Houdini act.

Sadly, being forthright and honest has limited place in the world of election campaigns. The truth is not a winner. I once asked a prominent politician why he and his party wouldn’t discuss certain parts of their agenda.

“If we ever told the people of Canada what we were going to do, we would never get elected,” was his cynical response.

I can remember a Conservative prime minister who falsely promised not to cut old age security payments, just as I remember a Liberal prime minister who promised to “kill the Goods and Services tax.” More recently, we all remember Justin Trudeau promising his government would bring in long talked about electoral reform. But once in power, he slammed the door shut and did nothing.

Do they think people are dumb?

The answer is they just desperately want and need their votes. Talk is cheap. Delivering is hard and expensive.

We all grow up believing that speaking the truth is key to being a responsible respected person. Somehow, though, that rule doesn’t apply in the political world. Saying what needs to be said in order to win is such short sighted thinking – but they don’t care.

It’s time to stop being naive. It’s time to get with the program. It’s time to lower expectations on the truth. It’s time to grow up.

And it’s time to admit to myself that the political world I saw idealistically is an allusion.