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Punishing dishonest politicians

When you look at that title, the first thing you’ll say is the best way to do that is to vote them out at the next election. But in an op-ed this morning. Duff Conacher of the group Democracy Watch proposes something more – create honesty-in-politics laws. The proposal would create a watchdog agency for voters to complain to, and the agency the power to heavily fine politicians who they determined had made a dishonest promise during an election campaign or misled the public in between elections.

I don’t mind the idea in principle, but I think the weakness of the proposed plan is here:

Some say that when candidates make promises, they don’t know what changes might occur if they win and, therefore, shouldn’t be penalized if they break promises. The simple solution is for candidates to make promises that honestly set out the circumstances under which they would change direction (instead of the usually dishonest ironclad promises they currently make). In any case, politicians could be allowed to cite truly unforeseeable changes as a justifiable reason for breaking a promise.

I think the politicians would walk through this rather vague statement loophole rather easily and quickly. All promises made would be qualified with a “if the Budget allows it”, or “if circumstances remain the same as they do as we make this promise”. It’s a laudable idea, but one I wonder whether it would be very effective in enforcing the so-called honesty laws.

I’m going out on a limb here and predicting that no political party – either federal or provincial – will rush to embrace this idea.


7 comments to Punishing dishonest politicians

  • Scott,
    What makes you think voters want to be told the truth? I mean, really, who wants to find out that they actually might have to PAY some taxes to get some services?

    Like the reason the health care system is having problems is because Canadian voters are all a bunch of overweight, lazy so and so's who'd rather pull up to a Tim Hortons in an SUV than admit they are the problem. "Oh nooooo, it's not me, it's someone ELSE." *eyeroll* I hear it every day in my neighbourhood. People who endlessly appeal their property taxes, and don't understand why their streets have potholes. I mean, duh….stuff costs money.

    No one wants to look in the mirror or pay the price. Politicians would gladly tell the truth, no fines needed, if they thought voters were willing to hear it. We all know that inflation makes our groceries & clothes go up in price, so why on earth would it be any different for government supplies, like paper or building materials? Answer: it wouldn't. Simply not logical.

    Duff is well-intentioned, but very very naive if he thinks the problem is the politicians.

    The problem is us.

  • wilson61

    Rather than yet another agency that listens but has no stroke,  what about 'recall' ?

  • Heh.. are you inferring the watchdog commission would be making a boatload of money if they could ever properly nail down how to hold the politicos to account?

  • "dishonest politicians"

    Isn't that redundant?


  • Coyne always has had a bit of an idealistic streak in him behind his conservative positions. For example, he's a big proponent of electoral reform (I think he prefers STV to MMP however). I'm not particularly surprised this idea would be up his alley.

  • Scott,

    Have you read Coyne's take on this type of thing?  He's been pushing it for a while.  

    Here is the gist of it, which I post for yourself and your readers without comment (for once, eh!):

    It’s one I’ve offered before: a plan that would allow politicians to voluntarily assume legal liability for uttering false statements, much as people do in other walks of life, as when swearing out an affidavit, or posting a bond. The point is not to catch politicians out for every stray slip of the tongue. Indeed, it’s not even about punishing the dishonest, so much as rewarding the honest, by making it possible for the voters to trust in politicians’ honesty once again.

    How would it work? Suppose there were a provision in the elections law allowing politicians to "opt in" to certain legal consequences with regard to a given public statement, should it later be found to be false. No need to prove fraud, or damages. Just that it was false. “In releasing my platform today,” a party leader might say, “I invoke Article 19 of the Elections Act.” As I say, it would be like swearing an oath. This is no more — it is actually considerably less — than the standard politicians expect of other professions, such as lawyers or corporate officers.

  • Jim

    To be fair, a government must be able to break an election promise unfettered by being fined – especially, if the results are truly better than keeping the promise.  In addition, a politician should be free to cross the floor (Duff lumps party switching in there too), if it truly best represents the riding – as long as it isn't in exchange for a cabinet position).

    I think the Ombudsman (in Ontario at least), and the Auditor General, are doing a fine job of telling us when the government is failing the electorate.

    Bottom line, we get the government we vote for.

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