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Red Book reality check: Libs campaigning from the left?

Posted by padams under Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Political Strategy

Paul Adams

One thing Stephen Harper and Jack Layton were able to agree on in the hours after Michael Ignatieff’s launch of the Liberal platform on Sunday was that it had stolen a page or two from the NDP. The platform — an admirably long and detailed document — was filled with commitments to education, health, day care and elder care. It was a liberal document, albeit encased in a pledge to bring down the deficit over time, in part by returning corporate taxes to their 2009 level.

The question for the voters about this platform — as for that of any other party — is how seriously to take it.

Jack Layton remarked that the Liberals are famous for using a Xerox machine to copy the NDP’s policies during an election, then using a shredder to dispose of them later.

Layton’s crack goes beyond the routine observation that politicians don’t always keep their promises, to suggest the Liberals break their promises in a particular way. That is, to use the time-honoured formulation, that the Liberals campaign from the left but govern from the right.

Liberal supporters have hailed the Ignatieff platform, with its length, its attempt to reconcile it promises fiscally, and even its budget-style lock-up for reporters, as standing in the proud tradition of the Liberals’ 1993 “Red Book”, which set the standards for these things. The 1993 Red Book was supposed to combat the impression left by John Turner in the previous election that the leader and the party did not have a very good command of their own platform. Written in part by Paul Martin, it was probably the most detailed platform document in Canadian history, and it became a fabulous prop for Jean Chrétien, whose slogan became: “We have the people. We have the plan. We can make a difference.”

It would not be too much to say that Chrétien fetishized the Red Book. Prior to the 1997 election, the Liberal Party issued a “report card”, which purported to show that 78% of the Red Book promises had already been kept.

In an interview with Susan Delacourt in the Star on the day the 2011 Liberal platform was released, Paul Martin put his own imprimatur on Ignatieff’s version of the Red Book, saying that it was “of the same quality, absolutely” as the 1993 document.

Forgive me if I do not automatically accept the Liberals’ self-grading of the 1993 Red Book — or accept the 2011 version on its face. We don’t allow sixth graders to self-grade, at least never when it really matters. And we probably shouldn’t with political parties either. I don’t think anyone ever did even a cursory audit of the Red Book “report card” to see how far it missed the mark.

In any event, to my mind there is a better way to assess the 1993 Red Book than just itemizing every single promise and putting a check mark or an X beside each one. That is to look instead at the major commitments it made — those which might reasonably have been expected to sway large numbers of voters. In my estimation, there were six such commitments: to create a national infrastructure program, to renegotiate Nafta, to replace the GST, to create 50,000 new child care spaces, to increase annual immigration to 1% of population, and to reduce the deficit to 3% of GDP.

Of these, I would argue, the Chrétien government kept only the first. Some would say that it also kept the deficit promise, but this is to misunderstand the context of the 1993 document. The Progressive Conservatives under Kim Campbell were promising to eliminate the deficit. The Red Book promise, in contrast, was supposed to show that the Liberals were prepared to take responsible steps to contain the deficit, but not to embark on the harsh budget-cutting that would be required to eliminate it altogether.

Of course, for better or for worse, the Liberals did exactly what the Progressive Conservatives had promised. They went beyond 3% of GDP, straight down to zero, and then, beyond, into surplus. This was not keeping their promise; it was ignoring it in favour of a different policy. To say today that the Liberals kept their 1993 Red Book deficit promise is to misremember its precise content and its political meaning for voters at the time.

I think it is arguable, then, that the Liberals failed to keep five of their six main Red Book promises in 1993, and that the broken promises on Nafta, child care, immigration, and the deficit all represented moves to the right from their campaign posture. (I don’t think the failure to replace the GST represents a clear move either to the right or the left.)

In Mr. Ignatieff’s case, he has really never established credentials as an economic liberal. Since becoming Liberal leader, he has spoken often of his dislike of “big government” and “big government programs”. When he first called for corporate tax cuts to be frozen last year, he prefaced his commitment by saying that he was personally “passionate” about corporate tax cuts — passionate about making them, not freezing them, that is. I don’t think you will find all that many people “passionate” about corporate tax cuts outside of the corporate boardrooms and the academic and journalistic enclaves of the Chicago School — a truth the new platform recognizes by displaying no such passion.

I am not saying, as Jack Layton may be doing, that the Liberals in government are likely to be no different that the Conservatives. On social issues such as abortion, gay rights, and the status of women, they are likely to be more liberal. On some law and order issues too. And they probably would be less enthusiastic tax-cutters and more energetic program builders than the Conservatives. On issues of democratic reform and accountability, I think a prudent voter — at least one with a memory more than a few years —  would be skeptical of any party’s claims.

But Layton is correct on one point: if history is a guide, the Liberals are likely to look a lot less like New Democrats in power than they are on the campaign trail.

Paul Adams is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton. He is a former Parliament Hill reporter and worked in the polling industry. You can follow him on Twitter @padams29

Reader's Comments

  1. cwaddell |

    One thing to add to Paul’s comments about the 1993 Red Book. In that campaign the real cry to eliminate the deficit came from Preston Manning and the Reform Party who campaigned on a plan to eliminate the deficit in three years – zero in three. Once in office the Liberal approach changed as Paul noted, highlighting the party’s willingness to borrow policies from the right as well as the left.