Political Promises and the Value of a Vote

January 16, 2006

In the context of the Canadian federal election on January 23, 2006:

The problem of politicians not keeping their election promises is, arguably, at most half the problem. Usually, it is even worse when politicians do keep these promises. This is because politicians find themselves desperately escalating their ill-conceived pledges in an attempt to buy more votes than their competitors.

Consider the array of spending and costly programs being promised now by all parties, to be paid for by other peoples’ money that was never intended for such purposes (e.g., GST revenues or budget surpluses). These kinds of expenditures are particularly insidious, because they are on-going and become entrenched; no politician will ever repeal them (unless perhaps to replace them with even costlier programs).

So the situation concerning politicians keeping election promises is that we damn them if they don’t and we’re damned if they do. My (not entirely tongue-in-cheek) solution to this problem has two parts:

1 During an election campaign, place a gag order on all politicians. In this way they can’t make any promises, either to be broken or more disastrously to be kept. (The penalty for breaking this rule is found below Part 2.) With the politico’s traps mercifully shut, voters would have to make their decisions based on past record — surely a better guide than empty promises made under duress. Do the incumbents warrant another term or not? Did the opposition present reasonable arguments and proposals in parliament? How did they all conduct themselves in question period?

2 As for the vote-buying, that could no longer be accomplished by promise-making; it should instead be done by more direct means. (Yes, you read that right.) There is really nothing wrong with this, as long as the process is open, transparent and subject to full disclosure.

Specifically, any person or organization should be able to donate as much money as they wish to the party (or parties) of their choice — money that is ear-marked specifically for vote-buying. These donations must be disclosed fully and immediately, e.g., using the Internet. Parties could then use this money to strike deals with voters who wish to have their vote bought, again with full disclosure. (Voters choosing not to be “bribed” would retain the right to a secret ballot.) This process would come to an end, say 2 days before the election. Bribed voters would at least be sure to get something, rather than the current situation of broken promises. And the bribe money would at least be intended for this purpose, and would not result in perpetual public expenditures.

Finally, in the event of transgressions of the gag rule, parties would have their vote-buying abilities severely curtailed (i.e., be allowed to spend less on bribes, excess money being returned to donors). Pre-arranged bribes may need to be cancelled because of this; in that event the voter would be notified and would recover the right to vote for any party they wish.

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