Département de science politique
Faculté des sciences sociales

If politicians keep their promises, then why don’t citizens believe them?

Evaluating the Promise-Keeping Performance of the Harper Conservatives

We counted 140 promises of action in the 2011 Conservative platform. In addition, we counted 37 rhetorical statements and 16 outcome promises that are not part of the analysis. According to our calculation, 92 of 140 promises (65 percent) had been kept entirely or in part by October 2012, and by March 2014, the total had risen to 115 promises kept entirely or in part (82%).

Accounting for the Strong Promise-Keeping Record

The frequency of promises kept by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives is very high, much higher than the average frequency of 65 percent that is observed in the comparative literature ( Naurin 2011). It is higher than the 74 percent figure recorded for Brian Mulroney’s first term in office (Monière 1988), and certainly much higher than popular expectation about promise fulfillment (see below).

 How can the high percentage of promises kept by the Harper government be explained? One possible explanation has to do with the unprecedented centralization of power in the hands of Harper in his capacity as party leader and prime minister. The centralization of power affects the elaboration of the party platform in a way that is conducive to more promises being kept. In contrast, many parties, including the Progressive Conservative Party and the Reform Party (the two parties from which Harper’s Conservative Party was born), follow the traditional “bottom-up” model of platform elaboration, whereby promises contained in the party’s platform reflect to a large extent the wishes of party activists who democratically adopted it at the most recent national congress of the party. The wishes and preferences of party activists are often unrealistic in terms of being implemented by the party after an election.

The 2011 Conservative campaign platform was only remotely connected with the “Policy Declaration” sanctioned by party activists during the previous party convention. Instead, it was written by a small team of policy advisers reporting directly to the party leader. These advisers were primarily concerned with what could realistically be done by a government within a four year term, rather than with the wishes of party activists. The centralized process of campaigning and platform elaboration in Harper’s Conservative Party must be linked to his personality and his belief that a populist movement (part of the Conservative Party is still a populist movement) must be managed with a strong fist to avoid factionalism. Tom Flanagan (2011), Harper’s former political adviser, claims that the centralized organization of the Conservative Party also has something to do with the state of “permanent campaign” that has existed in Canada since 2004. This necessitates an organizational model amounting to a virtual fusion of political party and campaign team. Whether the permanent campaign model of organization will survive in a Conservative majority government context is an open question.

The effects of centralization felt at the stage of elaboration of the Conservative platform of 2011 are also felt at the stage of its implementation as government policies. One key element of the Harper government is complete message control, which extends to the follow-up on campaign promises. The importance of message control in connection with keeping campaign promises is illustrated by the use of mandate letters. Such letters list the general duties that ministers are expected to perform and ask that they be faithfully executed. But as Lawrence Martin (2010, 61) notes, the nature of mandate letters has changed under Harper. He cites Harper’s policy adviser, Mark Cameron, who explained that “the mandate letters [have] tended to list every platform and Throne speech commitment affecting that department and dictating who you’re supposed to work with and whether you were going to get any funding.” The centralized manner in which election promises are being written and incorporated into the platform is echoed by the centralized manner in which promises are being implemented at the level of individual agencies and ministries.

Another reason why the Conservative Party has kept an unusually high proportion of its promises has to do with the style of platform writing. As with the Conservative platforms of 2006 and 2008, the pledges in the 2011 platform were precise and detailed. Unlike the vague promises found in the party platforms of past elections, the promises of the 2011 Conservative platform provided criteria to judge whether a promise has been broken or not. As a former Conservative Party insider indicated to me, “the focus is on planks that can be readily explained and communicated during an election campaign. We avoid fuzzy promises.” Furthermore, several of the 2011 Conservative promises were already in the legislative “pipeline.” Many of the previous Harper government’s policy initiatives had been stalled in committees or on the floor of the House of Commons because they could not gather the required majority support. This was the case, in particular, for the proposed Accountability Act, the plan to repeal the Gun Registry, and the Anti-Crime Agenda. All these initiatives were passed during the 2011-12 session of Parliament with the support of the Conservative majority. A final, more general, explanation is that it is rational for governments to fulfill as many campaign promises as soon as possible; a rational government leader will not wait until later to implement the party’s campaign promises (Pétry 2012, Pétry and Collette 2009)…

Citizens’ Perceptions of Politicians’ Promise-Keeping Performance

Most scholars who study government fulfillment of election promises conclude that there is a high degree of congruence between promises and subsequent government actions. This is in sharp contrast to citizens’ generally negative perceptions of the performance of politicians in terms of keeping their promises.

One of the 12 attributes of Canada’s democratic performance discussed by Lawrence LeDuc and Jon Pammett in chapter one of this volume is whether “those elected to parliament keep most of their promises.” With an average score of 5.0 on a scale of zero to 10, this is one of the attributes with which Canadians are least satisfied (only the “honesty” and “corruption” attributes receive lower average scores). The 2011 Samara survey results on whether MPs keep their promises are consistent with those of a 2006 International Social Survey Program survey which found that 44 percent of Canadians disagree or disagree strongly with the statement that politicians keep their election promises. And Canada is no exception here. In 31 out of 33 countries covered by the ISSP survey, more than half the respondents disagreed with the statement that politicians keep their promises. This low rating is illustrative of the larger point made in several chapters in this volume that citizens have become fundamentally pessimistic about government responsiveness. The remarkable thing is that, when political scientists and political practitioners are asked the same question, they give politicians a much more favourable score…

A Tale of Two Perspectives

How can the evaluation gap be explained? The analyses presented in this chapter suggest that political scientists and citizens use different criteria to evaluate whether politicians keep their promises. First, political scientists focus on a well-defined corpus of information related to specific promises. Doing so allows them to make sophisticated distinctions related to the nature, the objective, and the stage of fulfillment of election promises. Citizens do not possess the level of political information necessary to make similarly detailed distinctions about exactly what promise is made, when it is fulfilled, and by whom it is fulfilled. Instead, they rely on information shortcuts (e.g. do they trust or not the politicians in government? Do they share the same ideology or not?) that are only second best solutions to the problem of accurately evaluating whether politicians keep their promises.

Second, unlike political scientist and political practitioners, who focus their attention on promise fulfillment as decisions (or outputs), citizens primarily think in terms of the effects that policy promises have on them or society (outcomes). As we have seen, some citizens evaluate policies based on their personal experiences with government, and such experience comes exclusively in the form of outcome, not as an output. This point resonates with the arguments of Nick Ruderman in Chapter 2 and Heather Bastedo and her colleagues in Chapter 4 that citizens’ primary focus is on the impacts of policies on their daily lives.

Third, unlike political practitioners, who objectively focus their attention on those promises that can be reasonably achieved (Royed 1996; Thomson 2001), citizens’ expectations of what politicians can achieve are influenced by their partisanship. Citizens who identify with the NDP have more negative expectations than do non-partisans, while those who identify with the Conservative Party in power have more positive expectations than do non-partisans.

Other possible explanations of the gap between the perceptions of scholars and citizens remain to be tested. Perhaps the Harper government has focused too much on keeping the promises written in its 2011 election platform while neglecting to fulfill other promises made outside the platform. Whether promises in the platform are more likely to be kept than promises outside the platform is an open research question. However, Monière (1988) finds no difference in the fulfillment of promises found in the Progressive Conservative Party platform and those found in campaign speeches covered in national newspapers.

Another possibility is that, while scholars focus their attention exclusively on the promises contained in the governing party’s platform, citizens might also include the promises made by opposition parties in their definitions. Further research will tell us whether citizens check how opposition parties vote on government bills to make sure that they stay true to the values articulated during the campaign. Another unanswered research question is whether citizens keep an eye on their respective MP’s promise-keeping performance regardless of whether that MP is a member of the government or the opposition. Finally, citizens are likely to be more informed and more sensitive about the promises that matter to them. And perhaps the Harper government has fulfilled the promises that did not matter much to citizens while neglecting those that did.

How can one bridge the gap between citizens’ and scholars’ perceptions of the extent to which platform promises are actually fulfilled? As this chapter has shown, Canadians are not politically well informed, and this is likely to be especially true about election promises and their fulfillment. One path toward solving this problem is to improve the quality of the information on promise keeping reported by political practitioners, academic scholars, and the media and making it more accessible to the public. A step in this direction has been taken by posting the data used in this chapter on the website of the Poltext project (http://www.poltext.org). The evidence used to assess the fulfillment of each campaign promise is referenced with citations and URL links in a manner similar to those used by Politifact.com in its Obameter ratings. It is our hope that these data will serve as a source of information for citizens who wish to know whether and to what extent campaign promises are being fulfilled. It is possible that increased levels of citizens’ knowledge about promise-keeping might help to counter the stereotype that politicians are willing to lie to get elected, thereby increasing the public’s trust and confidence in government.

Another path consists in demanding more transparency and accountability in the operation of government to improve its responsiveness. Fulfilling campaign promises is a central element of democratic responsiveness, but it is not a guarantee of democratic responsiveness. The 2011 Harper government has been adept at keeping its election promises in part because it has carefully avoided making unrealistic promises that it could not keep. But the focus on realistic policy promises by the Harper government might have been at the expense of policy responsiveness and accountability in a broader sense. Government accountability has occupied an important place in the Conservative Party platform and in the subsequent Conservative government agenda. There were 25 promises related to government accountability in the 2011 CPC platform, most of which were fulfilled at least in part by March 2014. Some will argue that this is a remarkable achievement. However, the question remains: is the Harper government more accountable today than it was before the 2011 election?        


Flanagan, Tom. 2011. “‘Something Blue…’: Conservative Organization in an Era of Permanent Campaign.”  Inroads 28, Winter/Spring: 90-99.

Martin, Lawrence. 2010. Harperland: The Politics of Control. Toronto: Penguin.

Monière, Denis. 1988. Le discours électoral: Les politiciens sont-ils fiables? Montréal: Québec/Amérique.

Naurin, Elin. 2011. Election Promises, Party Behaviour, and Voter Perceptions. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pétry, François. 2012. “Les partis tiennent-ils leurs promesses?” In Les partis politiques québécois dans la tourmente, edited by R. Pelletier, Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval : 195-225.

Pétry, François, and Benoît Collette. 2009. “Measuring How Political Parties Keep Their Promises: A Positive Perspective from Political Science.” In Do They Walk the Talk: Speech and Action in Policy Processes, edited by Louis Imbeau, New York: Springer: 167-184.

Royed, Terry J. 1996. “Testing the Mandate Model in Britain and in the United States: Evidence from the Reagan and Thatcher Eras.” British Journal of Political Science 26: 45-80.

Thomson, Robert. 2001. “The Progamme to Policy Linkage: The Fulfilment of Election Pledges on Socio-Economic Policy in the Netherlands, 1986-1998.” European Journal of Political Research 40: 171-97.

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