Promises flimsier than a New Year's pledge

Oh, promises, promises/This is where those promises, promises end/I don't pretend that what was wrong can be right/Every night I sleep now, no more lies

-- Burt Bacharach, "Promises, Promises" (1968)

Politicians rarely make New Year's resolutions—they are already in enough trouble from breaking their election-campaign promises.

Premier Gordon Campbell is no exception. In fact, some might ask if the B.C. Liberals were going for a record this term with both the number and the significance of the promises they have broken.

So if you have already violated those heartfelt December 31 resolutions to yourself and your loved ones, don't feel bad: you could have a career as a politician that can only be described as "promising!"

When it comes to the Liberals' most flagrant broken promises, nothing says big like a billion dollars. That's the price tag on the sale of BC Rail to CN last year.

During the 2001 election campaign, Campbell clearly stated that a B.C. Liberal Government would not "sell or privatize BC Rail".

Ironically, it was Campbell's 1996 election-campaign promise to do exactly the opposite--to sell off the railway--that most observers believe may have cost the Liberals that election.

Mind you, it is possible to "keep" your New Year's resolutions or your political promises if you steadfastly refuse to admit the truth about them. To date, Gordon Campbell has yet to acknowledge that his government's BC Rail deal was indeed a sale or privatization.

"We retain ownership, public ownership--of the rail and the railbed," Campbell told the legislature on November 18, 2003. Except that CN, a major B.C. Liberal Party contributor of more than $110,000 since 1996, runs the railway, owns all the rolling stock, employs all the workers, keeps all the profits, and makes all the decisions.

It's sort of like saying you really have quit smoking if you only take a few drags on each cigarette. Or if you never buy a pack but just bum cigarettes from fellow smokers.

There are other kinds of political promises that, like resolutions, are intentionally misleading.

Here's a 2001 B.C. Liberal promise that sounded awfully good to postsecondary-education students: "A B.C. Liberal government will support the current five-percent tuition cut and tuition freeze and fully fund it in the current fiscal year to offset costs to postsecondary institutes."

Sounds like they were committed to an accessible, affordable education, doesn't it? Did they keep that promise? Well, yes, but only for that fiscal year. Immediately afterward, the Liberal government removed any and all restrictions on universities and colleges from raising tuition as much as they liked--and, boy, did they ever jack them up.

Since the Liberals took office in 2001, undergraduate tuition fees have gone up about 70 percent, from an average of about $8,000 that year to about $14,000 in 2004, according to the Canadian Federation of Students. In some colleges, tuition has already doubled; in total, students have paid an additional $600 million in fee increases.

It's sort of like keeping your resolution to quit smoking cigarettes by taking up cigars.

One excuse politicians often trot out to explain their broken promises is that they really intended to keep their word but there just wasn't enough money.

Unfortunately, that explanation doesn't wash, especially with the non-cost promises the B.C. Liberals have broken.

"A B.C. Liberal government will lift the veil of cabinet secrecy forever by holding full cabinet meetings at least once a month in public," was another "New Era" commitment.

However, in 2004 the veil was again dropped, along with the promise. There were only six "open" cabinet meetings held instead of at least 12, a surprising development given the self-serving nature of the staged events but a broken vow nonetheless.

"The most open, accountable and democratic government in Canada," was another nose stretcher from the Liberals' New Era for British Columbia blueprint.

One of the most important ways government can be open, accountable, and democratic is by honoring the right of the public and media to gain access to government documents through freedom of information requests.

Regrettably, the Liberals have gone from being heavy users of FOI requests themselves when in opposition to making an FOI inquiry an object in frustration.

Last March it was disclosed that a number of individuals and journalists, including myself, were having their FOI requests routinely tracked by politically appointed communications staff and identified by name to cabinet ministers and top ministry officials. A complaint about this Orwellian practice to the office of the freedom of information and protection of privacy commissioner is still pending.

And for good measure, the B.C. Liberals also cut the budget for the nonpartisan FOI commissioner and the offices of the auditor general and the ombudsman. These government agencies are all critical to openness and accountability.

Despite strong pleas from Auditor General Wayne Strelioff, cuts to his office have restricted his ability to examine the impact of other broken promises, like, well, the BC Rail deal.

There still remains a veritable cornucopia of other broken Liberal promises: not to privatize BC Hydro then transferring one-third of its operations to Bermuda-based Accenture; to provide British Columbians "the public health care they need, where they live and when they need it", then allowing waiting lists for surgery to jump by 20 percent while the government starts using private clinics, and much more.

This is where those promises, promises end, indeed.

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio One's Early Edition. E-mail him at