Promises, Promises

The Goods and Services Tax (GST) is a value added tax introduced into the Canadian Parliament in January 1990 by the Progressive Conservative government led by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. From the first it was controversial, a polite word for hated. The Liberal Party (the Official Opposition party in the Canadian House of Commons at the time) was against the tax and attempted to block its passage, even holding a filibuster in the Senate, the “upper chamber” of the Canadian Parliament, where they had a majority. All these efforts failed: the tax took effect on January 1, 1991. But the unpopularity of the tax was the final straw breaking Brian Mulroney’s political career; by 1992 polls indicated that he was the most unpopular prime minister in Canadian history, and he resigned in February, 1993, being replaced by Kim Campbell, a lady you've never heard of, though she was Canada's first female prime minister. The Liberal Party’s opposition to the tax was unequivocal; Jean Chrétien, leader of the Liberals, said, “I am opposed to the GST. I have always been opposed to it and I will be opposed to it always.” An election in October 1993 was largely fought on the issue of the GST and saw the Progressive Conservatives reduced to 2 seat in Parliament—it marked the end of the party as a force in Canadian politics.

Jean Chrétien now became prime minister, leading a new Liberal government, and by the next year, the Liberals were still claiming that they’d abolish the tax; “We hate it and will kill it,” said Chrétien. In fact, they increased the tax, but tried to claim that they had “killed” it because they had “harmonized” the tax with the provincial sales taxes of the provinces (some of them). The public were outraged. This anger reached a climax on December 10, 1996 during a televised “town hall” meeting in which a waitress from Montréal, Johanne Savoie, accused Chrétien of breaking his word. The Prime Minister’s response was to refer her to the fine print of the Liberal Party’s election platform, in which, indeed, the Liberals promised to eliminate the GST but replace it with an unspecified tax that would raise equivalent revenues. This maneuver only infuriated the public more.

The controversy over the GST (still going strong—now 5%) had many consequences, most bad. My little book, Promises, Promises: Breaking Faith in Canadian Politics was, I hope, an exception.

The book wasn’t my idea. It originated with my editor at Penguin Canada, Cynthia Good, who was—like so many others—outraged by what had happened. So she asked me to write something about it. I resisted at first. As I wrote in book’s introduction: “Maybe I’m cynical. After all, I have to confess that I’ve lived most of my life within a few hundred yards of Parliament Hill. So I have few illusions about our national politicians—I mean, I see these people in bars…Like everyone else, I find the GST exceedingly annoying, but it never occurred to me, for a single second, that the Liberals were going to repeal it. The tax makes far too much money…” But in the end, I think, it was my cynicism that made me take the project on. I’d lost something, a certain faith, that apparently other Canadians still had. Where did it come from? So I began to investigate the whole idea of promise, what promises mean, why they’re special, and why breaking them can be so important. My investigations took me to the Bible and Paul—Christians are “the children of promise”—and back to my own childhood, for childhood is a time in our lives when promises, kept and broken, are charged with the keenest emotion. And I discovered that promises, and what they psychologically and spiritually represents, are woven into our politics, have indeed become a particular way of talking about ourselves: a discourse of promise. This goes far beyond the old-fashioned “political promise”—of a new bridge or a road or a curling rink. It’s based, I unhappily discovered, on the big promise of childhood, to make everything all right. Electorates are infantilized (willingly), viewing themselves as children believing in, having faith in, parental figures, mommies and daddies, who don’t involve them in an adult conversation about real choices but promise to give them what their hearts desire. And of course when you break promises to children there’s wailing and tears. As Jean Chrétien found out.