Ot­tawa’s prom­ise-tracker is a good idea that doesn’t de­liver

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - NEWS - cclark@globe­and­mail.com CAMP­BELL CLARK

It’s hard to de­cide whether a re­view of the gov­ern­ment’s new prom­ise-tracker should give them points for a step to­ward re­port­ing re­sults or lam­baste them for us­ing the kind of Or­wellian de­scrip­tors that ca­su­ally lie about the re­sults.

The new web­site – more pre­cisely a man­date-let­ter tracker – grew from the “de­liv­erol­ogy” no­tions that Justin Trudeau’s Lib­er­als earnestly chucked around early in their term. That’s sup­posed to be a dis­ci­pline of fo­cus­ing on out­comes, and it re­quires re­port­ing on what you’ve done, pub­licly. The tracker col­lates all the spe­cific items that the Prime Min­is­ter tasked his min­is­ters with achiev­ing in their man­date let­ters – a ver­sion of Lib­eral prom­ises – and then re­ports on progress.

Let’s pause to note that the tracker is what bu­reau­crats in the 1980s Bri­tish TV show Yes, Min­is­ter would qual­ify as a “coura­geous” pro­posal – fraught with po­lit­i­cal risk and po­ten­tial em­bar­rass­ment. List­ing prom­ises calls at­ten­tion to the ones you have bro­ken, es­pe­cially if you eval­u­ate progress.

Per­haps we must ex­pect a lit­tle soft-soap­ing. So elec­toral re­form is listed un­der “not be­ing pur­sued,” a phrase that del­i­cately de­scribes the dis­card­ing of a prom­ise that seemed good for a third party but not a gov­ern­ment – but makes it clear it is dead. Some of the other items get silly.

The prom­ise to “bal­ance the bud­get by 2019-20,” a task given to Fi­nance Min­is­ter Bill Morneau as item #1 in his man­date let­ter, is listed as “un­der­way with chal­lenges.” Un­for­tu­nately, that only ap­plies if you re­move the dead­line of “by 2019-20,” which cer­tainly won’t be met, and the phrase “bal­ance the bud­get,” which is nowhere in any spe­cific plan put for­ward by the cur­rent gov­ern­ment.

This prom­ise cer­tainly had “chal­lenges,” but it can­not, in any nor­mal sense of the term, be de­scribed as “un­der­way.” “Ditched” might have been ap­pro­pri­ate; “re­placed by new pol­icy” would have been ac­cept­able. But “un­der­way” is false.

The prom­ise to “im­prove ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion to en­hance the open­ness of gov­ern­ment” is marked as “un­der­way, on track,” pre­sum­ably be­cause the rubric “egre­gious be­trayal” wasn’t avail­able. Trea­sury Board Pres­i­dent Scott Bri­son’s man­date let­ter ac­tu­ally tasked him with widen­ing the scope of the law as the Lib­er­als promised in the 2015 elec­tion cam­paign, no­tably by mak­ing the Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion Act ap­ply to min­is­ters’ of­fices. That’s not hap­pen­ing. Mr. Bri­son tabled a bill that, ac­cord­ing to In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sioner Suzanne Le­gault, weak­ens ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion. It’s off the rails, not on track.

Ge­orge Or­well wrote that “po­lit­i­cal lan­guage … is de­signed to make lies sound truth­ful and mur­der re­spectable, and to give an ap­pear­ance of so­lid­ity to pure wind.” The new man­date-let­ter tracker doesn’t jus­tify homi­cide, but there are mas­querad­ing false­hoods and lots of hard­ened wind.

The Lib­eral gov­ern­ment wrote their own re­port card, and – sur­prise! – they get high marks.

At this point, if you’re a Lib­eral par­ti­san, you might be think­ing this col­umn has fo­cused on lam­bast­ing the gov­ern­ment’s self-serv­ing self­e­val­u­a­tion more than laud­ing a new track­ing tool. That’s the point. When an ac­count­abil­ity tool dodges ac­count­abil­ity, it’s hard not to fo­cus on the eva­sion.

There are le­git­i­mate prom­ises kept among the 66 qual­i­fied as “Com­pleted, fully met.” The Lib­eral prom­ise to bring in 25,000 Syr­ian refugees is fairly de­scribed as “Com­pleted, mod­i­fied.” Some things are le­git­i­mately mat­ters of in­ter­pre­ta­tion. And just go­ing through the ex­er­cise of pub­licly col­lat­ing the com­mit­ments is a use­ful step.

Dom Bernard, one of four non­politi­cians who put to­gether the Trudeau Me­ter web­site, which tracks whether the Lib­er­als have ful­filled their cam­paign prom­ises, says he thinks it’s a valu­able ex­er­cise.

His site fol­lows cam­paign prom­ises rather than man­date-let­ter com­mit­ments, but it is far less pos­i­tive: the Trudeau Me­ter lists 36 of 226 prom­ises as “bro­ken,” where the gov­ern­ment tracker lists three “not be­ing pur­sued” out of 322. He said he’s not so naive that he would ex­pect a gov­ern­ment to be un­bi­ased, but the pub­lic can com­pare the tracker to mul­ti­ple sources, and make their own judg­ments.

That’s true. The prob­lem is not that the pub­lic will in­no­cently buy all the tracker’s mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions. It’s that the very no­tion of an ac­count­abil­ity ex­er­cise is discredited by avoid­ing ac­count­abil­ity. Maybe the gov­ern­ment could have gar­nered trust by be­ing, as Mr. Bernard put it, “bru­tally hon­est.” Maybe that’s too much courage. The track­ing site de­serves a good grade for the idea, but it lacks stan­dards, so it fails in de­liv­erol­ogy.

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