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Promises, Promises: Breaking Faith in Canadian Politics

by Anthony Hyde

Ottawa writer Anthony Hyde is best known for The Red Fox, the first of his mystery novels. He switches gears with this polemic on what politicians say, why we want them to say it, and why both sides are bound to be disappointed.

Hyde traces the history of promise to the Bible. God’s promise to Abraham, for example, had no legal basis; it had to be taken on faith. A similar trust is needed between parent and child. Hyde notes the federal government, though it may prefer to be deified, is seen in the parental role: dishing out goodies to the populace in return for obedience.

Promises, Promises examines three shattered promises in particular: the GST, the care of veterans, and the offer of subsidized university education to young people. The abandonment of elderly military personnel becomes easier as their numbers dwindle; the diminution in the importance of the university facilitates the neglect of its clientele. Only the GST still causes animosity, although the majority seem resigned to it.

Hyde is particularly scornful of the call for referenda, deriding them as anti-democratic. He likewise chastises Preston Manning and the Reform Party and their hypocritical calls for the accountability of politicians.

Anthony Hyde launches a debate in this short book, but he employs his facts selectively. He claims that Robert Borden’s advocacy of conscription during the First World War started the flow away from the Conservative party in Quebec. In fact, the tide turned in 1891. He maintains that the modern voter judges politicians by personal qualities that would have doomed the careers of John A. Macdonald and Mackenzie King. But his contemporary examples are from the most recent U.S. presidential race. No Canadian candidate has been subjected to the intense scrutiny that American campaigners routinely face.

This self-described “urban eastern intellectual” wants to get people talking about promises and the political system. Unfortunately, it is too often a promise unfulfilled.