Editorial: Electoral promises: enforceability and practicability
When, some years ago, former Prime Minister, the Honourable Lloyd Erskine Sandiford (as he then was), is reported to have averred that the undertakings in a party’s manifesto did not constitute a contract, his political opponents immediately seized upon this and sought to treat it as an admission that his party did not intend to keep the promises made in its manifesto. However, if we correctly understand a contract to be a legally binding agreement, Sir Lloyd was right. Neither the promising party nor the voter contemplates that a failure to keep the electoral promise will result in a court action for damages or to specifically enforce it, so that any remedy available would have to be extra-judicial or political. In other words, there is no intention to create legal relations.
On this basis, the manifesto promise is binding in honour only or, more simply put, is to be treated merely as a moral obligation owed to the electorate by the ultimately prevailing party that will comprise the incoming administration.
Does this relative absence of enforceability give free rein to a party to make any attractive promise so as to attract the electorate’s favour? To us, this is equally a matter of morality and the promisor that is content to misrepresent its intention when it knows or ought to know that the achievement of the undertaking is either impossible or impracticable should be considered guilty of the most reprehensible conduct. This conduct deserves regulatory oversight and a code of conduct no less than the other aspects of any party’s platform.
Given the current state of the local economy, it is the promise of a more financially rewarding future that is liable to be the most alluring to, and the most favoured by voters in the upcoming elections. The parties have not been slow to recognise this and we have had undertakings of low percentage flat taxes, increased pension benefits, the restoration of past taxpayer-funded state-provided entitlements and the removal of existing levies, all without any detailed indication of how these measures will be sourced or funded. Indeed, one noted economist, former Prime Minister, Owen Arthur, has already commented that one such proposal is liable to bankrupt the National Insurance scheme “and place young contributors under tremendous burden”. Another prominent academic has recently proffered the identical opinion.
According to Arthur, “What is being proposed would do irreparable damage to the country as a whole and, especially so, bear adversely on those who would soon come of pension age…”
It would be of cold comfort and an inadequate response to this to suggest, as two candidates so far have done, “…we will find the money” or to invoke trite generalities as to how the additional funds might be obtained.
Unless the Central Bank report on the economy was inaccurate, which we have no reason to suspect, we are deep in financial stringency. A thinking electorate is entitled to demand at least a closely reasoned and detailed analysis of the likely sources of the necessary funds. But then, as another former Prime Minister, Basdeo Panday, once reminded us, “Politics has its own morality”.