Gaming the Canadian Election
August 4, 2015 Leave a comment
In a surprise move, Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid a visit to the Governor General on Sunday morning and requested him to dissolve Parliament so that a federal election could be called.
The announcement caught the other parties off guard. They had been anticipating the election campaign to begin in mid-September – five weeks (a minimum of 36 days) before the fixed election date of October 21, 2015.
Only the Conservative Party was prepared, with Cabinet Ministers and prominent MPs fanning throughout the countryside the day before to announce newly approved government projects for their ridings to the tune of over $1 billion.
The election campaign beginning today will last for 78 days, or eleven weeks, rather than the usual five weeks. This will make it the longest Canadian election in history after the very first national election following confederation in 1867 (81 days), and the second election in 1872 (96 days).
This has led news commentators to warn that the candidates and their supporters will have to be careful that they do not burn out early with such a long election campaign, and to wonder how the party leaders are going to sustain people’s interest in the election over such a long period of time.
(Readers familiar with American elections may scratch their heads at this point.)
So why has Stephen Harper arranged for such a long election campaign period? The answer is simple: calculated political advantage. Harper has a well-earned reputation as a master strategist. And he is operating true to form.
As regulated by the Canada Election Act, each federal political party is normally allowed to spend a maximum of $25 million on their campaign and individual candidates are limited to spending no more than $100,000.
In five of the last six federal elections, the campaign period has been either 36 or 37 days. But (evidently thinking ahead) last year the Conservative government under Stephen Harper amended the Canada Elections Act to allow for increased spending during lengthier campaigns.
For each additional day the limit was increased by 1/37th, or $675,000. This means that over the 78 days of the campaign each party will be allowed to spend more than double the previous limit – over $50 million. (Spending by individual candidates also increases by $2,700 a day, raising their allowable campaign expenses from $100,000 to over $200,000.)
The two other major political parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals were, until this past weekend, gearing up to raising their maximum allotment of $25 million. It is doubtful that they will be able to double that during the election campaign itself.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives, relying on wealthy corporate and individual donors, are in an excellent position to raise this additional money. And the smaller parties (the Greens and the Bloc Québecois) will find themselves trailing far, far behind.
The NDP and Liberals will likely borrow heavily to raise the necessary funds to compete with the Conservatives. But another change to the Canada Elections Act made by the Harper government last year prohibits the parties from accepting interest free loans; they can only borrow from financial institutions.
Some have speculated that if the Conservatives are able to form the next government, within a year Stephen Harper may ask the Governor General to again dissolve Parliament, and the Conservatives will go into the next election with a full war chest while the other parties are still paying off their debts.
It’s a masterful plan.
But not everyone is pleased with it. In an interview this weekend on CBC Radio’s The House, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the former head of Elections Canada, accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of “gaming the system.”
“What it does,” he said, “is completely distort everything we’ve fought for; everything we’ve established as rules.” In particular, it eliminates the concept of a level playing field. “That level playing field gets it in the neck.”
A second element in Stephen Harper’s political calculation is that by calling an early start to the campaign he can stifle criticism of his administration by third parties.
Political Action Committees (PACs) are new to Canada, but with an election looming and the Harper government using public monies to tout its achievements, various organizations have gotten into the fray strongly criticizing the Harper government and its policies. They have become a major irritant to Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.
Under Canadian law there are no restrictions on spending by PACs outside the election period, but once an election has been called, third-party advertising by any group is limited to $150,000. Stephen Harper can flood the airwaves and other media with his $50 million worth of positive sounding campaign ads without having to worry about negative ads by outside groups.
Many people have raised questions about the increased costs of an 11-week election campaign. It has been estimated that a 37-day campaign would cost Elections Canada (and thus the Canadian public) about $375 million to administer. The 78-day campaign will cost much more to oversee, with lengthier leasing of offices and salaries for elections staff in each riding.
Then there is the increased cost to taxpayers for the raised limits on campaign spending. Under the Canada Elections Act, all parties receiving least 10% of the popular vote are reimbursed by the government for half of their campaign expenditures. Individual candidates receive 60% back. With campaign expenditures more than doubling in this election, the Canadian public will be saddled with reimbursing the parties and candidates millions of additional dollars. This is not going down well with many voters.
Stephen Harper’s political opponents may be furious with his tactics, but his supporters are happy to press their advantage. In eleven weeks we will know whether or not his political gamble has paid off.
Photo credits: Canadian Press; Blair Gable/Reuters