It’s the beginning of the federal campaign season, with political leaders and candidates heading out to neighbourhood barbecues, summer fairs and parades in a bid to get your vote.
Monday, there were three federal announcements of spending slated for Manitoba. Three.
Regional minister Shelly Glover was in Churchill along with Premier Greg Selinger to announce a $12.4-million Churchill Marine Observatory under the Canada Foundation for Innovation program. Government House Leader Peter Van Loan was in the RM of Rosser to extol the virtues of a government policy that installs defibrillators in community facilities. And MP Lawrence Toet (Elmwood-Transcona) made a funding announcement for The Forks.
Two more announcements are scheduled today. Candice Bergen, minister of state for social development, has an event planned that highlights government investments to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. And Mr. Toet is back at it, this time at Red River College.
NDP MP Pat Martin has decried the funding blitz, saying it’s been "a veritable orgy of pork barrelling since the day Parliament adjourned." He’s not that far off the mark. But it’s not uncommon for governments to push money into ridings in which they feel vulnerable.
This is the first time the federal election will occur on a fixed election date, despite the fact the legislation enacting it is more than eight years old. Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled the plug early in 2008, when his party held a minority government. Since 2011, Mr. Harper has had a majority and thus could abide by the terms of the fixed election laws.
Elections Canada has voiced concerns fixed elections mean both government and opposition parties can spend money on advertising without limits. Once the official writ is dropped, however, advertising spending is capped and additionally, there can be no funding announcements.
Thus, the recent spate of Conservative funding announcements and MP householder mail-outs along with party advertising buys are completely legal and legitimate.
Fixed election dates were meant to level the playing field for opposition parties. Constitutionally, there is a requirement that elections must be held no later than five years after the previous ballot, unless there were extenuating circumstances (such as war). Historically, that meant governments relied on internal polling and pork barrelling to shore up troubled ridings and they could pick the optimal opportunity to drop the writ. Governments could bide their time until they were certain the election results would be in their favour before making the walk to the governor general to dissolve government.
Now, with fixed election dates, there is no optimal time. It’s true, this means all parties now have a heads-up as to when the writ will be dropped, but it does so equally. There is no inside edge — the government doesn’t have the ultimate control.
And that’s a good thing.
Trying to set up limits as to what pre-election spending could be would only trample on the right to free speech, not only for parties but for interest groups as well. It would also impede government in its ability to provide funding for legitimate purposes — say for example if there were a disaster that required immediate government cash.
Let’s face it. The electorate isn’t stupid. Voters know when they’re being bought. At least with fixed election dates, the plethora of funding announcements can be viewed for what it is — attempts to buy the vote by a federal government on the ropes and desperate to get a bump in public opinion. And decisions at the polls can be made accordingly.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.