April 8, 2020

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Will Mr. Harper warp the playing field?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the Saskatchewan Legislative Building in Regina, Sask., earlier this month.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the Saskatchewan Legislative Building in Regina, Sask., earlier this month.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/7/2015 (1714 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Oct. 19 fixed election date may have ended the suspense over when voters go to the polls, but it hasn’t ended speculation on when the official election campaign actually begins.

Some Tory insiders say Prime Minister Stephen Harper could drop the writ as early as Sunday, rather than mid-September, which would mean a much longer campaign than the normal five-week period.

Of course the parties, and particularly the governing Conservatives, are always campaigning, but a longer writ period could theoretically tilt the election in favour of Mr. Harper, while substantially increasing the cost of the campaign for taxpayers.

Legislation requiring fixed election dates was one of the first things the Conservatives introduced after they were elected in 2006, but this is the first time it has been used.

When the legislation was introduced, the prime minister said fixed elections were necessary for the proper functioning of democracy.

They "prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage. They level the playing field for all parties and the rules are clear for everybody," Mr. Harper boldly declared.

His feelings then were undoubtedly inspired by former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s habit of calling unnecessary elections just three years into his mandate in order to exploit the weakness of the opposition and the divisions on the right.

That was then. This is now.

The Conservatives are running neck-and-neck with the New Democrats, but neither is positioned to win a majority, if the election were held today.

Mr. Harper obviously wants to improve his odds, but it’s not entirely clear dropping the writ early will achieve that.

The Conservatives have a much larger war chest than the opposition parties, which gives them an advantage in a longer campaign. More money means more advertising and a bigger travel budget, while the NDP and Liberals will have to stretch their dollars over a longer period.

It’s possible a longer election could backfire by alienating Canadians’ sense of fair play, but it probably wouldn’t outweigh the advantages of starting early.

In addition to their considerable financial firepower, the Conservatives would also benefit from the momentum created by a storm of government tax cuts, handouts and advertising over the last several months.

On balance, then, dropping the writ in early August looks like a good bet for the Tories.

The benefit to the electorate, however, is more dubious. Among other things, a longer campaign would add millions of dollars to the tab for Elections Canada.

A five-week campaign costs about $375 million, so an 11-week election could double the cost. In addition, political donations are tax-deductible, so higher spending would be another hit on the treasury. And under the Fair Elections Act, spending limits can increase for each days a campaign exceeds 37 days.

It’s also unlikely a longer campaign would produce a more informed citizenry. On the contrary, the blitz of negativity might have the opposite effect.

Nor is there a compelling reason for holding a longer campaign. It’s not like the country is considering a declaration of war or a constitutional amendment.

The only reason for calling a snap election is to regain the political advantage that was supposed to be eliminated with fixed-date legislation.

If Mr. Harper drops the writ early without a credible justification, he will have warped the playing field again and dealt a blow to the principle of fair elections he once seemed to defend.


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