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Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with a woman while serving pancakes during the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alberta, in this file photo taken July 4, 2015. Speculation mounted on Thursday that Canada's election campaign would formally begin on Sunday, with the governing Conservatives planning a Montreal rally with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Sunday evening. (STRINGER/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with a woman while serving pancakes during the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alberta, in this file photo taken July 4, 2015. Speculation mounted on Thursday that Canada's election campaign would formally begin on Sunday, with the governing Conservatives planning a Montreal rally with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Sunday evening. (STRINGER/REUTERS)

Drop the writ: Understanding the effects of an early election call Add to ...

Are we really about to see a full-out election campaign for 11 weeks?

Probably not.

Given that the election date has long been set for Oct. 19, many would argue that we’re already in a campaign regardless of whether it’s official. But even with the writ drop, it’s unlikely that the parties will ramp up fully until September.

Election call could come as early as this weekend (CTVNews Video)

On all sides, there is a common belief that most voters will not pay close attention before Labour Day. They anticipate a flurry of interest after the writ drop, and the leaders’ debate that is scheduled for next Thursday, but a simmering-down thereafter. So the parties are unlikely to burn out their leaders, and their cash reserves, by launching their campaign planes in August. Nor will they probably run as much advertising over the next month as they normally do when an election is on.

The most noticeable indication that an election is on will be candidates’ signs suddenly sprouting up on lawns across the country – something that is not allowed until the election is officially on. But otherwise it might not entirely feel like a campaign for a while yet.

So what’s the big difference between a long campaign and a normal one?

Mostly, it comes down to campaign-finance rules.

In the past, the spending limit for parties and candidates was the same whether the campaign was the usual 37 days or much longer than that. But the current government changed that with its Fair Elections Act, so that the cap rises proportionately to the number of extra days. As a result, if the election is called this weekend, the parties will be permitted to spend more than $50-million nationally during the campaign, rather than the approximately $25-million they could have spent during it otherwise. And limits for individual candidates at the riding level, which would average around $100,000 during a 37-day campaign, will more than double as well.

While the parties will be able to spend a fortune if they’re able, an early election call is bad news for any third-party groups hoping to influence the vote result. Until the election is official, they’re effectively able to spend whatever they want. But once the writ has dropped, they’re subject to very low limits – about $200,000 nationally per organization, which isn’t enough to fund any serious advertising efforts. So we may not be seeing many more of those television spots from the anti-Conservative Engage Canada, or radio spots from the pro-Conservative Working Canadians, which have been running through the summer – and which, without the early call, probably would have ramped up in the weeks ahead.

The other type of messaging that is about to come to an abrupt end is government advertising and spending announcements, which the Tories have been unapologetically using over the summer to try to boost their fortunes. Once an election campaign officially begins, they lose that ability.

Who benefits most from the early start?

Stephen Harper wouldn’t be going this route if it didn’t seem to offer his party the most advantage.

According to many Conservatives, the Prime Minister’s primary incentive is to have the third-party rules kick in. The Tories have long fretted about union groups, which are especially motivated this election campaign because of contentious legislation that takes aim at them, spending millions of dollars in attack ads this summer. While it’s not entirely clear that those groups have been much more effective so far than the pro-Conservative ones, the Tories didn’t want to wait to see how much the likes of the union-backed Engage Canada ramped up this summer.

To many eyes, though, it’s the higher party spending limits that really help the Tories. Even they may not be able to quite reach a limit of more than $50-million, but many years of outpacing their rivals on fundraising means that they should be able to get very close. The Liberals, based on conversations with party insiders, are unlikely to get above $35-million. The New Democrats, who despite their current strength in the polls have consistently brought in the least cash, will probably spend less than the Liberals.

At least as much as at the national level, the Conservatives are also poised to outspend the other parties heavily on the ground. Their riding associations appear to have more money in the bank than those of the other parties combined, and new rules around campaign loans will make it harder for candidates who run short on cash to get an infusion. In some ridings, it would not be a surprise if Conservative candidates spent by multiples higher than their opponents.

The end of government advertising and announcements is the one big drawback for the Tories. But it appears that they may have flooded the airwaves so heavily in recent months partly because they knew they would have to stop around now.

How will the Tories use their financial advantage?

It’s important to understand that, while the spending limits grow in direct correlation to the number of campaign days, there is no requirement that parties or candidates spend it evenly throughout the period.

If the Conservatives wanted to outspend the other parties in August, they could do that without the early election call, in which case there would be no limits on spending then at all.

What changes with an early start is that the Tories give themselves the chance to outspend the other parties in the final weeks before election day. With a normal campaign length, all the parties would be spending same amount then – the limit of about $25-million. With a longer one, assuming they’re reasonably frugal over its first half, the Conservatives could financially overwhelm the other parties when voters are paying close attention – notably with a massive late-campaign advertising push the likes of which the country has never before seen.

Leveraging their advantage will require picking the right moment. If they go too early, their effort may fall on deaf ears. If they go too late, and another party has momentum, they may be unable to change the narrative. But if they get it just right, their re-election could be fuelled by a very rare ability to outspend their nearest rivals in crunch time.

How will the opposition parties respond?

New Democrats and Liberals have been stressing that they are not going to dramatically change their plans for August, which involve continuing to have their leaders tour the country at a more relaxed pace than they usually would during the campaign, and slowly rolling out policy announcements and messaging. Considering the potential for Conservative spending close to election day, the opposition parties will need to leave as much money in the bank for then as possible.

More than just trying to make the best of a bad situation, those parties will also probably try to use the early writ drop to their rhetorical advantage by accusing the Conservatives of cynical meddling with electoral convention and costing taxpayers more for a longer campaign.

“If he tries to bend the rules to his advantage again, you know what? I think that Canadians will judge him on that,” NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said of Mr. Harper this past week in a preview of that sort of argument. “It will just become another reason to make sure we get rid of this government.”

Expect that message to also feature heavily in the New Democrats’ and Liberals’ fundraising pitches. The more they can convince supporters that the Tories are unfairly giving themselves a financial advantage, the more they might be able to narrow the gap.

How unusual is this long a campaign?

Very. If Mr. Harper calls the election on Sunday, as expected, the campaign will last 78 days. That would be the longest federal campaign since Confederation, excluding the first two elections in 1867 and 1872, which were rolling elections. Over the past 15 elections, the average campaign length has been slightly more than 50 days. And the modern trend is toward shorter periods: Since 1997, only one campaign has been longer than the minimum 36 days required between the writ drop and the election. Previously, the longest federal campaign in modern Canadian history was the 66-day epic preceding the 1980 election.

Adding to its sprawling feel is the fact that, with a fixed election date, the parties have already been largely in campaign mode this year. And rather than a pair of leaders’ debates (one in English, one in French) being the focal point of a shorter campaign, this longer one will see a series of debates that starts with the one hosted by Maclean’s magazine this coming week, and continues with four others (including one hosted by The Globe and Mail) in September.

How much will the longer campaign cost the public?

Though the exact figure isn’t clear, the answer is certainly “a lot more,” for a couple of reasons.

The first of those is administrative cost. Even a standard-length, 37-day campaign would cost $375-million to administer, Elections Canada estimates. The agency could not say how much money a longer campaign would lard onto the bill, but a spokesperson told The Canadian Press that it would indeed cost extra, in part because of the need to pay for returning offices in each riding for an extended period.

The second is the tax rebates political parties receive for campaign expenses: up to 50 per cent for parties and up to 60 per cent for individual candidates. After the 2011 contest, Elections Canada estimated the value of campaign reimbursements at more than $60-million.

While this election period is likely to last twice as long, the fact that both opposition parties are expected to spend much less than the prospective maximum of more than $50-million, taxpayers probably will not be hit up for double the rebates. Still, the added costs of reimbursements this time could run to the tens of millions.

Why is an election call known as a “writ drop”?

A “writ” is the piece of paper ordering returning officers in every riding to hold an election for the local member of Parliament. “Drop” is a corruption of “draw up.”

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Follow us on Twitter: @ericandrewgee, @aradwanski

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