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Harper's early election call a clever ploy to gain edge on campaign spending

He kicked off his campaign with a dose of cynicism, but Stephen Harper thinks it's pretty clever.

By launching the campaign six weeks early, he's increasing the election spending limits, so his Conservative Party can take advantage of the fact that it has more money than the NDP or the Liberals. Conservative officials have whispered to reporters that the tactic will exhaust the other parties' finances.

Thanks to new rules the Conservatives brought in last year, longer campaigns now mean higher spending limits – so the maximum will be about $51-million, instead of $25.5-million. Don't expect the Conservatives to use up the extra money in August, when people aren't paying attention. Instead, they can save it for the campaign's critical final weeks to pummel the NDP and Liberals with TV commercials, while those opponents run low on funds.

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After seeing the Governor-General on Sunday, Mr. Harper insisted his motive was to ensure that the parties campaign with their own money, "not from the government resources, parliamentary resources or taxpayer resources." He needed a sound bite, to cover the tactics. But it doesn't add up.

Aside from the fact that it was the Conservative government bombarding airwaves with taxpayer-funded prewrit ads, a longer campaign means parties get more public money, not less. Taxpayers reimburse half of the money that parties spend in an official campaign – if they can spend more, they can get more. If the Conservatives spend the new maximum, they'll get $26-million in public money, rather than $13-million. And if they outspend other parties, they'll get more from taxpayers' pockets.

It's shrewd. There's only one drawback: Mr. Harper's strength is that many people see him as a stable, capable leader, and his weakness is that many people see him as a cynical, hyper-partisan authoritarian. The cynicism of the kickoff plays to Mr. Harper's weakness.

In a week, there'll be another event that might play to that weakness. Mr. Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, will testify in Mike Duffy's trial. Mr. Wright will likely cast the PM in the best possible light, but his testimony will still be a reminder of the Senate scandal coverup machinations in Mr. Harper's PMO. Now, that testimony will come in Week Two of the campaign.

Clearly, Mr. Harper is calculating it won't form an early theme. It's still August. Voters will tune in more in September or October, when Mr. Harper will play to his strengths. The Conservatives will reap their money advantage in TV ads, and expect people to forget about the early election call.

This kind of manipulation once outraged Conservatives and their predecessor parties, the Canadian Alliance and Reform Party. The Alliance's 2000 platform railed about Jean Chrétien's "cynical motives" in calling early elections in 1997 and 2000, promising fixed dates to allow parties "to plan ahead, thereby ensuring a fairer process." In 2006, Mr. Harper's then-justice minister Rob Nicholson tabled the fixed-election-date law, promising it would "improve the fairness of Canada's electoral system by eliminating the ability of governing parties to manipulate the timing of elections for partisan advantage."

So much for that. But perhaps no one will care. C'est la guerre. Mr. Chrétien got away with early elections. Mr. Harper is making the same calculation – that only wonks and pundits will notice, or care. Election ploys are often one-day stories. It was old Reformers who cared about fixed election dates, anyway, and they're now mostly solid Conservatives. Partisans usually interpret their own leader's actions charitably. What are they going to do, vote NDP?

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Critics say Mr. Harper previously ignored the fixed-elections law, in 2008. But that was during a minority government, and Mr. Harper argued the opposition was about to defeat his government anyway. This time, he's violating only the spirit of a law that was supposed to prevent a PM from manipulating the timing and terms of an election for partisan advantage. But Mr. Harper even touted the fact that the vote is set for Oct. 19 by law.

It is clever. Still, this election is likely to be a referendum on Mr. Harper. Beyond ideological leanings, much will turn on whether voters see clever Mr. Harper as someone capably managing the country's interest, or as someone cynically calculating his own interest. He's running on leadership, for the economy and security. But he's kicked off the campaign with a cynical calculation to get an edge.

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