Welcome – if that is the proper word – to the longest election campaign in more than a century, a length entirely arranged to suit the political purposes of the Conservative Party.
There was no reason for the election to be called on Sunday, except that the Conservatives wrote the new election rules and can benefit from them. Whether voters will be annoyed, even outraged, by this blatant political manipulation, or will shrug because they assume all politicians do whatever it takes to win, will be known voting day, Oct. 19.
Some politicians who called elections to suit their party's advantage, as Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien did in 1996, did not suffer a rebuke. Others, such as Ontario Liberal premier David Peterson, were turfed from power after calling an early election when voters rejected his partisan manipulation.
If an election can be bought with taxpayers' money, Stephen Harper's Conservatives will be easily re-elected on Oct. 19.
The orgy of pre-election spending has been unprecedented – and ironic, too, for a party that boasts about being careful with taxpayers' money.
The airwaves have been flooded with government advertising, paid for by taxpayers and used to buy some of the most expensive spots on television. The ads offer a thin veneer of information covering overtly partisan messaging for the Harper Conservatives. No government has ever spent so much money over such a long period of time on this sort of advertising.
Not a day has passed in recent months without 10 to 15 government spending announcements by ministers. (There were 13 such announcements last Friday.) Billions of dollars of promises have been made across Canada for future infrastructure programs. Millions more have been announced under a hastily assembled program to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation in two years.
Other piggy banks, such as regional development agencies, research granting programs or science and technology funds, have been broken open to spread more money across Canada, with disproportionate sums going to Conservative-held ridings.
More than $3.5-billion in family allowance cheques (a program called the Universal Child-Care Benefit) arrived in the mail last month, their delivery arranged for maximum pre-electoral impact and touted by Conservative ministers, MPs and candidates across the country.
These programs use taxpayers' dollars. In addition, the Conservative Party has been spending for months on attack ads against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, with the line "He's just not ready." Now, the Conservatives will benefit from changes to the Elections Act they pushed through Parliament.
The reason for calling the election now, instead of in the second week of September, is pure Conservative Party politics. With each extra day, the spending limit for parties rises by $675,000, which means that a party can spend about $50-million between now and voting day, instead of $25-million had the election been called in September.
Since the Conservatives have much more money than the Liberals and New Democrats, the higher spending limits works to their advantage. If, as is likely, they husband some of this extra money in the early going, the Conservatives can blanket the airwaves with ads in the last two weeks, which is when the bulk of voters who are only vaguely aware of politics and therefore usually undecided make up their minds.
The Tories took 39.6 per cent of the popular vote in winning their majority. Since then, the party has tumbled considerably, depending on the poll and the time, into the 30-per-cent range. This represents a loss of about a quarter of the people who voted Conservative last time.
All this Conservative spending, public and private, is aimed at getting back the quarter of supporters who left the party at some point in the past four years. The Conservatives don't really care about trying to be a big-tent party, pulling in disaffected Liberals or New Democrats. They have their sights set on their core supporters, who are fiercely loyal, and the ones who slipped away.
The party's campaign themes will be simple, as such themes must be: a strong economy, a strong leader and strength against terrorism in Canada and abroad.
Unfortunately for the Conservatives, the economy is decidedly wobbly, with the dollar nose-diving, unemployment well above U.S. levels, growth stagnant, large trade and current account deficits, a prolonged slump in fossil fuel prices, pipelines south, west and east from Alberta's bitumen reserve blocked.
The party will, of course, argue that Canada's economy is better than, say, France's and that Canada came through the recession of 2008-09 better than any Group of Eight country. They will also tout trade deals, although the one with the European Union has not been ratified.
As for the strong leader, expect the entire campaign to centre on Stephen Harper. Having lost some high-profile ministers, the cabinet is now the weakest in recent memory. Compare it, for example, to the Brian Mulroney cabinet that boasted such people as John Crosbie, Flora MacDonald, Michael Wilson, Jake Epp, Don Mazankowski, John Fraser, Bill McKnight, Joe Clark, to name but some. Against this cabinet, the Harper cabinet grades somewhere between D+ and C. But then, this government utterly swirls around the Prime Minister and his office. It will be on his reputation, image, style of leadership, personality and election campaigning that Conservative fortunes will rise or fall.
The Conservatives start with many advantages – the ability to spend huge amounts of money, a leader who has been through national campaigns before unlike Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, a skilled election machine, a track record that appeals to an immoveable core of voters.
But Mr. Harper is running against history. Since Louis St. Laurent in 1949, every majority government has been defeated or the prime minister resigned after nine to 11 years in office or sooner: St. Laurent (1949-1957), John Diefenbaker (1958-1963), Pierre Trudeau (1968-1979), Brian Mulroney (1984-1993), Jean Chrétien (1993-2003).
Whatever the shape of the economy and other issues of day, the electorate blew its whistle after deciding a party had been in office for too long. Mr. Harper has given himself plenty of election time and billions of dollars to reverse the lesson of history.