"I feel very strongly that if we're going to begin our campaigns and going to run our campaigns, that those campaigns need to be conducted under the rules of the law — that the money come from the parties themselves, not from the government resources, parliamentary resources or taxpayer resources — and that's what we're doing."
— Conservative Leader Stephen Harper
It's been a long time since Conservative Leader Stephen Harper took five questions in a row from the parliamentary press gallery, and the first, during Sunday's election launch at Rideau Hall, set the tone.
CBC's Terry Milewski asked if opting for an early, 11-week campaign gave Conservatives an unfair advantage because of the party's demonstrable strength in fundraising.
Pundits have suggested as much for weeks.
- How a long campaign will benefit the cash-rich Tories
- Riding analysis shows spending for longer campaign favours Tory candidates
- Longer federal election campaign would cost taxpayers millions more
- 5 things that change when the campaign (really) starts
Harper's answer: The campaign's already started, so let's make it official and start operating under election rules. It's the right thing to do for taxpayers.
Few could disagree with Harper that an unofficial campaign for the Oct. 19 election had been on for months.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's recent mini-tour of southwestern Ontario was indistinguishable from the sights and sounds of the writ period.
Advertising — both the attacking kind and the softer selling sort — never really went away for the Conservatives, but definitely ramped up from all corners.
The Conservatives stand accused of using departmental ad budgets to boost the Harper government's brand. The sums aren't small — $13.5 million to promote their pre-election budget, plus more to herald the dangers of taking drugs, changes to child-care benefits or support for veterans.
Third-party organizations, influential spenders in Ontario's last election, had a free hand. Now they're curtailed, as election spending limits kick in under the Fair Elections Act.
When Harper speaks of wanting to play by the rules, that's a law Conservatives enacted with their majority.
Have they protected taxpayers with their reforms?
Conservatives point to their phase-out of the per-vote subsidy that Jean Chretien's government created for political parties in 2004. It intended to replace corporate donations and large donations with public money based on a party's popular support.
But now the subsidy is gone. Parties with weaker fundraising are disadvantaged.
"Mr. Harper's priority is to spend millions of dollars on self-serving government advertising and an early election call," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said in his kickoff speech.
justification for calling this extraordinarily long election would be that the other parties have started their campaigns."
On CBC Radio's The House Saturday, the former head of Elections Canada, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, charged that Harper was gaming the system, distorting the role of money in politics.
The $25 million spending limit for a 37-day campaign increases to over $50 million for this super-sized 11- week run to Oct.19.
But that $50 million-plus is not just party money. It's also taxpayers' money, in two ways:
- Taxpayers rebate up to 50 per cent of parties' election expenses and 60 per cent of an individual candidate's campaign costs, if they garner sufficient voter support.
- Taxpayers finance the federal political contribution tax credit, which rebates party donors 75 per cent on the first $400 and 50 per cent of the rest, up to a maximum of $1,200.
Add the effect of these two together and every dollar a political party spends during an election campaign could cost taxpayers about $1.23.
"We'll be bludgeoned in our own homes by attack ads, and every single attack ad we're paying for half," said Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.
May says Harper brought in reforms that give his party more money and disadvantage others.
"I say to Stephen Harper: Shame on you for doing that," she said.
Level playing field?
Kingsley said the long campaign means publicly funded Elections Canada must spend tens of millions of dollars on top of the estimated $375 million it takes to run a 37-day campaign — some administration costs, such as campaign worker salaries, go up.
Former Reform party advisor Rick Anderson, who's now helping the Conservatives with debate strategy, panned Kingsley's views on Facebook. He's a fan of fixed election dates.
"We knew that election campaigning would inevitably begin in advance," he wrote. "Until the writs are issued, there are no spending limits for any of the participants … Open season; whoever has the most money has the biggest impact."
"There is no disclosure of who is funding third-party advertising. And there are no rebates," he continued.
"Once the writs are issued, then spending limits kick in … these spending limits are designed to level the playing field."
Pollster Bruce Anderson from Abacus Data says it's an open question whether voters will care about Harper's decision to go early.
"I don't think he gave a very strong rationale, but I think he gave the best rationale that he could possibly give," he said. "I don't think that we're going to spend very many days of this campaign talking about this issue."
Anderson notes that for all the millions in Conservative advertising, the party is only at 30 per cent in the polls.
"You might look at it and say that's a lot of money to accomplish relatively little," he said.
Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert said Tory strategists know that Harper's narrative is shaky on this — but much like his comments on same-sex marriage kicking off the 2005 election, he's putting his spin on it early, hoping to then move on.
"It certainly does take a lot of nerve," she said on the CBC's election special. "They have decided that [the early election call is] worth the risk of a lost day."