Politics·The House

New rules for pre-election spending kick in Sunday

This October will be a road test for new rules set out by the federal government that change the way money is spent before the start of the federal election campaign. The rules kick in on Sunday. Here's what you need to know. 

The Election Modernization Act limits the amount parties can spend before the campaign begins

As we approach the fall federal election, federal political parties are working through the new spending restrictions and rules outlined in the recently passed Election Modernization Act to make sure they stay on the right side of the law. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

This October will be a road test for new rules set out by the federal government that change the way money is spent before the start of the federal election campaign. 

Partisan ads are increasingly part of the pre-election landscape in Canada, and up until this year, political actors and third parties were free to spend lavishly well in advance of voting day.

The parties have been raking in fundraising dollars, facilitating an array of political ads over the past few weeks — but that is expected to slow to a trickle over the summer because of Election Modernization Act. 

Among other things, the legislation restricts parties' spending in the weeks leading up to the start of the official campaign. 

The new rules kick in on Sunday. Here's what you need to know. 

What are the changes? 

The Election Modernization Act introduced rules governing what can and can't be done in the months leading up to a federal election. 

It defines the length of federal election campaigns, restricts the amount of spending allowed in the period immediately before a campaign, works to prevent foreign interference and introduces new rules to regulate third-party political activity.

Political parties can now spend a maximum of $2 million on advertising in the pre-writ period. With a fixed election date of Oct. 21, that timeline starts June 30 and ends once the writ has dropped.  But those spending limits are raised significantly the day the campaign begins.

Why does it matter?

The Liberals justified the legislation by arguing it would level the playing field for all parties. However, the timeline is convenient for the Liberals — the Conservatives have been posting consistently higher fundraising numbers.

The Conservative Party doubled the Liberals' fundraising efforts in the first months of 2019  —  raising $8 million compared to almost $4 million for the Liberals.

That is why the Conservatives were rolling out expensive television ads during the Toronto Raptors basketball games. They have money to spend, and they temporarily lose the ability to take advantage of their larger war chest starting Sunday.

"It's one of the reasons why we started a significant ad buy at the beginning of May," Conservative campaign chair Hamish Marshall told CBC Radio's The House last month.

New Democrat strategist Michael Balagus told The House that the Election Modernization Act will not level the playing field in the way the Liberals claim.

"In my view, anything that limits political parties' ability to communicate directly with voters I actually don't believe strengthens a democracy,"  he said in an interview airing today.

How will this change political parties' strategies?

No matter how much money a party has in their coffers, the pre-writ rules mean a lot of party energy will be spent the old fashion way; door knocking.

"We're on the doorstep. It's what we can afford to do," Green Party Deputy Leader Jo-Ann Roberts said in an interview airing today. 

The Election Modernization Act won't change the Green approach much and they're still studying the new rules closely. 

"We're in a new age and just figuring out the rules for a lot of us. We have people within the Green Party right now who are going through those rules making sure we don't run afoul of them," Roberts said.

"I think having these rules in place is a good thing. I just think we're going to test them and see whether we have the right rules in place to stop what people have said they don't want."

The parties all knew the rules were coming, and while the Conservatives hurried out their ads, the NDP took a different approach.

"There's a reason we put out our platform as early as we did and that was to get it in the hands of our candidates, our canvassers and our volunteers. And we're going to rely very heavily on that piece of communication in the pre-election," Balagus said.

As things quiet down on the screens and airwaves, Canadians are likely to get a knock at their doors. 

"It doesn't change our ground game because we've been present on the ground," Liberal strategist Olivier Duchesneau told The House in an interview airing today. 

"Obviously that's going to intensifying this summer."

The Strategists is a segment on CBC Radio's The Housecomprised of a rotating cast of backroom officials from the four main political parties. You can listen to the full panel discussion at 9 a.m. ET on CBC Radio One.

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