The House

Stephen Harper 'gaming the system' with early election call, says former Elections Canada head

Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley says an early election call politically disadvantages parties with less money because they won't be able to financially sustain an 11-week-long campaign.

Longer election campaign allows parties to spend more than $50 million each

Former Elections Canada head Jean-Pierre Kingsley said an earlier election call 'distorts' the electoral system. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

The former head of Elections Canada says Prime Minister Stephen Harper is "gaming the system" with an early election call and the result is parties with less money are politically disadvantaged.

"What it does is completely distort everything we've ever fought for, everything we've established as rules," Jean-Pierre Kingsley said in an interview on CBC Radio's The House.

"What should be happening right now is very simple — the prime minister should not call the election. He should wait for the 37 days to count towards the 19th of October, political parties should stop advertising right now, third parties should stop advertising. Then I'd say, hey, those people are respecting the spirit of the law."

A longer election campaign means a higher ceiling of allowable expenses, under the rules set by Elections Canada.

In a typical 37-day election period, each party can spend a maximum of $25 million. For each additional day, the limit is increased by 1/37th, or an extra $675,000, meaning an 11-week campaign would allow parties to spend more than $50 million.

"What you've done is that you've distorted the role of money in politics," Kingsley said. 

"Canadians have said, $25 million is enough for you to run a campaign. Now we're going to be facing the possibility that it's going to be more than $50 million just to pump more ads our way."

Kingsley said it's no coincidence that only one party can afford to spend $50 million on a campaign.

"If (the Conservatives) are doubling it to fifty, it's because they can get to fifty," he said.

"Parties plan how much will be required to spend. The Conservatives are way ahead of the other two, so by doubling the amount, all of a sudden you've thrown a monkey wrench into all of that financial planning that's been going on."

"And that's what distorts the game for Canadians," Kingsley added. "That is what is happening to us. We're the electors here, and we're the ones who are going to be faced with the consequences of this thing."

Costly for taxpayers, Elections Canada 

The financial consequences of an 11-week campaign for the public could be significant because of the campaign rebate, which sees taxpayers subsidize 50 per cent of what the parties spend on a national campaign.

"That is what we, the people, the tax base, is going to feel here," Kingsley said.

The cost for Elections Canada will also be sizeable. Elections Canada estimates a 37-day campaign — the minimum required by law — would cost roughly $375 million to administer.

Kingsley said that price tag would not necessarily go up proportionately to a campaign time period that is nearly double the typical length.

"Significant elements of [the estimated cost] are doubled, or more than doubled," he said. "We're talking about tens of millions of dollars the chief electoral officer will need extra." 

Some of the extra costs associated with a longer election include paying the salaries for returning officers, deputy returning officers and employees preparing for the election, as well as rent for electoral offices in each of the country's 338 ridings.

'Level playing field gets it in the neck'

Under the Canada Elections Act, parties can only borrow from a financial institution, Kingsley said.

"Financial institutions like to be paid back the monies that they lend you. They like to charge you interest. And they're not going to lend you more money if you've already exhausted your line of credit."

That means parties will be disadvantaged politically because they can't afford to keep up with bigger spenders, Kingsley added.

"What about the disadvantage this imposes upon, for example, the Green Party?" he said. 

"Now they're facing foes who are going to be shooting twice as hard at them as they were before. It destroys the fairness that is at the base of our system.

"That level playing field gets it in the neck."