Welcome, my friends, to the election that never ends

Could the Tories ’out-election’ our other political choices into the poorhouse, perhaps forever? On the implications of a pro-rated spending limit
Alice Funke
The Peace Tower is framed in an archway on the East Block of Parliament Buildings on Parliament Hil in Ottawa, Thursday September 10, 2009. Opposition MPs, and even some Conservatives, agree Canada’s parliamentary committee system is broken.They just don’t agree on what’s gone wrong or who’s to blame. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Stephen Harper

No one is saying the Prime Minister would do it. No one’s saying it yet.

But he could do it.

And if he did do it, and we let him get away with a stunt like that one more time, then our elections would be changed for good—and not for the better, if you know what I mean.

You’ve heard all that before, I know—not from me, usually, but there are plenty of scaremongers out there predicting, on a weekly basis, the end of our democracy.

But this time is different, because, if the PM does do what he legally now can do . . . well . . . welcome, my friends, to the election that never ends, one where the Conservatives could “out-election” all our other political choices right into the poorhouse, perhaps forever.

Related: Where and when to watch Maclean’s National Leaders Debate on Aug. 6

It all started with an apparently innocuous clause in Bill C-23, the Conservative government’s so-called “Fair Elections Act,” which amended the Canada Elections Act. I don’t even think that clause started out with a Machiavellian intent. It probably started out because of 2006.

You’ll remember the 2006 election: the longer-than-usual election that straddled the Christmas break and got us a new government, in which some of the Conservative Party’s efforts to innovate regarding the hard spending cap landed them in court in the so-called “in-and-out” advertising case.

In Canada, we’ve had party election spending limits for the election “writ” period in place since 1974. The total of all election expenses incurred by a political party, from the time the election is called until the polls close on voting day, has to fall below its expense ceiling.

Spending limits level the playing field between the major political parties. Everyone can spend the same amount of money if they can raise it and, as long as that amount falls within what most serious parties can fundraise between elections, big money or big war chests can’t buy an election in Canada. This is a major difference between our country and the United States, and plenty of Americans wish they had that system of ours, believe me.

Yes, there are no spending limits before the writ period, but, in the final weeks before voting day, at least, all our political choices are on a relatively even footing, so we do have a real choice to pick from.

One other historical quirk we have in Canada is that the Prime Minister can call an election for an unlimited amount of time. In fact, he just did it last month when he called three federal by-elections at the beginning of May for Oct. 19. Under the Elections Act, an election must be at least 37 days long, but there’s nothing curbing its length. You could have elections lasting hundreds and hundreds of days, if you wanted to. They could run as long as the PM liked, but, given the fixed spending cap, they rarely did.

So, Paul Martin called a longer than usual election in 2005-06. The parties all had the same spending limit, but they had to make it last longer than 37 days, and the Conservatives had more cash, so they wanted to press every advantage, but that’s when the in-and-out trouble started.

This is why I think someone in the Conservative government got the bright idea to introduce pro-rated spending limits according to the length of a campaign. The election is a week longer than 37 days? No problem: You can spend around $5 million more than the baseline limit of, say, $25 million. Two weeks longer? Make that $10 million more. A 10-week campaign (called at the beginning of August) would now have a spending cap of $50 million. That’s twice what the legal limit would have been before the Fair Elections Act, and fully twice what the parties were expecting to fundraise in order to finance their campaigns, before this new provision came into effect. Unless they can raise the difference during the campaign, their goose is cooked.

Our fixed election date law fixes the end of the writ period. But nothing anywhere in the Canada Elections Act fixes the start of the campaign, so the PM can call the election as early as he likes, and make the campaign as long as he likes, so long as it ends on the fixed election date of Oct. 19.

Thus, we really have no spending cap anymore, because the Prime Minister can decide how much he wants to spend in a campaign, and stretch the campaign period long enough to accommodate it. The Conservatives have more money than the other parties, for a variety of reasons, so longer is better for them.

Related: Four leaders. The first debate. It starts here.

But is it better for us?

Well, first, I find it completely unfair and quite wrong for one party to unilaterally change the rules so late in the game in a four-year mandate. If you can’t win an election without tipping the scales so flagrantly in your own favour, how do you look at yourself in the mirror each morning? How have you earned the moral authority to make decisions on behalf of our country?

Second, if they do try to do this by calling the October election in August, they’ll have to justify it with a bunch of half-truths and spin. I can hear them already: “Everyone has the same spending limit.” But if the limit is so high that no one else can afford it, that’s not a level playing field.

Or: “Parliament debated this bill and adopted it into law.” But the 160-page bill was given second reading for just 16 hours, starting the day after it was tabled in the House. Not one government MP mentioned prorating the spending limits at second reading, not even the minister. The Bill was rammed through committee with no time to think, either, even though the Conservative caucus had had months and months to consider and debate it among themselves before it was tabled and anyone else got to take a look.

The chief electoral officer did raise the problem of pro-rated limits without a capped campaign period in his submission to committee, but the issue got lost among other higher-priority items.

If we want a truly fair election, with a level playing field that doesn’t completely bankrupt our other political parties, I maintain we either need to go back to fixed spending limits, or go to a maximum length for an election period, or do both.

And the Prime Minister should not call the Oct. 19 election until Sept. 12.

Alice Funke is the publisher of—the Pundits’ Guide to Canadian Elections, where she first discussed the implications of a pro-rated spending limit, in far wonkier terms, for complete political junkies.