Stephen Harper’s long campaign

Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepares to go all out in what might be the longest and most expensive election in modern Canadian history

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Aaron Wherry

Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits Governor General David Johnston, along with his wife Laureen, to dissolve parliament and trigger an election campaign at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Sunday, August 2, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

That the proceeding at hand is not to be viewed as a “popularity contest” has surely never been said by anyone who is particularly popular. But so there stood Stephen Harper—the Prime Minister behind a podium, the granite arch of Rideau Hall around him, a weather-faded stone crest directly above, members of the press arranged around the Fountain of Hope in front of him, TV trucks idling in the Governor General’s driveway, a few dozen interested citizens gathered behind a blue rope on His Excellency’s lawn—intoning that “a national election is not a popularity contest.”

Rather, he said, “on October the 19th, Canadians will make a serious choice.”

However unserious this carnival of hysterics—this celebration of oversimplification, this pageant of partisanship, this experiment in representation, this burnishing and tarnishing—and however ridiculously the business of government is regularly conducted, you are to understand that seriousness is at hand. A time for choosing approaches.

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Indeed, so monumental is the choice, so serious is this business, that Oct. 19 must be preceded by the longest official campaign in this country’s modern history—surpassed only by the rambling and readily corruptible campaigns of 1867 and 1872. The campaigns of 2008 and 2011, the last two to be launched by Harper, amounted to 74 days, combined. This one will cover 79 days, from this moment under a bright midsummer sky at Rideau Hall to the final casting of votes this fall.

It is, the Prime Minister explained, “appropriate that Canadians have the time to consider the alternatives before them, because this is an election about leadership on the big issues that affect us all.”

This, of course, contrasts to the previous 41 general elections, which were mostly about deciding which candidate could be trusted to arrange an appropriate lineup of entertainment for Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill.

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Of big issues, Harper had in mind two: “our economy and our nation’s security.” Taxes have been cut and security agencies have been empowered to protect us from terrorists and, at least until the global economy is in a state of perfect stability and world peace has been achieved, it would be foolish to risk change.

“In less than two years, we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada’s birth as a united country,” the Prime Minister. “But before this significant moment in our history, Canadians will make a critical decision about the direction of our country, a decision with real consequences.”

This is actually only what we should expect of an election campaign. In fact, that it will have “real consequences” does not really differentiate this election from any election in any functioning democracy. But that this one might be particularly remarkable in the sweep of this country’s history is a possibility of real potential.

Even if we didn’t have international stock markets and Islamic State to worry about, even without differences of opinion about taxation and security, there would be any number of matters to decide. The major parties are, for instance, rather split on how best to provide for families with children. To pick three other open questions: The country is currently without a plan for how it will achieve the sort of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that would have us do our part to stave off the worst consequences of global climate change; the foundational institutions of our governance—the House of Commons, access to information and political finance laws—are variously outdated, overwhelmed, embarrassing, and unbecoming of a mature democracy; and our health care system is apparently lacking for leadership and innovation.

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A clear victory for the Conservatives this fall would bless the last 9½ years of Stephen Harper’s government. Awakened to conservatism by Pierre Trudeau, Stephen Harper can now put his name beside Trudeau’s with a fourth mandate, best the old man’s son, and put one more election between his policies and whoever might attempt to undo his legacy. Already a significant figure in the history of this country after 9½ years of slowly reshaping the federal government and controlling the national debate, Harper would be elevated to count among the most obviously consequential men of Canada’s first 150 years—only the third man, after John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier, to lead his party to four consecutive national victories, and perhaps the fifth-longest-serving prime minister. Or it could be NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, tying together progressivism and populism, who becomes the first New Democrat in the prime minister’s Office. Or it could be Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, he who sometimes seems to want to transcend, who revives the most significant political institution of the previous century and the possibly outdated notion of centrism. Or it could be some combination of the above: the first truly competitive three-way race in federal history producing a uniquely hung parliament.

As far as we can know now, it might all swing on how far some people have to walk to get their mail.

On the first day was the existential question of this election itself.

This much Harper volunteered to acknowledge, shortly after completing his official business with the Governor General:

“As it is my intention to begin campaign-related activities,” he said, as if his party had not already been spending untold millions to incessantly impress upon television viewers over the last weeks and months that Justin Trudeau was unworthy of support, “and it’s also the case for the other party leaders, it’s important that these campaigns be funded by the parties themselves rather than taxpayers.”

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The flaw in this explanation was easily spotted and immediately raised by the first reporter invited to question the Prime Minister: In addition to the fact that a longer campaign will cost more to administer, the funds spent by parties and candidates during the official campaign are eligible for substantial rebates. So if parties are able to spend more over the next 11 weeks, taxpayers will, through those rebates, also, presumably, be asked to cover more of those expenses.

That a longer writ period allows for more spending by parties and candidates is a new quirk, an allowance provided for in the Harper government’s so-called Fair Elections Act. Whereas previously, the spending limit applied to a campaign of 37 days—the minimum duration allowed by law—would have been applied to a campaign that was set to be any longer, now, the limit increases for each additional day. So what might have been a $25-million campaign for each party is now, potentially, a $50-million campaign.

But only the Conservative party seems capable of nearing that tally, and so the Conservatives might outspend their rivals by $15 million or so over the next 11 weeks (while also ensuring, as a result of the rules during a writ period, that no so-called third-party group can mount a substantial campaign against them). All of which might make it ironic that Harper once ventured that his introduction of fixed election dates would “stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar simply for partisan political advantage.”

“Why should voters not conclude that you’re giving yourself a financial edge because maybe you think that’s the only way you can win?” the reporter asked.

“The reality is this,” the Prime Minister responded. “Everybody knows the election date and the campaigns of the other parties, as near as I can tell, have already begun. I’m beginning our campaign today.”

Possibly the Prime Minister has, in keeping with his advertised work ethic, spent so much time alone in his office, filling out paperwork until the wee hours, that he’s not seen a television in weeks and is thus unaware of how much of the available airtime his party has occupied of late.

“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.”

If this was 2005 and the leader of the Conservative party was proposing new rules on party spending between writ periods, this strongly held sentiment might have seemed to matter for more. From either of the leaders of the NDP or Liberals, this could now be the basis for a proposal to counter the current notion of a permanent campaign. As delivered, it seems difficult to square with unofficial campaigns that Harper’s side has run so effectively these last nine years. Somewhere, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff thought wistfully of their previous reputations.

“That the money comes from the parties themselves, not from the government resources, parliamentary resources or taxpayer resources. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Here, similarly, might have been a good explanation for committing to a ban on non-essential government advertising or partisan content in MP mailings. At least, again, if this was 2005.

“In terms of the advantages this party has, in terms of the fact that we are a better financed political party, a better organized political party and better supported by Canadians, those advantages exist, whether we call this campaign or not.”

This much is basically true (though we might need to think a bit about how, and how well, modern fundraising is driving our governance). But, then, why bother with the campaign?

“What we do by calling this campaign is making sure we are all operating within the rules and not using taxpayers’ money directly,” Harper concluded.

Perhaps this was meant as an apology for Pierre Poilievre’s golf shirt. Or perhaps this is to answer critics of the government’s use of public funds to advertise itself and its Economic Action Plan™. There was to be $7.5 million spent this spring—reportedly more than a hundred million dollars over the last six years—in addition to other millions for the government’s family benefits.

Understand, if you will, that Stephen Harper had to call this election so that Stephen Harper would stop spending public funds on government advertising. Luckily, the TV networks will now be able to count on a full 78 days of subsidized party ads.

There were two questions from the assembled reporters about the economy, but three of the five were about this contested issue of the campaign now begun. The Prime Minister remained assured of his logic. “Everybody is campaigning, everybody should finance their own campaign and everybody should operate under the law and the rules for campaigns,” he said. “And I don’t think it is appropriate at all that campaigns be done all out outside the campaign rules.”

So “all out” is the distinction. The last few days, weeks, months and years were mere warm-up, a stretching of the legs and flexing of the invective. Now it’s for realsies.

Possibly, the long campaign is the new prorogation or the new omnibus bill or the new census—to be rendered rather secondary, rightly or wrongly, inside the voting booth. (As a matter of public policy, it is interesting to think about how members of the public should respond to the notion that their views can be decisively shaped by a significant expenditure of money.) Probably the next Parliament should still be advised to, among other things, add a maximum number of days for official campaigns.

But that he would be “all out” now seems fitting and obvious. He has been running his campaign for the leadership of this country for nearly 14 years, from his candidacy for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance to the present. He has been running for re-election for 9½ years. He has surely been well out before—in the federal campaigns of 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011—but surely now he is out further than in any of those moments. He carries the weight of 9½ years in power—the accumulated complaints, mistakes and transgressions. The economy is stalled, the budget is barely balanced, and his former chief of staff will be on the stand in a couple weeks. Two-thirds of Canadians say they want change, and two other leaders, each having led the polls at points over the last few years, are promising to provide that. This feels like culmination—ultimate redemption at the moment of greatest challenge, or ultimate defeat despite remarkable effort.

So Stephen Harper has opened up what might be the longest and most expensive election in this country’s history. He will marshall all possible resources and time. Unlikely to win a popularity contest, he is staging an all-in, all-out bid for confirmation.