Here's how Harper could erase our choices at the ballot box

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


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.

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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.

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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.


Welcome, my friends, to the election that never ends

  1. The CPC can spend without limits before the writ is dropped, so why would it want to extend the campaign period to do it with limits?

    • Optics
      People can get downright grumpy when they see too much political advertising before there’s even an election

      • Perhaps there is a point. There is CPC advertising NOW pointing out that Trudeau is a political wimp. And this is June.

    • The reason he would extend the deadline is that with a 37 day writ, each party can only spend a fixed amount. If the writ is extended, the CPC could still save the bulk (or all) of the increased spending cap and dump it all into that last 37 days when people are actually paying attention to politics.

      Assuming it is more than the other parties have to spend, it’s not hard to see how this would create an unfair advantage.

  2. Harper…Putin? Putin…Harper? Au final, qu’est-ce que la différence?

    • You ought to be ashamed! How can you post such crap!. There is a great difference between Harper and Putin and the fact that you can post such drivel proves you are the country where you are able to and not in one where you would be dragged off to a cellar somewhere. And the article is unnecessary navel gazing./ And all any party has to do is collect more money from its members, as does the CPC – from those individuals who wish to support it.

      • True enough. Putin was elected by an overwhelming majority and enjoys a approval rating north of 80%, while less than 40% of Canadians put Harper in office and less than 1 in 3 approve of him.

        • Are you serious? There is no other choice but Putin and he is popular because he took the Crimea and is encouraging Russian speakers in the Ukraine to separate? Is that your idea of democracy? And Harper happens to have a majority at the moment – what Oct will bring is in the future but I think he will do well as he has given good government. But I suspect that the loss of front benchers won’t do him any good.

          • Am I serious about what? I’m pretty sure everything I posted is true.
            However, you claim that ” there is no other choice but Putin” is entirely false. Four other candidates ran against Putin in the last election.

          • Blacktop….

            You may note, that TRESUS……is beyond an idiot. You could explain to him that 2 + 2 = 4……

            and he’d send you a link showing that it actually equals 7. It is on the internet…therefore it must be true.

            The boy is none-too-bright.

        • I hear this drivel from the left all the time. In basically a 3 party Federal system 40% is damn good-the other 2 average 30 each. And right now 1 in 3 like Harper, 1 in 3 like the man child Justin and 1 in 3 like Mulcair. What’s your point??

          • Wow. 40% is “damn good”. After all Harper has to compete with all those other conservative parties, right?
            But it doesn’t leave much room to describe Putin’s 64% amongst 5 parties, which is the comparison being made.
            If you still don’t understand what’s been posted, all I can suggest is that you read it over and over again.

          • Tresus…..

            The North Koreans regularly “elect” their supreme leader with 100% of the vote.

            Not surprising though, considering the current “Dear leader” and his dad both golf, and got holes-in-one on 16 of the 18 holes.

            amazing eh?

            Must be true though… was on the itnernet.

        • So by your reconing almost every other government in Canada’s has been illegitimate too.And the recent NDP win in Alberta should be voided because they won with just slightly more than 42% of the popular vote.
          He’s my problem with your line of reasoning.When the socialists win with,say 44% of the popular vote,they write legislation that makes participating in all of their socialist programs “universal and mandatory” for 100% of the people with a mandate from less than 50% of them. By any subjective definition,those who don’t favour socialism are living under they tyranny of MANDATORY and UNIVERSAL.
          Conservatism,on the other hand,wants people to be FREE to make their own choices.
          “Socialism is communism,only better English”. G.B.Shaw

          • That’s nice, jameshalifax, but we’re not talking about North Korea.

            I wasn’t aware that participation in laws under Conservative governments was optional.
            Can you tell me how I go about opting out of paying taxes used to bomb foreign countries, police and incarcerate recreation drug users, conduct mass surveillance, produce government advertising, pay countless government PR hacks, and any number of other things I thought were MANDATORY?
            Much appreciated.

      • I see they both have their completely die-hard sycophants, too, despite (or perhaps because of) their shared contempt for democratic institutions, disregard for the principle of fair elections, and a shared determination to suppress legitimate dissent by almost any means at their disposal. The differences between them are merely matters of degree.

        It’s nice to see his base has a blacktop, though.

      • Interesting how the discussion is about the ‘what ifs’ of how the CPC could use tricks to out spend, but nothing is said about how massive amounts of Union money can skew the results. Look how the Union changed the outcome of the Ontario election. Maybe the discussion should also talk about limiting or stopping 3rd party funding during an election.

      • Yes, big difference. Putin is supported by a huge 80% of his people. Harpo? not even in the ball game.

    • If you can’t see the difference between Harper and Putin….then you are truly deluded to the point of idiocy.

      Your Harper Derangement syndrome is showing. One may start to think your name is Michael harris.

  3. Sounds like fear mongering.

    If Harper calls the election before September 12th then the fears are justified. Until then? No reason to get in an uproar on what ‘might’ or ‘could’ happen.

    • Well… yes and no.

      Even if Harper waits until September 12 and the parties all truly have a level playing field this election, the law still has a fundamental flaw that needs fixing. One that the PM (whoever it happens to be in 2019) could still bend to his (or with a switch in leadership in the interim, her) advantage next time out.

  4. And then we could be exactly like the US! It may be Harpo’s dream, but I’ll bet that the average Canadian would view it as a nightmare.

  5. I see no mention of third party spending.In the run up to the last provincial election our public sector unions were spending big bucks in an effort to oust the Liberal Party of BC in favour of the NDP. In fact,the teachers union spent so much that they had go get money from Ontario teachers so they could pay strike pay to their members when they were off the job.
    And ads by labour unions and special interest groups are already airing in BC in an effort to gather support a government more friendly to THEIR demands.
    One would have to think that spending by labour unions should also be added to the total that the party they are supporting is spending.If that were done,the writer is probably wrong that a Conservative party can out spend it’s opposition.Union members are forced to pay for NDP ads whether they support that party,or not.The money is deducted from the pay cheques under the heading “union dues”.

  6. Should this come to pass, then we would have to accept that we no longer have a Prime (or first) Minister, we would have nothing more than a 2-bit tinpot dictator.

  7. Whaaaaaaaaa….

    Well, it DOES end actually….on Oct 19. Kinda funny how Cretin called an election for no reason other than he had the best chance to win while opponents were disorganized.

    Didn’t seem to be a problem for the media then….

  8. I think they did this to get mote taxpayers money to use in partisan advertising and the only reason they dropped the writ now is to cut back the number of third party ads attacking the anti democratic laws associated with the Harper government. I hope they lose their deposit