Published on Aug. 17, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the world was innocent and young Mike Duffy was a humble reporter dreaming of the Senate, everyone agreed that federal election campaigns were too long, far too long.
The norm in those days was 60-61 days. Campaign managers argued then that voters did not start paying attention until the last two weeks. So the early weeks were largely empty – given over to photo ops, posturing and feeding the maw of the news media, which grew desperate to find something, anything, that would make the election more interesting than it really was.
Sixty days! I covered a bunch of those eight-week affairs. I remember listening to Pierre Trudeau make the same little speech at, if memory serves, 34 stops in one campaign. That was torture!
Eventually, legislation was introduced to abbreviate campaigns. The big change was the elimination of the door-to-door enumeration of electors. That system, in which officials would visit every household, made the Canadian voters’ list the most accurate in the world.
According to experts of the day, its replacement by the current registration system may have disenfranchised up to 10 per cent of otherwise eligible voters, but that was deemed an acceptable price to pay to get campaigns down to today’s norm of 36-37 days.
The norm until now. Following the lead of British Columbia, Stephen Harper’s government in 2007 introduced a fixed election law that stipulated federal elections be held every four years on the third Monday in October. But (loophole alert!) it left the prime minister free to call the election later or earlier (as he did in 2011).
The so-called Fair Elections Act of 2014 introduced another loophole. It enabled the government to extend the writ period and to raise the spending ceiling for parties and candidates. In a 37-day campaign, each party would be allowed to spend about $24 million. By doubling this year’s campaign to 78 days, Harper made it possible for the parties to spend roughly $50 million, a move that theoretically benefits the party with the deepest pockets – to wit, Harper’s Conservatives.
So while the prime minister is off on his campaign jet, far away from the Mike Duffy-Nigel Wright follies in Ottawa, his opponents are, figuratively, left rummaging for bus fare.
I’m not sure this imbalance will make much difference. Impertinent questions about the Senate scandal will follow Harper wherever he goes as long as the trial is in the news. His superior spending power is allowing him to recycle attacks on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (“He’s just not ready”), but my sense is they have lost their impact. These ads may help a bit to shore up the Tory base, but there is no evidence they are winning back estranged soft Conservatives or attracting erstwhile Liberal or NDP voters.
The opinion polls paint a very close picture. The NDP may be one or two points ahead of the Conservatives in the popular vote, while seat projections put the Tories either ahead, or behind, by a few seats out of 338 seats in the next Parliament. Either way, they are roughly 45 seats short of a majority government.
The Liberals are clearly the spoilers, especially in Ontario, where the electorate seems prepared to move. With redistribution, Ontario will have 121 seats (up from 106). The Liberals ran a very weak third in the province in the 2011 election. Now, pollsters agree, they have moved into second ahead of the NDP.
The projections indicate the Conservatives stand to lose 20 seats in Ontario, notwithstanding the addition of 15 new seats in the province. It is difficult to see where in the country the Conservatives could gain enough momentum to overcome their loss of seats in Ontario.
A minority government, Conservative, NDP or conceivably Liberal, seems inevitable. But these are very early days, only two weeks into an interminable 11-week election. At some point, the public will tune in.