Canada Votes 2015

Supersized election campaign could backfire on Harper

Desperation move may prove to be prime minister’s long goodbye
Photo: Stephen Harper

"He governed as if he felt predestined to never die." – Gabriel García Márquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch

Evil genius, or doomed and increasingly isolated prime minister? How we understand Stephen Harper’s decision to supersize this election campaign depends a lot on whether we think it’s coming from a position of strength or weakness.

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With most polls showing the Conservatives in a near dead heat with the NDP, there’s a case to be made that Harper should be considered the frontrunner. But if we look at the corruption scandals that plague him, along with the number of his top lieutenants in cabinet who have abandoned him, his maneuvering starts to look a bit desperate.

Many commentators have pointed out the financial advantage Harper gains from triggering the longest campaign in modern Canadian history.

With an 11-week campaign, instead of the typical five- or six-week one, the Conservatives are doing an end run around strict election financing guidelines. The laws stipulate a per-day spending cap, so an expanded campaign period means parties will be able to spend more than usual. A typical election allows for each party to spend up to $25 million. Harper’s bloated election period will mean parties can unleash over $50 million.

Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the former head of Elections Canada, eviscerated Harper for “gaming the system” in an interview on CBC Radio: "What it does is completely distort everything we've ever fought for, everything we've established as rules. 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.”

Conservative sources have plainly stated their strategic thinking for this marathon election: they want to deplete their enemies’ war chests. It’s not just about outspending their rivals, so they can carpet bomb the airwaves with attack ads against the NDP and Liberals. It’s also about making sure their opposition has less money and thus a harder time fighting the next election.

But here we can read an admission of weakness: Harper knows he’s unlikely to form another majority government. He’s gaming the system in part to improve the Conservatives’ odds in the next campaign, because the instability of a minority parliament could lead to another election in short order.

So Harper’s not riding high. And his 11-week gambit could turn out to be the long goodbye.

For starters, it’s annoying. A visit to the Governor General at Rideau Hall on the Sunday morning during a summer long weekend? It hardly seems democratic to kick off a federal election while so many are away at the cottage.

What’s more, given the public financing of federal elections, the mega-campaign doubles the cost to taxpayers. This waste of the public’s money is the easiest talking point in the land. That was Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s line of attack as she took to Twitter to bash the early election call.

Another potential hazard of the long campaign is that it could help anti-Harper sentiment coalesce around the strongest opposition party. Harper’s only chance of clinging to power is an even split between the NDP and Liberal vote. The extra five weeks of scrutiny and media coverage seems most likely to benefit Tom Mulcair, who, though surging in the polls, is still less recognizable to the public than Justin Trudeau. Mulcair, while not a stirring orator, is razor sharp in interview and debate formats, and is at his best explaining NDP policy or critiquing Harper’s record extemporaneously. The Liberal leader, on the other hand, has been known to make odd and inarticulate statements when off script. The polls already show some daylight between Mulcair and Trudeau; the long march to October 19 could strengthen the NDP’s chances of forming their first federal government in history.

Finally, there’s a logistical challenge for Harper. His whole deal is to avoid media scrutiny and interaction with the Canadian public. (The Consul General for a West African country once told me of the indelible impression Harper made with him after they spoke at a reception during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. “I’ve never met anyone who seemed so uncomfortable interacting with other people.”) It would be hard to avoid the media and the public for 37 days. But 77 days? There are bound to be slip-ups. Harper will have to talk to people, deal with hecklers and protesters, and perhaps even answer some questions from journalists.

Already there are borderline-mocking media reports about how tightly Conservative staffers plan to control access to Harper’s events.

If he insists on refusing to engage, he will look increasingly ridiculous over the next two and a half months, like a boy in a bubble. Come Oct. 19, Harper’s bubble might finally burst.

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