With a fixed election date and unofficial campaigning throughout the past year, two questions remained: will the Prime Minister adhere to the legislated date and when will the writ be dropped? The questions were answered on Sunday, August 2 as the Canadian civic weekend peace and quiet was rocked by Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he fired the proverbial starting pistol at Rideau Hall to announce the start of the longest Canadian writ period in history. The marathon will last for 11 weeks until the much-anticipated time parties cross the finish line on October 19.
The Conservative strategy
As the governing party, the Conservatives started the race with an advantage. Controlling the writ-period timing allowed the Conservatives to come out of the gate strong, catching other parties off guard. Strategically, it’s obvious why the Tories were willing to set in motion a 78-day-long election campaign—they have more money, can now minimize third-party spending, have time to solidify their base and cultivate further support.
It’s important to emphasize that the Conservative Party—in dropping the writ early—has been able to effectively neuter extensive third-party advertising campaigns. New Elections Canada policies limit the amount third parties (including unions and interest groups) are able to legally spend during a writ period. Extending the campaign restricts third-party groups in their ability to reach Canadians.
The Conservative campaign team is a well-oiled machine having worked together on the past four elections, with the general makeup of the team left largely unchanged. Learning from mistakes and building on past achievements, the campaign’s strategy is well-thought-out and the expectation is that it will be well-executed.
If the 2005-06 election is of any indication, the Conservatives will have broken down this extended writ period into a series of manageable phases. The ‘05-‘06 campaign was interrupted with a Christmas break, dividing the campaign into a ‘pre-Christmas’ and ‘post-Christmas’ campaign cycle. The 2015 campaign can be looked at under a similar lens, with ‘pre-Labour Day’ and ‘post-Labour Day’ periods—the latter of which we can expect politicking to pick up significantly.
Although the campaign was launched in the summer months without much attention from the majority of Canadians, Harper—the experienced campaigner—would see this as an advantage. The first phase of the campaign will likely be used to solidify his base, switching gears in September and building up to a post-Thanksgiving assault when the campaigning will be fast and furious on all sides—expect to see significant spending on negative ads. However, it’s important to remember that a longer election period could mean more time for missteps from all leaders—there’s always an element of risk in a long campaign.
With Conservative coffers overflowing, much has been made about the party’s ability to outspend others during the writ period. However, an additional advantage is that post-election—win or lose—the Conservatives will recoup 50 per cent in rebates of money spent on the campaign. A longer writ period provides the Conservative Party with more opportunities to spend its money on big ad buys and outspend the competition. If opposition parties exhaust their resources during this campaign, the Conservatives will maintain the advantage post-election—a valuable asset in this campaign, and those to come.
Similarities and differences
While there are significant differences between the 2006 and 2015 electoral climate, there are some striking similarities. In 2006, a long-serving Liberal government was suffering from the repercussions of an internal ethics scandal (the Gomery Report), the opposition was championing ideas of ‘change’ versus ‘more of the same’ and uncertainty in the economy was beginning to take root.
Calling the election early has some undeniable advantages for the Conservatives, but there are still risks associated with starting the race well before Election Day—78 days is a long time to strategize and execute a successful, gaff-free campaign when campaign staff burnout and voter fatigue are factored in.
With polls continuing to show a two-way race between the NDP and Conservatives—Liberals trailing in third—it’s important to keep in mind how quickly electoral preferences can shift. Only a few months ago, the Liberals were where the NDP is now. In the early days of the 2011 campaign, the NDP was regularly polling 19-20 per cent—well behind the other parties. Five weeks later the NDP finished with 30.6 per cent. Much can and will change in the 11 weeks to follow.
The first debate of the 2015 Federal Election was in many ways a reflection of the campaign itself. Each of the three main leaders, like their respective parties, evidenced areas of relative strength but ultimately seemed evenly matched. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper made some notable concessions on the economy and the Senate, he was more defiant than defensive. Both NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau held their own, but neither could be said to have established themselves as the only true alternative to the Conservatives.
On substance, all four leaders—including Green Party Leader Elizabeth May—demonstrated a strong command of facts on the broad range of issues discussed. Less certain, perhaps, was whether the leaders were able to clarify or simplify the choice for Canadians between their respective positions. On a number of questions, the four leaders agreed on the nature of the challenges facing Canadians and the priority they should be assigned—articulating their solutions to those challenges, however, differences often appeared more nuanced than stark.
In that narrow sense, it could be argued that Stephen Harper was the main beneficiary. If the ballot question is about confidence in leadership as opposed to dynamic change, that theme is one which gives an advantage to the incumbent. Moreover, and more important, the Prime Minister avoided the worst potential outcome for himself and his party: the consolidation of the non-Conservative vote behind a single opposition leader. While both Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau performed well, it’s unlikely that either will leak or lose support to the other.
In the early days of the campaign, the Conservatives have encountered a couple of unanticipated developments. The government hoped to have the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement signed by early August—however, this week it was blindsided by a deal made between Japan and the United States on automobiles and negotiations have been set back. Because of the election, and the subsequent Privy Council Office (PCO) directive, the government can negotiate the deal but cannot ratify it until after the election.
There is political danger for all parties, as the current TPP deal would negatively impact Canadian milk producers and the auto sector. The NDP has previously stated that it would call a plebiscite on the issue. There is the possibility that free trade becomes an election issue, much like NAFTA in 1988. The unratified TPP agreement issue could have a huge repercussion, though it’s still far too early to determine its impact on voters come Election Day.
The provincial noise
In the history of Canadian politics, there is a trend of negative correlation between the length of time a government remains in power and a declining relationship with the provinces. Throughout his time in office, Stephen Harper has had a divisive relationship with the provinces, and as evidenced by the early days of this campaign, it will only continue to deteriorate.
Harper has traded shots with premiers of Canada’s two most significant provinces: Ontario and Alberta. Never before have provincial politicians been so involved in a federal campaign—and in the first week, no less. Both the federal NDP and Liberals have close ties to their provincial parties in Alberta and Ontario, respectively. It may be that Harper wishes to further blur the lines between provincial and federal, in an attempt to link the missteps of provincial parties to their federal counterparts. Both premiers have responded aggressively to comments made by the Prime Minister, which raises the question as to the health of the working relationship between the Conservatives and the provinces, if re-elected.
What’s coming up?
Next week, suspended senator Mike Duffy’s criminal trial is set to resume and Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, is expected to take the stand. It’s unclear how Mr. Wright’s testimony will affect the campaign in the long term. In the short term, it will no doubt bring the Senate Scandal to the forefront of the media cycle and challenge the ethical high ground espoused by Harper’s Conservatives. Although highly unlikely, it’s interesting to note that MPs’ parliamentary privilege expires during the writ period, opening the door for MPs to be called to the stand.
In the weeks to come we expect the parties to announce policy positions on health care, infrastructure and energy policy. Canadians will be looking for clarity on hot-topic issues, especially where parties stand on pipelines and the resource sector.