In order to encounter a federal election campaign as lengthy as Canada’s present 78-day political marathon, we need to travel back in time 143 years to 1872 — a scant five years after Confederation — to watch John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives squeeze a minority out of Edward Blake’s Liberals.
That date alone should be illustrative of the ridiculous length of the present campaign, but for those of us less immersed in the historical realities of 19th century Canadian politics, let’s consider for a moment. In 1872, Canada had been on her feet as a new nation for less than a decade. There was no national highway system, no airplanes, no information superhighway, and our national railway was more than a decade from completion. Even if you were only planning on making a smattering of stump speeches in rural backwaters across Upper and Lower Canada, an 11 week election campaign was probably more than reasonable.
Fast forward to 2015, and the arguments put forward for the molasses-like pace of our present federal election all fall pretty flat — other than a healthy dose of shameless electioneering. Contrasted with 1872, we now have a national highway system, we have airplanes, we have an information superhighway, and two national railways. News only takes seconds to travel ‘from sea to sea’ and political leaders can reach Canadians at all points of the compass, from the smallest hamlets to the largest metropolis, via social media, newspapers, TV and radio coverage, and online. Canadians — whether they like it or not — will find it hard to avoid the signs and wonders of a federal election in mere days, let alone weeks or months.
All of that being said, there are some reasons why an 11-week election campaign might be attractive in 2015, but it would seem they have more to do with strategic posturing and partisan advantage than with actual practicality. For the Harper Conservatives as the ruling party seeking re-election, a short, snappy, month-long election campaign can sometimes prove disastrous, as was witnessed earlier this year in Alberta with the decimation of the ruling PCs. A lengthy campaign can offer increased buffer time for a party to react and counter-attack political assaults, gaffs, and other problems before voters cast a ballot, time considered to be critical if a swing issue arises to which the electorate reacts badly.
Catching your political enemies off guard by calling an early campaign is another time-honoured classic hardly exclusive to the Conservatives, but the fact that both the Liberals and NDP had yet to nominate candidates in a number of ridings — including Bow River — probably factored into Harper’s decision. Keeping your fellow parties scrambling for the first few weeks of a campaign can sometimes pay huge political dividends at the ballot box.
One key aspect rises above the rest, however — the large financial war chest of the Conservatives (who usually raise significantly more money than all of the other national parties) grants the party a distinct advantage over others as it can more easily weather the fiscal stresses of a long campaign, which could prove to bleed rival parties dry.
No matter what the motivation, Canadians have been saddled with a 78-day election campaign, destined to be the most expensive campaign in Canadian history by virtue of its length. At its conclusion, just how well spent those extra tens of millions in taxpayer dollars will be considered to be remains to be seen.
Despite a suspiciously long duration, there is a growing sense that the present federal election will be pivotal one for Canada. As almost a decade of Conservative rule draws to a conclusion in 2015 — the last four years as a majority — Canadians have been taking a hard look at what the future might have in store. Economic difficulties continue to plague the nation, and unemployment is rising in the wake of low oil prices. While it isn’t always fair — or arguably deserved — sometimes the party that is in power bears the brunt of voter aggression when times are bad. While the Liberal campaign appears to be struggling to gain new ground, the surging NDP could emerge to be the front-running challengers to the Conservatives, and so far nobody is saying this election will be a runaway victory for anyone.
The newfound popularity of NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has been a surprising development in past weeks, and analysts are predicting the left-leaning party could make further inroads in Alberta and even Western Canada based on the stunning reversal handed to the provincial PCs in the 2015 election by Rachel Notley’s provincially-flavoured NDP. And one shouldn’t discount the slow-but-steady urbanization of Canadians as a factor that continues to eat into a rural hardcore of conservatives in Canada.
One thing is certainly confirmed — we’ll all have a long time to ponder our choices before Oct. 19.