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Fixed-date election comes with concerns, observers say

FILE -- Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand arrives at a Commons house affairs committee hearing in Ottawa on Thursday, March 6, 2014. When the Conservatives introduced a fixed election date nine years ago, political financing rules were not adjusted accordingly, says Elections Canada boss Mayrand.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
July 05, 2015 - 8:38 AM

OTTAWA - The first fixed-date election in Canadian history is just around the corner, but some observers are raising concerns about overspending because of a law they say is flawed.

When the Conservatives introduced a fixed election date nine years ago, political financing rules were not adjusted accordingly, says Elections Canada boss Marc Mayrand.

"We must not be blind," said Mayrand. "As much as it is easier for Elections Canada to plan for the election, it's just as easy for political parties and third parties" to plan their spending before the election.

Those expenses generally go "beyond the rules outlined in the electoral law," he added.

The Harper government had a chance to close some of those loopholes when it examined the electoral law but opted to leave a "gaping hole," says Thierry Giasson, a political science professor at Universite Laval.

"The issue of pre-election spending was raised but the government consciously decided not to dwell on it," said Giasson.

Election campaigns are organized 12 to 18 months in advance, but only expenses incurred during the official campaign period are capped, Giasson said.

A fixed-date election extends that period considerably — meaning weeks and months of unofficial campaigning not subject to rules, opposition MPs say.

"Pre-election spending is subject to quite significant abuse, with taxpayers' money that is used for government announcements," said Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc.

The NDP's Peter Julian said using public funds to "constantly finance a sort of partisan campaign in favour of the Conservative party" is a Harper government "trademark."

The Conservatives were criticized in the spring for trumpeting tax measures not yet approved by Parliament: the Universal Child Care Benefit.

Cheques are going out to four million families in the days to come and have been the subject of recent Conservative photo-ops featuring cabinet ministers Pierre Poilievre and Steven Blaney.

Conservative MP Maxime Bernier dismissed the notion that events like those are part of a strategy to seduce voters with electoral goodies.

"People are smart," Bernier said. "I think the public knows the difference between pre-election ads to ... try to buy votes and ads that are part of a broader government plan."

Political parties aside, the emergence of third-party groups like Engage Canada and HarperPAC on the political landscape has some observers speculating about an Americanization of the Canadian electoral system.

Others believe Canada is still a long way from that reality.

"Is the political culture changing, and how much of that is actually due to the fixed date?" Mayrand wondered. "That's a little hard to say, but I would say we are still far from the U.S. system."

The Oct. 19 vote will mark the first time a fixed election will have taken place since the Conservatives introduced the measure in 2006. While it was designed to create a level playing field, Giasson said it's clear the party in power still has the upper hand.

Mayrand said he'll make recommendations to Parliament following the general election and will likely tackle the spending issue.

"There might be a way to frame spending, if Parliament considers it useful to do so," he said. "I will probably have proposals on that topic."

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