Political parties are crafting divergent strategies for a long election campaign that is expected to begin this weekend with the well-funded Conservatives running hard from the start while the cash-strapped Liberals and New Democrats hold their firepower until later when the impact is greater.
The contrasting plans demonstrate the extent to which money still dominates the ability of Canadian parties to sell their messages and their leaders, despite multiple efforts to level the playing field by limiting campaign expenses.
Opposition officials say they anticipate that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will visit the Governor-General on Sunday or Monday to ask that Parliament be dissolved. That would trigger a campaign that is much longer than any in recent history and much more expensive.
In a normal 37-day election period, each party would see its spending capped at $25-million. But, as a result of changes the Conservative government introduced to the Canada Elections Act, that cap increases by $675,000 a day starting on Day 38. If the campaign stretches for 11 weeks, the spending limits will top $50-million.
The Conservatives, who have been more effective fundraisers, have that kind of money. The Liberals and the New Democrats do not.
So, while Mr. Harper’s team says he will be in full election mode as soon as the writ is dropped, the opposition will take a more low-key approach throughout August when, they say, Canadians are less likely to be interested in the political jousting.
“We always knew an August call was a possibility, but you can’t allow them to school-yard taunt you into doing something silly,” said Jeremy Broadhurst, the Liberal Party’s national director.
“We’ll run the [campaign] plane when it’s time to run the plane, when the press is ready to get on tour, when Canadians are ready to be engaged in that way,” said Mr. Broadhurst. “It’s not like we are going to take the next couple weeks off but we can’t be foolish about this type of stuff.”
The New Democrats have similar thoughts.
Brad Lavigne, the senior campaign adviser for the New Democrats, said: “No matter when the Conservatives call the election, [NDP Leader] Tom Mulcair is ready to defeat Stephen Harper and bring change to Ottawa.”
But NDP officials say it makes no sense to invest a lot of money at the start of an 80-day campaign. They point out that a 30-second television ad purchased during a Blue Jays game in August is one less ad the party can buy when the Montreal Canadiens are playing in October – when undecided voters are making up their minds.
Mr. Mulcair will take part in events over the next month, they say, but he will not be campaigning every day.
All of the party leaders are likely to be out of the public eye in the early part of next week, in any case, as they prepare for their first debate on Aug. 6.
Regardless of the date of the election call, Mr. Harper will hold a late-afternoon rally on Sunday in the riding of Mount Royal, where the Conservative Party’s pro-Israel policies have attracted the support of many Jewish voters.
Under Mr. Harper, the Conservatives have never won a seat in the Montreal area, but they have become increasingly competitive in the Montreal Island riding and are looking for a breakthrough on Oct. 19.
The Sunday rally will come after days of announcements by the Conservative government across the country, including a $100-million federal-provincial package in Ontario for Toyota’s Cambridge and Woodstock plants that was moved up by a week and is now scheduled to be announced on Friday.
A flurry of additional announcements have been scheduled for Friday, including an event featuring Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre in the Ottawa area, Justice Minister Peter MacKay in Halifax, Health Minister Rona Ambrose in Alberta and Fisheries Minister Gail Shea in Prince Edward Island.
On Thursday, the government unveiled a $40-million plan to light up Montreal’s Jacques Cartier bridge as part of Canada’s 150th and Montreal’s 375th anniversary celebrations in 2017, among dozens of announcements.
Although the Liberals have been falling behind the New Democrats and the Conservatives in recent national polls, Liberal Party officials say they are confident they have put in place a solid ground game that will make a difference on election day. And they say they are not worried about having to start slowly or that the Conservatives can outspend them.
But they do criticize Mr. Harper for the changes he has made to election financing.
“Once upon a time, the Conservative party talked about a fixed election date, removing the advantageous levers that the incumbent had to play with the electoral system,” said Mr. Broadhurst. But “even though they’ve got the fixed election date, they are trying to game the system here.”
GLORIA GALLOWAY AND DANIEL LEBLANC
OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Jul. 30, 2015 11:30PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Jul. 31, 2015 12:58AM EDT