There are several things our direct neighbours to the South excel at compared to us: having a charismatic leader, putting bacon on everything, winning the World Cup (is that one too soon?). However, one of the most garish and unpleasant characteristics of American politics has slowly but surely been creeping its way up north.
All three major party leaders in Canada have launched a campaign to amass fundraising and launch barbed attacks at each other, often in the form of malicious advertising. When is the next election, you may ask? Not until October 19. This extended election period risks compromising the subdued and substantive nature of Canadian politics.
The reason for this phenomenon traces back to the Canada Elections Act, which does not place any restrictions on spending from parties before there is a writ of election. After the writ is dropped parties must limit spending to under $20 million. In addition, third parties are free of restrictions as well before an election is officially called, after which they would have to register with Elections Canada and restrict their spending.
This flaw in the election regulation is made worse by having fixed election dates. If the date of the election is known, all limits are off and parties can engage in a race to the top (or bottom, if you see it that way) in terms of who can spend the most in the pre-election period.
In the United States, a protracted election period carries several negative consequences. One is that the business of governing is put aside halfway through the term in favour of politicking and positioning. For evidence of this in Canada, one need only look at the federal Liberals’ tepid response to Bill C-51. Their support — albeit with a caveat — clearly betrayed the traditional ideological leanings of the party, in favour of chipping away at disgruntled Conservative voters.
The business of governing is put aside halfway through the term in favour of politicking and positioning.
With longer election periods, there is a higher risk of voters being distracted from the issues by the personal characteristics of the party leaders. The media has more time to expose scandals about various candidates and drag their names through the mud rather than devote time to their policies.
For example, the current scandal du jour is NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair allegedly having considered joining the Conservatives in 2007. The allegations have been disputed and critiqued, but the mud sticks.
Or perhaps an even better example of personal politics are the ridiculously juvenile attack ads on Justin Trudeau. The ads, which are impossible to avoid, portray the affable Liberal leader as an inexperienced and entitled brat who doesn’t understand the business of governing.
Absent are actual critiques of the Liberal’s proposed policies and in their place are soundbites and generic populist statements. Where is the substantive political debate? A short election period means a scarcity of time, meaning that the media should be devoting attention to issues that matter rather than injecting bias into the voter base.
Canada must abandon fixed election dates or change its election rules to ensure that no matter when an election is held the democratic process is not compromised before the writ is even dropped.
It ought to be a point of national pride that our elections are seen as restrained and dignified in comparison to those in the USA. Canadians should be wary of the way in which our laws might warp that election process and never forget that it is impossible to divorce the integrity of a democracy from how elections are held.