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Is the Fair Elections Act giving Stephen Harper an unfair advantage?

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When Prime Minister Harper went to the Governor General over the long weekend to trigger the longest federal election campaign since John A. MacDonald in 1872, he inferred it was a decision with safeguarding of taxpayer money in mind. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if that didn’t make his nose grow, nothing will.

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In fact, this campaign will cost taxpayers many millions more than any previous campaign, because of its length combined with the new rules brought in by Harper’s majority government.

The salient point is that Harper, a brilliant tactician if nothing else, is gaming the system.  To him, any amount of taxpayer dollars is a small price to pay for reelection.

He has set the table, through what in true Orwellian fashion his government has called the Fair Elections Act.

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The Conservative Party is overflowing with money, and the rule changes they pushed into law on spending limits allows them to use more of it than election spending rules ever allowed before. The other parties could too of course, but that’s a moot point because they don’t have as much.  But to suggest it is party money not taxpayer money isn’t true. Taxpayers, you and me, will subsidize by fifty to sixty cents, every dollar spent. We are talking tens of millions of dollars here.

But that’s only part of how Harper has changed the rules to give his party an advantage.

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Pretty much everybody with expertise in this area agrees that the Fair Elections Act will result in voter suppression, particularly among demographic groups that aren’t inclined to vote Conservative. The act also makes it illegal for the Chief Electoral Officer to encourage people to vote. This means it is now illegal for his office to do the outreach it has done in the past to encourage voting by groups who don’t usually bother. The biggest example of this is the Student Outreach Program designed to encourage students to vote when they turn 18. In 2011, 500,000 Canadian students voted through this program. But now, with the Fair Elections Act, it is illegal for the Chief Electoral Officer to do anything that would encourage anyone to vote. Does that sound like a restriction you would want in a progressive democracy?

But does it matter? This is where the communications becomes especially interesting.

Harper and his advisors are banking on the fact that generally speaking Canadians are indifferent. That this is about process and they believe most Canadians don’t care about process. They are banking on the fact our democracy being eroded is a non-issue compared to things like unemployment, tax levels or the economy.  They may be right. Maybe if you are unemployed it is hard to be concerned that some fellow Canadians may be deprived of their right to vote, or that scientists are being muzzled or that any of the other ethically questionable initiatives of this government matter.

So the Harper strategy is to focus on discrediting his opponents through wall-to-wall attack ads while trying to convince us his party is the best choice for the economy and to keep us safe from terrorists. The problem is that the track record shows that Harper’s economic record isn’t good, and that Canadians aren’t buying into the manufactured fear tactic.

But that’s just so far and it is going to be a long campaign.

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(cartoon credit, Brian Gamble, Globe & Mail)

His communications challenge is to convince us that we need him. And not all that many of us. All he needs to win is to pick up 10 percent support to add to his base. And that, it goes without saying, is quite do-able, especially with the way he has changed the rules to help make it happen.   

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