The morning after he had won the last federal election, Stephen Harper was asked how people fearing a Conservative majority government could be re-assured.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that surprises are not generally well received by the public,” he replied.[i]
That’s why the Prime Minister sought a mandate during the last election to eliminate the per-vote subsidies for registered federal political parties who met the vote-share threshold. He won a majority government in that election, and therein obtained a mandate to proceed with that policy.
As had been recommended by Tom Flanagan several years earlier, the PM and his Finance Minister Jim Flaherty proposed that the measure be phased in over three years, in order to give the other political parties time to adjust.
“That’s what elections are all about. We made it very clear in the platform that we would do this. But we would do it phased in over the next several years, and that’s what the amended budget will provide. Exactly as we had it set out in the platform. There will be no surprises,” Flaherty told the CBC in a pre-budget interview in May of 2011.
So, the parties have had four years to plan, fundraise and save the money required to wage a five-week election campaign, based on a five-week spending limit, taking into account the declining value of the now-eliminated per-vote subsidy.
But here, at the last minute, you want to surprise the parties with a doubly-long election campaign, that will cost them double the money to run? Based on a hidden provision in a humongous bill, that was dropped as a surprise on the opposition, with little time for advanced study, detailed consideration, or reasoned debate?
And you want to call yourselves “cunning”, in a trial-balloon so obviously floated in the National Post?
How about “cowardly”?
That’s what you’d call someone who could only win by tying their opponents’ hands behind their backs.
Who would be prepared to so sully the public interest of our democracy and its citizens to have a real choice, that no basic sense of fair play were too sacrosanct to violate, nor base partisan interest too small to elevate above the greater good.
An election is the highest form of expression of our citizenship, not a sneak attack where you surprise your opponents while they’re sleeping and slaughter them all before dawn.
That is not the way a wise and brave leader is called on to behave.
Prime Minister, you and I worked down the hall from one another decades ago, so I say this to you directly: You are capable of winning an election on the merits of your ideas, the strength of your intellect and your ability to persuade. And yes, through the superior organization the party you built has assembled through its admirable work ethic and obvious dedication.
What you don’t need to do is cheapen that victory by nuking your opponents into the stone age. That’s the coward’s way, not the warrior’s way.
And moreover, it might backfire. Because, as you once observed, Canadians don’t like surprises.
Alice Funke is the publisher of PunditsGuide.ca. She first reported on the implications of the new pro-rated election campaign spending limits on her blog, and later on for Macleans.ca. She worked on 7th floor Confed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the same time as Stephen Harper.
[i] as transcribed in Paul Wells’s The Longer I’m Prime Minister (p.349)