OTTAWA — The imminent federal election campaign will see more money splashed around than ever before in Canada and the deep-pocketed Conservatives can claim a decided advantage — an edge that increases exponentially if Prime Minister Stephen Harper opts for a longer campaign than usual, new number-crunching shows.
While much as been made of the ruling party's fundraising prowess at the national level, the biggest impact of an extended campaign will be felt by candidates in local riding contests.
An in-depth analysis by The Canadian Press of financing at the grassroots level shows that Conservative candidates' riding-based war chests are flush with cash, dramatically outpacing their political rivals in efforts to raise and stash away money.
A review of the most recent financial statements filed by riding associations to Elections Canada this month show candidates for the NDP, Liberals, Greens, Bloc Quebecois and other smaller parties simply don't have the money to compete on a level playing field with Conservative contenders, whose local war chests are overflowing.
Those 2014 financial reports in each of the country's 338 constituencies shows that Conservative electoral district associations ended the year with net assets totalling more than $19 million — more than the riding associations of the Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and Bloc combined.
Liberal riding associations reported a total of about $8 million in net assets, NDP associations more than $4.4 million, the Greens at almost $1.2 million and the Bloc at about $410,000.
Under the 2007 fixed-date-election legislation introduced by Harper's government, Canadians will go to the polls on Oct. 19. While the legislation specifies that the campaign must be a minimum of 37 days, it does not specify a maximum length.
That's important because the new Fair Elections Act provides that for every day beyond the typical five-week campaign, spending limits for national parties and their candidates will increase by one-thirty-seventh, meaning extra days on the campaign trail would benefit parties with hefty bank accounts.
That means a party running a full slate of candidates is entitled to spend almost $25 million for a 37-day campaign, with every additional day worth an extra $675,000 to each party's national spending limit and an extra $2,700 for each candidate who is entitled to spend an average of about $100,000.
So, if Harper fires the official starting gun in mid-August, as widely speculated, that would boost each party's spending cap by a whopping $19.6 million and each candidate's limit by $78,300.
At the national level, the Liberals and NDP have upped their fundraising game considerably since the last election but they're still behind the Conservatives, raising $15 million and $9.5 million respectively compared to $20.1 million for the Tories, based on Elections Canada financial returns for last year. Still, for their national campaigns, the New Democrats and Liberals can borrow money if necessary to spend the maximum, or close to it.
Smaller parties, like the Greens, will have more trouble keeping up and banks are less likely to help them.
At the riding level, however, very few opposition party associations have built up war chests that would help their candidates spend the maximum for a 37-day campaign, much less for a longer one.
Conservative associations dominate the top 20 richest associations in the country, with Harper's association in Calgary Southwest on top with more than $444,000 in the bank. Only two oppositions MPs makes the top-20 list: Liberal MP Mauril Belanger in Ottawa-Vanier, and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in Saanich-Gulf Islands.
Conservative associations also had more money at the end of 2014 than even some of the best-known incumbent New Democrats and Liberals, including in Ottawa Centre, where NDP Paul Dewar is running again and has the richest NDP association according to the data; and in Toronto-St. Paul's where incumbent Liberals Carolyn Bennett lagged behind her Conservative counterpart by about $55,000.
Some of the riding-level 2014 financial returns are still trickling in to Elections Canada. Liberal Leader Juston Trudeau's Papineau association still hasn't filed, for instance.
Falling behind in the fundraising wars will be more problematic for candidates this year than in previous elections. At the local level, the government imposed new rules for loans that make it difficult for under-financed candidates to spend anywhere near as much as their flush competitors.
Conservative candidates are less likely to need loans, given their large savings. Moreover, the Conservatives have an additional advantage in that rich ridings can transfer unlimited cash to more impoverished ridings, or the national party.
Even Trudeau admitted in a recent interview that he knew the Liberals were going to be outspent this election.
"When the Conservative party re-wrote Canada's election laws without any input from Elections Canada, the other political parties or the voters themselves, they did so with one thing in mind: the interests of the Conservative party," says Jeremy Broadhurst, national director of the Liberal party.
Broadhurst predicts the Tories will tap the overflowing coffers of their riding associations to help their national campaign "flood the airwaves with even more negative ads." Even so, he says they'll still have enough in their local campaign kitties to spend circles around opposing candidates.
"Changes made to the financing system that make it more difficult for local campaigns to obtain legitimate financing will mean that some local candidates will have trouble keeping pace with the Conservative fear machine."
That said, Broadhurst says Liberals have improved their fundraising efforts sufficiently "to ensure that the Conservatives don't get a free ride if they do attempt to pull off this distortion of democracy."
The Conservatives make no apology for their financial dominance.
"Canadians donate more to the Conservative party because our leader, Stephen Harper, is the clear choice for prime minister," says party spokesman Cory Hann.
NDP national campaign director Anne McGrath says her party has contingency plans in place to adapt to a longer campaign if need be. That said, McGrath points out that Conservatives outspent the NDP five to one in the recent Alberta election; the NDP still managed to pull off a stunning upset.
"The truth is, money is very important in a campaign, but it's not the only thing."
The Greens are hoping that sentiment plays out on election day. The national party was strategizing with associations this week to share best practices and tips on fundraising to make sure there is enough money to last a regular campaign, and maybe have some left over for spending before the official campaign begins and spending limits are imposed.
"We want to max out what we can spend," says Paul Manly, the Green candidate in the B.C. riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith.
Since January, Manly says he has raised more than $60,000 and is aiming to have $90,000 in the bank for the election, but even that might not be enough to reach the maximum spending limit in the newly-created riding if the prime minister decides to start the election campaign early with a dropping of the writ this summer.
"If the writ period is extended, we're going to have to raise more money," Manly says. "We're ready to raise as much as we can spend. Why not? People are willing to give."
Follow @jmbryden and @jpress on Twitter.
Joan Bryden and Jordan Press, The Canadian Press