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OTTAWA — And now, a word from our election sponsors. On Monday, as Conservative Leader Stephen Harper spoke about his party's plan to encourage home ownership, a massive Home Hardware logo loomed behind him where a Canadian flag usually stands. As a result, the Ontario-based hardware retailer got a solid 10 minutes of free advertising. Isn't that benefit the equivalent of a campaign expense that ought to be declared to the authorities? Not according to Elections Canada. "While the treatment may differ based on the facts of a given situation, to date the provision of a forum to serve as a backdrop for a campaign announcement has not been considered a political contribution on the assumption that it has no commercial value," said spokesman Serge Fleyfel. When a company provides a location, however, the party has to pick up the tab for any additional costs that are incurred as a result, Fleyfel added. "Any incremental costs incurred in providing the venue would have to be paid by the party; otherwise, this would be an ineligible non-monetary contribution to the party." Ineligible because corporations are banned from donating to political campaigns thanks to rules brought in by the Conservatives in 2006. But that doesn't mean there aren't grey areas, said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa. Calculating those incremental costs is one of them. "What's the value of a space that is never rented out to anybody?" Conacher asked in an interview. The agency does not regularly audit expense claims to suss out whether parties are actually declaring the true value of the space they rent or the added costs they are covering, he added. Automotive supply firm Spencer ARL said the NDP didn't pay them anything to allow Tom Mulcair to appear at their facility in Niagara Falls, Ont., earlier this month. Mulcair took a tour of the company before making a speech, but plant manager Daryn Bryne said operations weren't disrupted and it didn't cost them anything. "We were open to a visit," he said. "It was as simple as that." Dave Hill's company, LamSar Industrial Contractors in Sarnia, Ont., hosted Harper over the weekend. He said the party did pay for the space, though not much was disrupted as it was a Sunday event. He said he saw hosting as a chance to help out the local Conservative candidate, who he knows because they do business together, as opposed to endorsing the party, despite what the optics might suggest. "I can't speak for everybody that works for my company, I can only speak for myself," Hill said. "I'm very reluctant to endorse anybody." For its part, Home Hardware said Harper's appearance was not an endorsement by their company either. "As a national retail organization, we don't support any one party," spokesman Rob Wallace said in an email. The increased presence of corporate logos on the campaign trail is just another example of a change in political marketing altogether, said Jonathan Rose, an associate professor of political science at Queens University in Kingston, Ont. "It really is a natural extension of political party as brand.... The cliched picture of the leader serving coffee at Tim's is the best example of this: it communicates a ideal of everyman," he said. "What it tells us that parties are becoming increasingly a vehicle for marketing a brand and less a means to communicate a constellation of ideas."
In Photos: Canada Election 2015