When Alice Funke first identified the effect of an extended writ period under the Cons' well-hidden revisions to the Canada Elections Act, I mused the effect was less problematic than it appeared at first glance. But now that the possibility of an extra-long campaign looks fairly real and the issue is drawing more discussion, let's highlight exactly what it means - and why it shouldn't be a huge problem for Canada's opposition parties.
Let's start by keeping in mind where matters stand before the writ period.
At the moment (and until the election writ drops), there are effectively no limits on political advertising in any format.
As we well know, the federal government is able to engage in massive, publicly-funded ad campaigns which have plainly been designed to further the Cons' interests. But at the same time, anybody else interested in the results of this fall's election also has the ability to spend money on pre-campaign ads and other activity (though without any reimbursement for the cost of doing so). And parties and outside actors alike are taking up the opportunity.
Once the election writ drops, the situation changes as follows.
First, outside advertising is severely curtailed. Typically, government advertising comes to a halt, while the Canada Elections Act imposes registration requirements and spending limits on outside actors engaging in election advertising.
Meanwhile, political parties and candidates face a couple of changes in circumstance. On the one hand, parties and candidates face spending limits of their own - meaning that the start of the writ period limits a single party's financial advantage rather than enhancing it. But on the other hand, those campaign activities are subject to public rebates which both lower the effective cost of activity and incentivize borrowing to reach the limit.
To the extent there's reason for concern about an extended writ period based on the timing of an election all, it's that the party holding power may be able to time the campaign to match exactly how much money it has on hand, while also having better knowledge than its opponents as to exactly when it needs to shift from pre-election into election mode. But the primary effect of any change on that basis is to maximize the governing party's resulting rebate - not to make a substantial difference in how much it's able to spend.
If the Cons have tens of millions of extra dollars on hand which they're willing to burn on ads in August, they can do so whether or not the writ period has started. And conversely, nothing about an extended campaign period forces any opposition party or candidate to spend more than it planned to otherwise.
Of course, practically speaking the major parties will put at least some campaign in motion as soon as possible. But it should be feasible to keep costs down during the earlier part of an extended campaign - as there's no reason in particular why any other party has to play along with the Cons' intention that the first month be advertising-heavy.
And the start of the writ period also figures to call public attention to the election itself - with that greater awareness likely making it easier to attract donations over a longer time period to cover any increased costs.
Moreover, the drop of the writ would offer some valuable certainty of its own. I've pointed out (and Kady has picked up on) the possibility that Stephen Harper could choose not to call an election at all this fall, which would surely disrupt the opposition's plans more than a slightly earlier start to the expected campaign. But once the writ drops, the Cons lose any further ability to play around with the campaign period and election date.
If anybody should be especially concerned about an early election call, it's third parties who may have plans for summer ad buys which would become illegal within a campaign period. But for the opposition parties, it should only take a reasonable amount of contingency planning to minimize any damage from an extended writ period. And while it may be cynical for Harper to mess around with our expectations as to the length of an election campaign, it's far from an inescapable trap.