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Canada Does Elections Right

The campaign for prime minister just started. And it’s almost over.

MONTREAL — Tired of the presidential election? Ready to scream if you hear another word from Marianne Williamson? So beaten down that the sight of 10 candidates on another debate stage might send you to counseling?

Just another reason to flee across the northern border for refuge in Canada. Here, the campaign just started. And it’s almost over.

Former Representative John Delaney, Democrat of Maryland, began his campaign more than 1,190 days before the American presidential election. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada began his re-election campaign on Wednesday — and it lasts only 41 days.

I’ve covered American elections for decades, and, to paraphrase what Samuel Johnson said of “Paradise Lost”: No one ever wished they were longer. Canadian elections are a brisker, more modest affair. No corporate or union contributions. No Saskatchewan caucuses. No New Brunswick primary. Just one election — this year, on Oct. 21 — and they’re done with it.

American presidential campaigns once were confined to the year in which the election occurred. Though there were efforts to draft Dwight D. Eisenhower for president in 1952, he didn’t start his campaign until June of that year. John F. Kennedy began his 1960 campaign on Jan. 2, 1960. Barry Goldwater started his 1964 campaign on Jan. 3, 1964.

And for decades, Senator Robert Taft, a Republican, was regarded as a big outlier for declaring his candidacy in October 1951 for the November 1952 election.

But White House aspirants increasingly have shown no respect for that antiquated term “election year.’’ Mr. Delaney, the first Democrat to join the race, began his 2020 campaign on July 28, 2017. Elizabeth Warren began hers on Feb. 9, 2019 — almost a year earlier than Kennedy and 8 months earlier than Taft, whom you may recall did not win the Republican nomination.

American campaigns grew longer because fund-raising demands grew greater, because incumbent presidents started running permanent campaigns that now begin the moment they win the White House, and because of an amped-up media cycle that takes its energy from campaign drama, much of it phony.

Canada has no similar fund-raising pressures and has a political system modeled on that of the British, who conduct swift election campaigns without the lengthy preliminaries and the spectacular cacophony of American political campaigns.

It’s true that the principal candidates for Canadian prime minister — the Liberal Justin Trudeau, the Conservative Andrew Scheer and the New Democrat Jagmeet Singh — have been maneuvering for months, even if the campaign has only just officially started. But that’s a minute waltz compared to the American four-movement symphony. Only for little more than a month will the Canadian party leaders plunge into anything resembling American full-campaign mode.

The main candidates will cram two debates into the six-week campaign. They will fly from coast to coast on chartered jetliners, alight from retrofitted “battle buses” — big, lumbering coaches that will take Mr. Scheer to rural events in Canada and Mr. Trudeau to campaign stops in urban Canada, and they may cross paths in suburban Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor, Ontario, prime political battlefields. They’ll speak at factories and day care centers. Then everybody will go home.

No long periods on the road. No moments when, as the 1984 and 1988 candidate Gary Hart used to say, a presidential candidate has to look at the phone book in his hotel room when he awakens to be sure what city he is in.

Canadian elections, of course, are different from American contests in more respects than just the time they consume, and some of those differences account for the variance in campaign length. As in Britain, election competitions here are among parties, not individuals, and the prime minister is the leader of a party that wins legislative majorities or who can cobble together a coalition to produce a parliamentary majority.

And though the competition for party leader can be bitter and divisive, there is no need for a parade of primaries or for the retail politics that chews up so much time in places like Iowa or New Hampshire.

Of course, concise campaigns come at a cost. A candidate like Mr. Delaney — or like Gov. Jimmy Carter or Senator Barack Obama, both of whom were polling low before campaigning in Iowa and winning the caucuses there — would have no chance north of the 49th parallel. Lesser known candidates have a shot in the United States; in Canada, it’s usually a battle of the elites.

Jason Lietaer, a onetime aide to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and now president of a public relations firm, recently told The Times that Canadian voters were impatient with the news accounts of the SNC-Lavalin affair, an Ottawa scandal that is imperiling Mr. Trudeau’s chances for a second term.

“People are going to get tired of this election really quickly,” Mr. Lietaer said.

If only he knew what being tired of an election really means.


David M. Shribman, a former executive editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, teaches at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University in Montreal.




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