August 3, 2015 / 8:18 PM / in 2 years

Long Canadian election campaign risks voter anger, apathy

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to supporters and employees at Spectra Premium during a campaign stop in Laval, Quebec, August 3, 2015.Christinne Muschi

OTTAWA/MONTREAL (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's long election campaign may maximize his party's funding advantage but it also risks angering voters as critics take aim at the cost to taxpayers.

The governing Conservatives on Sunday launched Canada's longest campaign since the 1870s, with Harper saying it would allow voters to better study platforms and that his opponents were already campaigning for the Oct. 19 vote.

But opposition parties charge the 11-week campaign will waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars because of partial government rebates for party spending.

That message was resonating with some voters.

In Montreal, Sylvie Charbonneau characterized the early call as a show of contempt.

"All the people I know, we are saying the same thing: it costs too much and it's really futile," she said on Monday, after Harper made a campaign stop near the city.

Pollster Nik Nanos said the cost issue alone was unlikely to drive votes but it could have a cumulative effect if voters also disagree over Harper's economic claims.

Harper, in power since 2006, touts his experience in steering the economy out of the financial crisis, but critics point out it shrank through much of the first half of 2015.

"You start rolling things up, and that's when it poses a potential risk for the Conservatives," Nanos said.

Given Canada's long winters, many people focus more on soaking up the sun in August than on politics.

One opposition candidate reported barely disguised hostility last month, with comments like "Why are you bothering us?"

The longer campaign does allow Harper to take advantage of Conservative reserves. The party's end-2014 net assets were C$17.4 million ($13.2 million), more than the New Democratic Party and Liberals combined. Conservatives raised another C$13.7 million ($10.4 million) from January to June.

Conservative strategist Tim Powers said the early start mucked with opponents' game plans, with neither the NDP nor the Liberals rolling out campaign buses early. Also neither leader has campaigned as party boss, another source of strain.

Still, recent history does not favor the Conservatives as the incumbent lost in three of the last four long campaigns, most strikingly in 1984 when Liberal Prime Minister John Turner ran an ill-prepared summer campaign. A coordinator of his tour, Stephen LeDrew, said Turner hardly campaigned the first two weeks.

The left-leaning New Democrats scored an upset in Alberta's provincial election in May, where Progressive Conservative Premier Jim Prentice was accused of wasting taxpayer money with an early election.

A straw poll in Alberta, still viewed as Conservative heartland, revealed little enthusiasm.

"The shorter the campaign, probably the better, because if too much time goes by then everybody gets confused," said Kim Ferreira, an insurance company manager, ahead of the launch.

Candidates said, however, that a summer campaign beats a winter one. Former cabinet minister Peter Kent said the eight-week campaign for the January 2006 election had been brutal.

"It was miserable. We had volunteers falling down icy steps. We had snow ... (and had) to pound signs into frozen lawns."

($1 = 1.3140 Canadian dollars)

Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and; Mike de Souza in Calgary; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and James Dalgleish

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