Canada’s costly election: Could $600M have been spent elsewhere?

EDMONTON — With an estimated record-setting price tag of $610 million, the 2021 election is the most expensive in Canadian history — at a cost of about $100 million more than the 2019 election.

After all of that spending resulted in little change politically, many are asking whether it was worth the money and where else those hundreds of millions of dollars could have been directed.

Indigenous organizations have criticized the election as being “unnecessary,” suggesting the money could have been better spent on clean drinking water initiatives, reconciliation projects, and mental health initiatives.

Child-care advocates have similarly suggested that the funds could have been used to propel the Liberals’ $10-a-day child-care promise. And many Canadians have spoken out, wishing the money had instead been spent on pandemic recovery.

Experts say that it’s not quite that clear-cut, as governments don’t have a set amount of money in their pot each year – and some say you can’t put a price on democracy, even in the midst of a global pandemic.

Ian Lee, associate professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, says it’s important to first understand that government budgets don’t operate like your run-of-the-mill household budget.

“Governments don’t have a ‘fixed, rigidly financed, precise’ amount of money in their pot each year. They roughly know revenues come in and expenditures go out. Sometimes they’re a little short and they just have a deficit, and then they print the money because that’s what governments do,” Lee told CTVNews.ca by phone Thursday.

“Budgeting, unlike for the average consumer, is not a zero-sum game – consumers, if they don’t have the money for something, you’re just out of luck. You don’t buy it. Governments don’t face that dilemma, especially the federal government.”

In other words, just because a certain amount of money million was spent on the election, that doesn’t mean there is the same amount less to spend on something else.

But as for the principle of calling a pricey election during the fourth wave of a pandemic, experts are split.

“For me – it is true that anytime the government spends money it could be spent elsewhere and the point of elections is to judge the government on how they spent money and the decisions they made,” Michael Johns, visiting professor in the Department of Politics at York University, told CTVNews.ca by email Thursday.

“There are far too many examples of things that could be funded and are not and other things that are spent that are problems.”

But Johns says he is uncomfortable with the idea that spending money on an election should be considered an issue, suggesting that those upset with the timing of the election should have reflected such in their ballot.

“There would have been an election a year ago if the opposition had been successful in voting out the government on a matter of confidence; there would have been one in probably a year if it had not been triggered now due to the nature of minority governments,” he explained

“Either way the act of voting and having our preferences registered matters and costs money. People could judge the government on its timing and vote accordingly but we should be very careful when we start making decisions about holding elections based on their cost.”

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, a non-profit citizen group advocating democratic reform, has a different view, saying the money spent on the election could have been spent on “anything else.”

“The prime minister decided to hold an election even though 327 MPs voted against holding the election at the end of May,” Conacher told CTVNews.ca by phone Thursday.

“And he knew in calling an election that Elections Canada would have a right to spend any money it needed to run it, which ended up being more than usual because of the costs of, for example, buying one pencil for everybody.”

As for what that money could have been spent on instead, Conacher says the government should make those decisions based on what the large majority of the country needs – like health-care solutions during a pandemic.

“In terms of where the $600 million could be spent, there’s many areas where the health of Canadians is at risk or where Canadians want money spent – pharmacare, child care – the polls show the large majority want those in place,” he said.

Lee disagrees that it has to be one or the other, saying that “you cannot make the argument that because they spend $600 million on the election, that therefore some other spending item will be cut by $600 million.”

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