And they’re off: Stephen Harper launches longest election campaign in 143 years

WATCH: Harper triggers longest and most expensive election campaign in modern Canadian history. Laura Stone reports.

OTTAWA — The economy, national security, Canada’s middle class and an accountable federal government.

These themes emerged quickly within the first day of what will be the country’s longest federal election campaign since 1872.

After a brief meeting with the Governor General Sunday morning, Conservative leader Stephen Harper went before the cameras to tell Canadians the campaign toward the Oct. 19 election was officially underway.

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“This is an election about leadership on the big issues that affect us all – our economy and our nation’s security,” he said, reading from prepared remarks.

“It’s an election about who will protect our economy in a period of ongoing global instability and secure Canada’s future prosperity.”

Moments later, speaking from nearby Gatineau, Que., NDP leader Tom Mulcair attacked the Conservative record on the economy – pointing to an ongoing five-month slide in the size of the economy – as well as accountability.

READ MORE: 4 things you need to know about the 2015 federal election

“Do you remember when Mr. Harper promised to clean up Liberal corruption?” he asked, recalling the 2005-06 campaign that won Harper his first minority on the heels of the Liberal sponsorship scandal.

“In each of the last three elections, Conservatives have been convicted of wrongdoing. Some of have been sent to jail.”

Mulcair’s launch speech also zeroed in on middle class families, which he said are working harder than ever without being able to get ahead.

“Our plan is built on enduring Canadian values,” Mulcair said, listing hard work and living within means as priorities.

WATCH: NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, currently leading the polls, tries to herd the “anyone but Harper” vote as federal campaign begins.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau —who was in British Columbia on the first day of campaigning — also took aim at the economy, accusing both his opponents of having plans that fail most Canadians.

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Surrounded by supporters, Trudeau described Harper’s plan as a “failure” and Mulcair’s as a “mirage.”

“It’s time to choose a person and a team with an economic plan based on this fundamental truth about Canada: That if you want to create jobs and grow the economy, you have to give middle class Canadians a real and fair chance to succeed,” Trudeau said.

Who’s paying for the extended campaign?

With Sunday’s writ drop, this campaign will prove historic for reasons beyond its length: the marathon to the fall voting day will also be the country’s costliest (on account of the length) and the first in which three parties have a statistically realistic shot at winning the election.

Harper defended the cost, saying Canadians deserve having time to understand and weigh their options. Plus, he said, if parties are going to start campaigning at all, it should happen on their dime, not the taxpayers’.

READ MORE: Mulcair won’t join broadcast consortium debates unless Harper present

“It is important that every political party’s campaign be financed by itself – not government resources, not parliamentary resources, not of all the other resources available to us when the campaigns are not on,” Harper said.

“Everyone is campaigning, everybody should finance their own campaign, and everybody should operate under the law and the rules for campaigns.”

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However, the taxpayer’s share of the bill actually stands to go up exponentially with every day the campaign extends beyond the minimum 37 days.

READ MORE: Mulcair won’t join broadcast consortium debates unless Harper present

For one, Trudeau said, it will cost an extra $125 million to run  a 79-day election campaign instead of the minimum (and, until now, standard) 37-day campaign.

Secondly, the Conservatives amended election laws to increase the spending limit by 1/37th of the initial limit for every day the campaign extends beyond the minimum 37 days.

With an anticipated $25-million spending limit for the first 37 days of this campaign, the limit stands to more than double for the 78 days between today and Oct. 19.

READ MORE: Tories launch anti-Mulcair attack ads on eve of federal election call

And finally, taxpayers subsidize 50 per cent of what a party spends on its national campaign during the writ period, so long as that party receives as least two per cent support.

In a nutshell, a longer campaign means a higher spending limit and the more a party spends, the bigger the taxpayer-backed subsidy it gets.

Prior to the Conservatives’ changes, spending limits were set and fixed – it didn’t matter if the campaign lasted 37 days or 137 days, parties could only spend that much.

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WATCH: Liberal leader Justin Trudeau outlines campaign promises to raise taxes on the rich and derides NDPs economic platform.

The idea of imposing the spending limit was, in large part, to help ensure the parties were all on level ground.

This vastly expanded limit, however, takes away any semblance of even ground considering the differences in fundraising among the three main parties.

READ MORE: Tories close gap, but NDP still leads poll as election draws nearer

Since the 2011 election, the Conservatives have raised almost $69 million, the Liberals more than $43 million and the NDP roughly $30.5 million, according to figures filed with Election Canada as of June.

Harper is expected to attend a Conservative rally this evening in the Mount Royal riding in Montreal. The riding has been a Liberal stronghold since 1940, most recently held by Irwin Cotler, who announced in February he wouldn’t run again for federal office.

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The one- and two-front wars

At a time when the economy has tanked and polls suggest two-thirds of the electorate are looking for a change, the Conservatives risk driving change seekers to coalesce behind the NDP if they attack the Liberals too hard, and vice versa. They’ll attempt to strike a balance, attacking both and warning that the economy is too fragile to risk putting it in the spendthrift hands of either Mulcair or Trudeau.

But Mulcair and Trudeau also face two-front wars – with each other as much as with Harper. Each will be attempting to prove that his party is the vehicle that can defeat the Conservatives and provide real change. And in doing so, they’ll be fighting not just to win the election but, potentially, for the very survival of their respective parties.

Should Harper win a minority, the two opposition parties will come under pressure to form a coalition to snatch power from him. Should he win another majority, they’ll come under pressure to merge outright and stop splitting the progressive vote.

In either scenario, the opposition party that emerges strongest on Oct. 19 will have the upper hand; the weaker party could face possible extinction.

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Please note: The headline and one paragraph in this article were amended to indicate this campaign will be the longest since the country’s second election in 1872, not ever. There was not, however, a single voting day across the country in its first two elections, meaning for some voters the writ period was considerably shorter than it will be for this one, and longer for others.

With files from The Canadian Press

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