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Conservatives’ higher fee makes attracting new members harder for leadership candidates, say some Conservatives

By Abbas Rana      

Conservative insiders say the party increased the membership fee to raise more funds, since political fundraising is harder in opposition that it is in government.

Conservative MPs Kellie Leitch and Maxime Bernier officially entered the Conservative Party leadership contest, last week. Potential candidates who are said to be considering to run include: Conservative MPs Lisa Raitt, Jason Kenney, Michael Chong, Michelle Rempel and Tony Clement. Former justice minister Peter MacKay, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and businessman Kevin O’Leary are also said to be considering to seek the Conservative Party leadership. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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By almost doubling the membership fee, the federal Conservative Party has made it an uphill battle for leadership candidates to sign up new members, says the Conservative Party’s longest, continuously serving MP, while potential leadership candidate Lisa Raitt says she’s against any policy that restricts the party’s openness.

Seven-term MP Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.) is vowing to challenge his party’s new membership rules changes at the next month’s policy convention on the grounds that the fee hike and rules to accept payment only by credit card or personal cheques deprive a number of potential supporters from joining, making the Conservatives an “elitist” party.

He said during the leadership campaigns candidates try to sign up as many new members as possible and by raising the membership fee to $25 a year from $15 the party has made the job of leadership candidates harder.

“Absolutely, the higher fees will deter a lot of people from joining the party,” said Mr. Obhrai, who was first elected in the 1997 election as a member of the Reform Party.

“[The Conservative Party] is an elitist party because you are not bringing in a lot of people. You are restricting [the membership] to only those who have money to come in. It’s $25. it’s a lot of money for many people, specifically youth and seniors. We’ve said that we want to make this party an open tent; let’s talk about making the party an open tent,” Mr. Obhrai told The Hill Times. 

Three-term Conservative MP Raitt (Milton, Ont.), who is considering running for the party leadership, said she has not made up her mind about the Conservative Party’s membership rules changes and still is in the phase of receiving feedback from Canadians. But she said she would oppose any policy that restricts the party’s openness.

“I do not like anything that is going to prevent people from joining the party, for sure,” Ms. Raitt told The Hill Times. “If I hear from membership [that preventing people from joining is] going to be the effect, then I will have concerns and will have to talk about ways to ensure that we’re not closing doors to either people running or people from joining our party. We want more memberships, obviously, that’s how you build the party.”

The Conservative Party increased its membership fee from $15 to $25 for a one-year membership, after the last federal election. The membership fee is $30 for two years, $45 for a three-year membership, and $60 for a five-year membership, according to the new Conservative Party membership fee schedule. The Conservative Party also requires all new members to pay their fees using either a credit card or a personal cheque, with cash payments not being accepted anymore.

In comparison, the one-year membership fee for the Liberal Party currently is $10 and the NDP’s membership fee varies from province to province, ranging from no fee to $25. For Newfoundland and Labrador residents, the NDP membership is free and the most expensive party membership is $25 for Ontario and Nova Scotia residents. Both the Liberals and NDP allow their new members to pay their fees in cash.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), in a recent speech in Halifax, said he’s in favour of eliminating paid party memberships and that every Canadian should be allowed to participate in the party’s activities if they choose to simply register with the party.

If the Liberal Party approves this proposal at its policy convention next month in Winnipeg, all Canadians will be able to register with the party, free of charge, participate in the party’s policy development, participate in the nomination of candidates, and take part in the selection of party leaders.

The Conservatives did not officially explain the reason to increase the membership fee and party spokesman Cory Hann did not respond to an interview request last week. In an email to The Hill Times in January, he said there’s “good value” for Canadians in joining the Conservative Party, predicting the next party leader will be the “next prime minister of Canada.”

“While there was only a modest increase to the price of the Conservative Party membership, there is, of course, good value in holding the Conservative Party membership especially now when Conservatives are going to be electing the next Prime Minister of Canada,” Mr. Hann said in his email. “A substantial cost break is given in a two-year membership fee, which for Canadians becoming members now, will guarantee them being able to vote in the leadership election on May 27, 2017.”

Conservative Party insiders told The Hill Times that the party increased the membership fee to raise more funds, since political fundraising is harder in opposition that it was in government. As the party currently is in the midst of a leadership campaign, it’s expected that leadership contestants will sign up thousands of new members. This means hundreds of thousands or even millions of more dollars in extra revenue for the party, depending on how many new members are recruited.

During leadership campaigns or nomination campaigns of any national party, it’s not unusual for candidates to face allegations that their campaign organizations paid membership fees of newly-recruited supporters. And if these allegations become public, it invites unwanted media attention, damaging the credibility of the contest, candidates, and the reputation of the party. By accepting only credit card or cheque payments, party officials feel such issues can be avoided, insiders say.

Mr. Obhrai, who chaired the Conservative Party’s interim leadership election to succeed outgoing party leader Stephen Harper (Calgary Heritage, Alta.) after the defeat to the Liberals in last year’s election, said his party almost doubled the membership fee without consulting caucus or grassroots members. He said his riding association board passed a resolution asking the party to reverse the fee increase that will be debated at the party’s convention next month in Vancouver.

“I’m opposed to that increase. I don’t think the Conservative Party should be an elitist party. I don’t believe it’s beneficial to the party, in the long term. My board has passed a resolution calling for this to be revised to the original fees,” Mr. Obhrai said.

Five-term Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski (Moose Jaw-Lake Centre-Lanigan, Sask.) told The Hill Times last week that, in his riding, most party supporters did not oppose the higher membership fee. He denied that the changes in membership rules make the Conservatives an “elitist” party.

“There wasn’t really a widespread concern about it whatsoever,” Mr. Lukiwski said. “So, I suspect, there’ll be some people who will not like the increase of fees, but, generally speaking, it will be a non-issue.”

Mr. Lukiwski said he supports the idea of not accepting cash payments for membership fee, as it will ensure no one else pays the fees, except the new members themselves.

“That’s a very good idea, quite frankly. In this day and age, everyone has access to either a cheque or a credit card. Cash transactions are becoming a thing of the past,” said Mr. Lukiwski.

The Conservatives are holding their policy convention in Vancouver from May 26-28. The leadership convention will be held in May of next year. As of last week, the party had not publicly announced the venue for the leadership convention.

Conservative MP Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) said that he has heard concerns from grassroots members in his constituency that the membership fee is too high. He said the party has not explained the reasons why it increased this fee and that there should be an explanation or a rollback.

“A lot of MPs have been hearing that it was a big bump up and we’ve got to communicate why it’s increased,” he said. “I’d have liked to see them go to $20. So, there’ve been some concerns.”

Mr. O’Toole said $25 is too high, although he agrees with the party’s decision not to accept membership fees in cash. Mr. O’Toole also disagreed that his party is “elitist.”

Keith Beardsley, who was deputy chief of staff to Mr. Harper when he was prime minister, told The Hill Times that the party’s decision to increase the membership fee would restrict potential new supporters from joining the party. He said that by raising the fee and by disallowing cash payments, the party has made the task of selling memberships harder for the leadership candidates.

“We’ve made it more difficult for people,” he said. “It’s not voter suppression, but it’s going to deter people. A lot of people aren’t going to want to do that, especially the credit cards. A lot of people don’t like to use them. Seniors are going to be deterred at the $25 amount. There’s no doubt about it.”

In addition to restricting the membership, Mr. Beardsley said that the new membership rules would reinforce Canadians’ perception of the Conservative Party as being overly controlling.

“Go back to the last 10 years, what was our reputation?” Mr. Beardsley said. “It was about this extreme control over everything. Now, you’re seeing it coming out in the leadership again. This control over membership—who signs up—it deters people from joining.”

Mr. Beardsley said he does not believe that if the party started to accept membership fees in cash, some leadership candidates’ campaign organizations would pay their supporters’ membership fees. He argued that in the new social media age, no candidate would take that kind of risk.

“I don’t see any candidate doing it because you are going to get caught. In this day and age, someone is going to say something on the social media and everybody will know about it. The risk is too high for a candidate or for an organizer to do it.”

Mr. Beardsley said that, in his view, the party membership fee should not be more than a dollar or two. He said the Liberal Party’s decision to allow Canadians to join the party without any fee is a step in the right direction and will help them grow. But Mr. Obhrai, Mr. Lukiwski, and Mr. O’Toole said that they are against the idea of free memberships.

Meanwhile, two Conservative MPs—Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.) and Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.)—entered the Conservative Party leadership race last week. In the Harper cabinet, Ms. Leitch served as minister of status of women and labour. Mr. Bernier served as minister of industry, foreign affairs, and small business and tourism.

At least eight other potential candidates are said to be considering running for the party leadership contest including sitting MPs Ms. Raitt, Jason Kenney (Calgary Midnapore, Ont.), Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.), Tony Clement (Perry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.), Michelle Rempel (Calgary-Nose Hill, Alta.), and Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.). Former Conservative MP and justice minister Peter MacKay, and high-profile businessman, TV personality and chairman of the O’Leary Financial Group Kevin O’Leary are also believed to be considering runs.

The Conservative Party held its last leadership convention in 2004 when the then-newly merged Conservative Party elected Mr. Harper as the party leader. Mr. Harper resigned as party leader after the Oct. 19 election defeat.

The leadership contest officially started last month. According to the rules, the spending limit for leadership contestants is $5-million, and it will cost each candidate a non-refundable $50,000 as registration fee and another $50,000 as compliance deposit, refundable upon the conclusion of the contest if the candidate follows all rules and regulations.

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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