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Liberals look to edge out Conservatives in fundraising after failing to overtake Tories for most of 2016

By Marco Vigliotti      

Liberal Party’s senior director of fundraising Christina Topp credits the Tories' persistent, though sliding, lead to that party's smaller base of wealthier donors.

Honeymoon period or no, the party of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fell about $1.7-million short of the donations raised by the official opposition Conservatives in the first three quarters of last year. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The Liberals and NDP start 2017 looking to gain ground on the Conservatives in the race for donations, as the Tories’ well-oiled fundraising machine continues to outpace its rivals despite being relegated to the opposition ranks and lacking a permanent leader.

In a year dominated by stories of high-priced, exclusive Liberal fundraisers, and allegations of selling access to senior government figures for hefty donations, it was the Conservatives who managed to raise the most money over the first three quarters of 2016, with fourth quarter statistics not yet publicly available.

The Tories took in more than $13.95-million over that span, while the Liberals sat in second at $12.25-million, and the NDP finished a distant third with $3.42-million, according to data from Elections Canada.

All three parties saw noticeable dives in donations in the third quarter, with the Conservatives dropping from just shy of $5.5-million in the first three months of the year to only $3.3-million in their September release.

Christina Topp, the Liberal Party’s senior director of fundraising, attributes the continuing Tory lead to that party’s contingent of well-heeled donors that can be counted upon to give generously.

Despite the second-place finish, the Liberals draw up a broader range of support, she said, with the party receiving donations from more people than any of their rivals. 

Elections Canada statistics show that the Liberals received donations from an average of 35,720 donors each quarter this year, compared to 32,932 for the Conservatives—a difference of about eight per cent—and 15,707 for the NDP.

“That continues to be a clear contrast, for example, to the Conservative Party, where they’re collecting larger donations from a smaller number of Canadians,” she told The Hill Times.

Over the first three quarters of 2016, the average donation, as measured by total donations divided by the number of donors, to the Liberal Party was $113, compared to $138 for the Conservatives and $72 for the NDP, according to statistics from Elections Canada.

The maximum annual individual donation to a political party is currently $1,550, and rising by $25 each year. Corporations and unions are barred from donating.

Under Mr. Trudeau’s direction, Ms. Topp said the Liberal Party has sought to broaden its base and draw in more Canadians, citing as an example the recent decision to eliminate party membership fees.

“We’ve been working very hard to open up the Liberal Party, and build a broad base of support. That means providing opportunities that are meaningful for people to engage, and hopefully setting politics as something positive for Canadians to participate in,” she said.

“We’ve seen the results of that approach, and we now have tens of thousands of grassroots donors giving every quarter.”

Ms. Topp argued that the party is beginning to close the gap on the Conservatives’ fundraising machine that she noted has been honed over the past decade in power. She also credited Mr. Trudeau and the Liberal Party’s focus on pushing their brand of positive politics for attracting more grassroots donors.

“It’s that base of grassroots donors, that we built over the last number of years, that really has been fuelling our movement,” she said.

According to Elections Canada, 35,180 individuals collectively donated $3.2 million to the Liberals in the third quarter of 2016, narrowly edging out the Conservatives, who relied upon 29,073 donors that gave $3.1 million.

The Tories were able to narrowly edge out the Liberals in fundraising last quarter thanks to $146,000 given by the party’s registered associations and roughly $104,000 transferred from the campaigns of party leadership candidates.

Under the rules, a share of the funds raised by leadership candidates is returned to the party coffers.

NDP touts ‘loyal’ monthly donors as Liberals attract controversy with Bay Street connections

As donations have grown, though, so too has the controversy.

The governing Liberals have been besieged by accusations of selling off access to senior government figures, including Mr. Trudeau, for hefty party donations. Most notably, it was revealed that Mr. Trudeau attended a a $1,500-a-head Liberal Party fundraising dinner that brought out Shenglin Xian, a wealthy financier seeking federal approval to set up a new bank.

In addition, The Globe and Mail revealed that Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre) attended a high-priced fundraising event hosted in Halifax, and the CBC reported that Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) was set to attend a $500-a-head Liberal Party event at a law firm.

But despite howls of protest from the opposition Conservatives, high-priced fundraising events featuring senior cabinet figures also took place under the former Harper government.

Ethics commissioner Mary Dawson in 2009 launched a probe into then-labour minister Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.) in connection to a $250-a-plate fundraising dinner. It was alleged that Ms. Raitt violated conflict-of-interest rules because tickets were sold by a cement industry lobbyist who had lobbied her when she was the natural resources minister, but Ms. Dawson determined in 2010 that Ms. Raitt did not break ethics rules in connection with the fundraiser.

Amid the controversy, prime minister Stephen Harper issued a secret decree tightening fundraising rules for cabinet ministers that ordered no lobbying at political fundraising events, and prohibited cabinet ministers from selling fundraising tickets to lobbyists with an interest in their department, reported The Toronto Star.

A request for an interview with former senator Irving Gerstein, head of the Conservative Fund, the party’s chief fundraising arm, was not returned prior to deadline.

After assuming power, Mr. Trudeau issued non-binding ethics guidelines that declared that there should be “no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties.”

Robert Fox, national director of the federal NDP, said the party has done “very few” fundraising events over the past year, as none of its MPs are in the position to make government decisions.

“We haven’t really done event-based fundraising at the federal level in a big way in a long time,” he said, noting that the NDP did hold an event in Edmonton in relation to the party’s convention there last spring.

“We don’t have ministers, so there aren’t corporations lining up to spend $1,500 to share a cocktail with us. That’s not the focus of our efforts.”

Rather, most NDP donations come from “loyal, committed” donors who give more modest allocations on a monthly basis, he said, with the party largely reaching out through phone banks and online.

Mr. Fox, however, noted that in the quarter preceding the 2015 election, the NDP received the largest number of individual gifts of any party in the country’s history, largely owing to its digital fundraising prowess.

“We didn’t raise the largest amount of money, but we did have the largest number of donors,” he said, noting that a significant share of the party’s fundraising in 2016 came from the digital side.

According to Elections Canada, the NDP raised $9.1-million from 78,277 donors in the third quarter of 2015, though the party was only able to attract 14,553 donors who gave less than a million dollars over that same span in 2016.

Mr. Fox pointed to the NDP’s policies on health care, what with the party being led at one time by Medicare father Tommy Douglas, and reconciliation with, and rights of, indigenous peoples, as well as broader considerations of social justice, as being among the biggest factors motivating donors to give to the party.

This contrasts sharply with the more corporate and institutional support received by the Liberals, and the Conservatives, he said.

“There are no law firms that I know of [where] each of the partners is expected to cut a $1,000 cheque to the New Democratic Party,” Mr. Fox quipped.

“They are not people cozying up to us because it’ll have a big impact on their financial fortunes—we’re not controlling budgets, we’re not controlling contracts.”

The people donating to the party, he said, are motivated and mobilized by the issues being taken on by the NDP.

Despite the furor over the fundraisers, Ms. Topp with the Liberals said the party has seen the most growth in digital fundraising in recent years, largely owing to the ability to “go to where people are,” which is increasingly online.

It also allows the party to measure, in real-time, the reaction to advertising materials, she added.


The Hill Times 

Party fundraising in 2016

Liberals: $4,031,042.61 from 35,902 donors (first quarter), $4,901,024.25 from 36,080 donors (second quarter), and $3,223,064.85 from 35,180 donors (third quarter)

Conservatives: $5,469,855.58 from 32,502 donors (first quarter), $5,069,749.45 from 37,223 donors (second quarter), and $3,131,308.24 from 29,073 donors (third quarter)

NDP: $1,351,178.50 from 16,663 donors (first quarter), $1,083,314.29 from 15,906 donors (second quarter), and $972,607.03 from 14,553 donors (third quarter)

Fundraising totals including transfers from leadership and nomination candidates, and from riding associations. 

Liberals: $4,057,033.98 (first quarter), $4,970,039.25  (second quarter), $3,231,424.85 (third quarter)

Conservatives: $5,471,475.73 (first quarter), $5,097,828.07  (second quarter), $3,385,865.86 (third quarter)

NDP: $1,365,631.41 (first quarter), $1,083,314.29 (second quarter), $973,007.03 (third quarter)

Statistics from Elections Canada

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