New Brunswick

Ruling PCs set ambitious fundraising target of $1.6M

New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative Party has adopted an aggressive new fundraising target so it can be ready in case its minority government is forced into an early election campaign.

'We want to be an election-ready machine'

Rick Lafrance, president of the New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Party, says the Tories want to be ready for an election, whether it's in six months or four years. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative Party has adopted an aggressive new fundraising target so it can be ready in case its minority government is forced into an early election campaign.

Internal party documents obtained by CBC News show the party aims to collect $1.6 million in donations in 2019.

That's about triple the $542,000 the party raised in 2017, the last year for which figures are publicly available.

"We want to be an election-ready machine," said party president Rick Lafrance. "We will be ready for any election that may come our way, whether it's within six months to four years."

Target amount discussed at meeting

The minutes of a PC executive meeting from Dec. 1 shows the $1.6 million target as part of the party's 2019 budget. Of that amount, $900,000 would cover expenses and $700,000 would be set aside for a possible campaign.

At the end of June 2018, the Tories had only $18,360 in the bank, according to public filings with Election New Brunswick. They had $13,545 at the end of 2017, a fraction of the $1.7 million the Liberals had at that time.

Another seeming advantage for the Liberals in December 2017 was that the party was debt-free. The PCs were carrying three loans totalling six figures, including a $225,000 mortgage on the house serving as party headquarters in downtown Fredericton.

Even so, the Tories won one more seat than the Liberals in the Sept. 24 election and managed to form a government,  despite not having a majority in the legislature.

The three People's Alliance MLAs in the legislature have promised to vote with the minority PC government on confidence matters until the spring of 2020.

Two elections possible

Political scientist J.P. Lewis of the University of New Brunswick in Saint John says a party with only a precarious hold on power should be aiming to replenish its bank account.

"Where we would have expected one election in a four-year period, there might be two elections," he said.

People are responding to Premier Blaine Higgs's decisions, which is helping with donations, Lafrance says. (Stephen MacGillivray/Canadian Press)

Lafrance said the party's ascent to power has helped with fundraising because New Brunswickers are responding to Premier Blaine Higgs's decisions in the early months of his government.

"They believe in the Blaine Higgs government," he said. "His message is resonating with members and contributions are coming in every day into the party office."

Headquarters sold

The party has also paid off debt by selling its party headquarters, a house at 336 Regent St. in Fredericton.

It put the house on the market more than a year ago, asking $479,000. Lafrance said it sold last fall for "the low four hundreds," wiping out the mortgage debt.

The Progressive Conservatives sold their headquarters building in Fredericton to help pay the mortgage debt. The party will be moving to new office space. (Jacques Poitras/CBC News)

The Tories are now renting the house and will soon move into rented office space. With donations from corporations and unions now banned, "we want to use our members' money more wisely, toward an election, rather than paying to own our own office space," he said.

Lewis said the Tories could also be motivated to raise money to avoid the negative publicity that came with their poor finances last year.

"Maybe it didn't play a big role in the vote, but it wasn't very flattering for the party," he said.

Getting prepared

Provincial political parties are facing a fundraising challenge this year with a fall federal election expected to suck up some of the donations that might otherwise come their way.

On top of that, the Liberals will hold a leadership race over the next five months, which means some donors will be giving to candidates instead of to the party itself.

"With a leadership race and a federal election this year, we anticipate fundraising to be a bit more challenging," Liberal executive director Keiller Zed said in a written statement. "But we are nonetheless confident we will be ready to run a strong campaign whenever that may be."

Zed would not comment on the PC fundraising goal.

Election spending not yet known

Of the $1.6 million the Tories plan to raise, $916,000 will cover salaries and other expenses, including the cost of mounting fundraising dinners. They expect to clear $713,000.

The spending cap for political parties running candidates in all 49 ridings in the last provincial election campaign was $1.1 million.

Exactly how much the registered parties raised and spent in 2018, including for the provincial election, won't be disclosed until full financial returns for the year are filed with Elections New Brunswick and posted on the agency's website.