Some NDP members call on party to stop clawing back campaign rebate cash

As the federal NDP prepares to spend double what it did in the 2019 election on the next campaign, some grassroots members say it's happening off their backs. New Democrat headquarters in Ottawa is keeping 100 per cent of all Elections Canada campaign expense reimbursements that usually flow to candidates and benefit electoral district associations.

Party central is collecting 100 per cent of campaign reimbursements; one member calls it a 'bit of a scandal'

An NDP supporter holds up a sign at an appearance by then-NDP leader Tom Mulcair in Vernon, B.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

As the federal NDP prepares to spend twice what it did in the 2019 election on the next campaign, some grassroots members say that spending is happening at their expense.

New Democrat headquarters in Ottawa is keeping 100 per cent of all Elections Canada campaign expense reimbursements — money that usually flows to candidates and benefits electoral district associations or ridings.

The decision to keep all rebates was made ahead of the 2019 election and the policy is expected to remain in place for the next campaign.

Some New Democrats say the move goes against the party's values and leaves local operations in a vulnerable financial position.

Gary Porter, vice president of the Saanich-Gulf Island NDP electoral district association (EDA) and a member of the party's unofficial "socialist caucus", said he wants to put the brakes on the policy. He calls it centralization without real consultation.

"When the rebate came back from the last federal election, they took it all, which they did not have a right to do," Porter said. "There's a serious democratic deficit."

Elections Canada says candidates who receive 10 per cent or more of the votes in their riding in an election are reimbursed 60 per cent of their eligible election expenses.

Reimbursement numbers for 2019 have not yet been released publicly. During the 2015 election, NDP candidates collectively received $14,870,600, Liberal Party candidates received $21,559,484 and Conservative Party candidates received $20,935,787 in reimbursements, according to Elections Canada.

Porter said his riding association typically received about $10,000 in rebates. The money, he said, helped riding associations become vibrant and integrate into their communities. Now, he said, riding associations are under greater pressure to raise money at the local level.

One NDP electoral district association in Nova Scotia proposed a resolution at this weekend's national party policy convention that would prevent the national party HQ from absorbing reimbursements.

"This practice leaves the local EDA impoverished," the resolution from the Kings-Hants EDA said.

In an email statement to CBC News, NDP National Director Anne McGrath said that everyone who ran for the NDP in the last several elections agreed to send campaign reimbursements to the party before they became candidates.

"National campaigns and the coverage the leader and the campaign get in elections benefits every candidate in every riding," McGrath wrote.

"We're proud of our 2019 campaign, and we look forward to [using] the next campaign to talk to Canadians from coast to coast to coast ... to let them know that [party leader Jagmeet Singh] and New Democrats will keep fighting for them."

How do other parties handle rebates?

McGrath also noted that every political party asks candidates to contribute to national campaigns. Unlike other parties, she said, the NDP does not charge candidates for national ad purchases.

During the 2015 election, the NDP and Liberals transferred only 40 per cent of the rebates back to the candidates. The Liberal Party tells CBC News it still retains 60 per cent of the refunds. In 2019, NDP HQ increased the share of rebates it kept from 60 to 100 per cent.

Anne McGrath is the national director of the New Democratic Party of Canada. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

The Conservatives say that candidates are allowed to keep all of their refunds, fulfilling a promise party leader Erin O'Toole made during the leadership campaign.

The Green Party says it does not keep any portion of the rebates.

Ridings should not be dependent on subsidies: former adviser

Karl Belanger, who is a former senior adviser and national director of the federal NDP, said the financial relationship between party central and the EDAs is "never a one-way street."

"The party does provide funds and services to the riding associations when necessary," he said. "They are working together. It's not an us-versus-them attitude that will help anyone."

For riding associations to be competitive, Belanger said, they need the national party to do well. He said the central party operation needs a stable revenue source to pay down its debt and save up for the next election.

"If their [riding associations'] main source of revenue is the rebate from the last election, then they have bigger problems," Belanger said.

NDP delegates show hands as they vote on resolutions in Ottawa, Friday, February 16, 2018. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Belanger said that when he ran for the party in 1993, he had to sign a document agreeing to give back some of his campaign reimbursement cash to the national party.

NDP was in dire financial straits 

The party says it can spend more on the next campaign because of Singh's growing popularity. 

During the last campaign, the party's total election budget was just short of $12 million. This year, the party says it can spend that sum on ads alone because it has paid off its $10 million debt.

A member of the NDP's governing body told CBC the party was under pressure financially after the 2015 federal election and heading into the 2019 election.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh talks with reporters as he arrives at a campaign event in Surrey, B.C. on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Dirka Prout said that keeping the rebates helped the party pay down a multi-million dollar debt. The decision caused "a lot of angst," Prout said, adding she regrets how it was communicated.

"I was very torn for all the reasons I just cited. Knowing how vulnerable some EDAs are," said Prout, the party's current candidate for London North Centre and co-chair of the NDP's women's commission.

"A decision like that must be predicated on the central party turning around now and supporting EDAs that need help."

Prout said funding for riding associations needs to be discussed at this week's convention. 

Betrayal of the rank and file?

Party member Barry Weisleder, the chairperson of the party's unofficial socialist caucus, calls the whole situation "a bit of a scandal" and a betrayal of the NDP's rank and file.

Weisleder said EDAs use the money to cover a range of expenses — renting office space, printing signs, hiring temporary staff.

The party's actions, he said, show that the NDP remains focused on "building up parliamentary careers" and not a working-class movement.

"We're not talking about misappropriation of funds here. We're talking about misallocation of funds," Weisleder said. 

"It shows a preoccupation with polling and with the central campaign dynamics and not with local organizing."

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