Maxime Bernier's campaign debts are now paid off — but the fundraising continues

Maxime Bernier, runner-up to Andrew Scheer in the 2017 Conservative leadership race, is now debt-free.

The runner-up in the 2017 Conservative leadership race has paid off $275,000 in campaign debt

Conservative MP Maxime Bernier announced on Thursday that he had paid off his debts from his 2017 party leadership bid. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Mad Max is back in the black.

Maxime Bernier, the runner-up to Andrew Scheer in the 2017 Conservative leadership race, announced on Thursday that his campaign debts have been paid off — but that doesn't mean he's about to stop fundraising.

"I am now free to devote all of my time, all of my efforts and all of the funds I will raise in the future to defending principled conservative ideas," Bernier wrote in a message to supporters.

After raising nearly $2.5 million during the leadership campaign, the Quebec MP still had $275,000 in debt after it was all over. According to a message to supporters sent on Wednesday, that debt had been whittled down to just $40,000 by the beginning of June.

Bernier has been a prolific fundraiser, despite the fact that his leadership bid ended over a year ago. He raised $133,000 in the second quarter of 2018, according to filings with Elections Canada — about a sixth of what the entire New Democratic Party raised over that time and more than three times the sum raised by the Bloc Québécois.

Bernier had been the Conservatives' critic for innovation, science and economic development until June, when Scheer booted him from the front bench for continuing to promote a book he was writing which suggested that Scheer won the leadership thanks to the support of "fake Conservatives."

Several members of the Conservative caucus questioned whether Bernier was acting in his own interests, rather than those of the party.

In his last fundraising pitch to supporters, Bernier said that any extra money raised will "pay for trips to meet with Conservative members and candidates across the country that are not covered by my parliamentary budget. It will pay for extra staff to help me do more and be out there more than other MPs."

The fundraising numbers indicate he does have a receptive audience, with significant contributions coming from Ontario, Quebec and Alberta. A little more than a fifth of his fundraising came from his home province, where Conservatives traditionally have had trouble raising a lot of money.

It all suggests that Bernier will continue to develop his base — which he calls the 'Mad Max Club' — within the Conservative Party, perhaps with an eye to another leadership bid in the future.

Other contenders still working to pay off debts

Bernier isn't the only contestant from the 2017 Conservative and NDP leadership campaigns with bills to pay. Bernier's debts were second only to those of businessman and television personality Kevin O'Leary, who ended his abortive campaign (he withdrew at the 11th hour to back Bernier) with $529,000 in debt.

In April, O'Leary organized a fundraising event at Casa Loma in Toronto featuring some of his fellow investors from the reality TV shows Dragons' Den and Shark Tank, but he took in just $85,000 in the most recent quarter.

In an email to CBC News, O'Leary said he has paid off about $135,000 of his total campaign debt. He also argued that the electoral laws preventing candidates from using their own money to pay off debts "is un-Canadian and breeds mediocrity by keeping good candidates out of the process."

O'Leary said he will fund a legal challenge of the electoral laws, citing the example of Pierre-Karl Péladeau in Quebec, who pleaded guilty this week to breaking the province's laws by paying off the debts incurred during his successful 2015 bid to lead the Parti Québécois with his own money (he resigned the PQ leadership in 2016).

Conservative MPs Kellie Leitch and Erin O'Toole also ended their campaigns with significant debts, with $103,000 and $76,000 left to pay off, respectively. In the first six months of 2018, Leitch raised about $19,000.

O'Toole tells CBC News that he's recently paid off his campaign debt, after having taken a break from fundraising during the Ontario provincial election to help Progressive Conservative candidates raise money.

"Other candidates have been a little more visible in their efforts to eliminate their debt, but I did not hold any events at castles or anything like that," O'Toole said.

Jagmeet Singh, the winner of the NDP's leadership contest, ended his campaign debt-free, as did runner-up NDP MP Charlie Angus. Third-place finisher Niki Ashton ended with just under $10,000 in debt (she has raised about $6,400 so far in 2018), while Guy Caron — now the party's leader in the House of Commons, as Singh is still without a seat — finished $59,000 in the red.

Raising about $17,000 in the second quarter has helped the Quebec MP reduce his remaining bills to about $35,000, according to his campaign manager.

Leadership contestants have three years to pay off their campaign debts.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

With files from Catherine Cullen