Conservative leadership fee makes this the most expensive race ever — but is it worth the price?

The cover charge for being a candidate in the Conservative leadership is the highest this country has ever seen. Is the price right?

The $200,000 non-refundable entry fee is the highest in Canadian history

After making candidates pay $50,000 in a non-refundable fee to enter the leadership race in 2017, the Conservative Party has set the new bar at $200,000 — the highest for any party leadership race in Canadian history. (Jonathan Hayward / Canadian Press)

The race to lead the Conservative Party is now the most expensive piece of political real estate this country has ever seen — with an entrance fee higher than any other in the history of Canadian party leadership contests.

But is the job being overvalued?

The Conservatives have set the entrance fee for the race to replace Andrew Scheer at $200,000, along with a refundable compliance deposit of $100,000. That non-refundable portion is substantially higher than the $50,000 required in the last leadership race in 2017.

It's also much higher than the fees for every other leadership race held by other parties at both the federal and provincial levels.

Doug Ford leaves a press conference after being named as the newly elected leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives at the delayed Ontario PC Leadership announcement in Markham, Ont., on Saturday, March 10, 2018. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The only other leadership race to feature a six-figure entrance fee was the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership contest won by Doug Ford in 2018.

That fee was $100,000 — and it was quite a prize. The PCs were considered a shoo-in to win the provincial election scheduled for only a few months later, which did end in defeat for Kathleen Wynne's unpopular Liberal government.

The 2009 federal Liberal leadership race — which ended up with Michael Ignatieff as leader — set the entry fee at $90,000. A slew of other races have had entrance fees of $75,000, including the ongoing contest to choose the next leader of the Ontario Liberal Party.

The 2003 and 2013 federal Liberal leadership races also set the entry fee at $75,000, as did the 2015 Ontario PC leadership race and the contest that chose Jason Kenney as the leader of the United Conservative Party in 2017. Kenney was elected premier of Alberta in 2019.

Jason Kenney celebrates his victory as the first official leader of the Alberta United Conservative Party in Calgary on Oct. 28, 2017. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Choosing to drop that kind of money on a run for the leadership of the Liberal Party when it was mired in opposition was a leap of faith. It paid off for Justin Trudeau, though; two years after winning the leadership, he led the Liberals from third party status to a majority government in 2015.

But the 2003 contest was to replace Jean Chrétien, the sitting prime minister. In 1993, it cost just $10,000 (refundable) to get into the PC leadership race. The winner of that one got to move into Brian Mulroney's office.

There is no similar guarantee that the next leader of the Conservative Party will be the next prime minister. In fact, the history suggests the odds might be against whoever replaces Andrew Scheer.

Win two elections, get a third one free?

The French saying "jamais deux sans trois" seems to apply to Canadian federal politics: parties or prime ministers with two consecutive election victories on the scoreboard have, more often than not, won a third as well.

Of twelve attempts by parties or prime ministers to win a third consecutive election, eight have been successful. That includes cases like Pierre Trudeau's string of three election wins between 1968 and 1974, which came after two wins by the Liberals under his predecessor Lester Pearson. Those who tried and failed include Kim Campbell, who attempted to win a third consecutive PC victory in 1993 after Mulroney's departure.

The record is even better for party leaders who both brought their party to power and sought a third consecutive win. It's been tried seven times and ended in failure just once. Those are good historical odds for Justin Trudeau, less so for his future opponent.

Justin Trudeau won the Liberal leadership race in 2013. The entry fee for that contest was $75,000. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

None of this takes into account the context of individual elections, of course. But even that can be misleading. Pierre Trudeau looked hobbled and vulnerable after being reduced to a minority government in 1972 — but his party won a majority government again two years later.

By 1976, after 13 years of Liberal government under two prime ministers, the PCs might have thought their next leader would have a decent shot of winning — and he did, as Joe Clark showed (briefly) in 1979.

But the cost of entry for the 1976 PC leadership race that chose Clark was just $500 — a "good-faith deposit" that would be returned to the candidate after it was over.

Does the Conservative Party need more than a new leader?

Post-election polls suggest that the Conservatives still have some work to do to defeat the Liberals. The latest survey from Léger put the Conservatives three points back of the Liberals in national voting intentions (the polling firm had the two parties tied going into election day).

The poll suggests that a change of leader might have a minimal impact on the party's fortunes. Léger asked Canadians who they would vote for with a few different hypothetical leaders at the helm of the Conservative Party. Rona Ambrose and Peter MacKay (who confirmed Wednesday that he's running) both turned that three-point deficit into a one-point advantage — no better than Scheer's losing performance in October.

Jean Charest had no impact at the national level, keeping the Conservatives three points back of the Liberals (though he did boost the party's support in Quebec).

It all points to a longer-term problem for the Conservatives, who haven't won an election since 2011. The party captured 32 per cent of the vote in the 2015 election and 34 per cent in 2019. With the exception of a few short-lived ups and downs in the polls, the party has been stuck somewhere around 33 per cent support for nearly eight years.

The Conservatives have a big caucus in the House of Commons and a formidable fundraising machine. They have a dedicated and deep-pocketed base. That makes the leadership a prize worth winning.

But whoever wins the Conservative leadership on June 27 takes over a party in a nearly decade-old rut — a high-priced fixer-upper that might need more than a new coat of paint.


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.

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