Politics

Liberals debate radical party reform with eyes set on 2019 election

The federal Liberal party is poised to throw open its doors and let any Canadian join its ranks without paying a membership fee in an effort to bolster its organizational heft ahead of the next election campaign.

Tories raised more money than Liberals in first quarter, as both parties look at ways to boost fundraising

Justin Trudeau is endorsing proposed constitutional changes at the Liberal convention that would end paid party memberships. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The federal Liberal party is poised to throw open the doors and let any Canadian join its ranks without paying a membership fee in an effort to bolster its organizational heft ahead of the next election campaign.

Liberal delegates gathered in Winnipeg this weekend will vote on a new party constitution that will do away with membership fees entirely — a bold departure from tradition whereby parties solicit some money from supporters to partake internal party affairs.

"It opens our party to more participation, more members, more volunteers, and perhaps even more donors," party president Anna Gainey said in an interview with Chris Hall on CBC Radio's The House. "I feel that this will expand our grassroots and our network."

The move comes as the Conservative party which has shown its fundraising resiliency even after its defeat in the last election, recently posting one of its best quarters in the party's history in a non-election year.

In fact, Conservative Fund chairman Irving Gerstein announced Friday the party is completely debt-free with cash in the bank, despite the $42 million it spent ahead of the Oct. 19 vote. It even raised more money than the governing Liberal party in the first quarter of 2016.

"Yes, you heard me correctly; our party, after losing power last October, out-raised the Liberals who won a majority government," Gerstein told delegates at the party's convention in Vancouver, noting the Tories banked $5.7 million in the first quarter. "The Liberals ... could only muster $4 million from their party's donor and supporters."

Liberal party members will vote on a new party constitution at their Winnipeg conference that, if passed, would eliminate fees for those wishing to join the party. 1:01

Free Liberal 'membership'

The Liberals hope that the changes enacted in Winnipeg this weekend will not only help grow the party's base, but also boost the party's coffers in the face of the Tories' seemingly relentless fundraising capacity.

Asked if the proposed changes are in response to the Conservative party's continued strength, Gainey said, "I think absolutely."

"We are trying to be more nimble, more flexible and this new constitution will do that. We are already looking to 2019 and we want to be even more aerodynamic," she said, adding she hopes the party's 19 disparate constitutions will be replaced with one single organizing document.

Gerstein argued the Conservative party's fundraising strength is built not on the "depth of our donors' pockets" but on the breadth of the party's donor base.

"The key to our fundraising program is our database and our ability to prospect new donors," he said.

That's something the Liberals hope to to replicate with its new, free supporter class. The party did report more donors than the Conservatives did in the first quarter of 2016, 35,902 to 32,502, according to filings with Elections Canada, while trailing the Conservatives by nearly $1.5 million in total donations.

If the new Liberal constitution — which has been endorsed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — passes, anyone would be eligible to participate in policy development, the nomination of candidates, party conventions and the selection of future leaders.

Some detractors have said the move would allow organized interest groups — such as pro-life campaigners — to infiltrate the party's ranks and turf sitting MPs.

But Gainey pushed back against that prospect arguing, there are still protections in place to ensure the integrity of the nominating process.

"I think one example is the robust greenlight process that we will have for any of our candidates," Gainey said.

Indeed, even during the last election the national campaign committee quashed the hopes of some prospective Liberals after they failed to pass a thorough vetting process.

End of per-vote subsidy leaves a hole

The 2019 election campaign will be the first campaign in more than a decade that will be financed without relying on the per-vote party subsidy that was enacted by the last Liberal government and dolled out by Elections Canada.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper axed that program in 2011, but the money kept rolling in until last year when it was phased out entirely.

Most of the $15 million the Conservative party had on hand, before the writ dropped last August, was money they had stockpiled from the subsidy.

Conservative Fund chairman Irving Gerstein says Tory donors need to dig deep to help fund the 2019 election campaign, after the end of the per-vote subsidy parties relied on before the 2015 election. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Gerstein said that his party cannot lose sight of "moving our pool of identified supporters up the support pyramid from supporters to members to donors," to keep the party in the chips. Conservative donors will also have to dig even deeper into their pockets ahead of the next campaign, he said.

"Without the per-vote subsidy breaking even each year on party operations is no longer enough. Yes, we must, as a party, generate a substantial surplus in 2016, 2017 and 2018 in order to provide the war chest required to fight the 2019 election," he said.

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