Conservatives say finances are solid, but have yet to pay back federal wage subsidy

·3 min read

OTTAWA — The Conservatives have yet to fulfil a promise to repay the federal wage subsidy, but the party says it is in solid financial shape to fight the next election.

Leader Erin O'Toole promised the party would stop taking the subsidy — and pay it back — during the leadership race, and after he won, the party did stop dipping in.

But outgoing party president Scott Lamb told thousands of delegates to the party's virtual policy convention Thursday that repayment hasn't begun.

"We look forward to repaying what we took from the wage subsidy program and give it back to Canadian people," Lamb said.

The program had been set up early in the COVID-19 pandemic to help organizations and businesses struggling with lost revenues cover the cost of their employee salaries.

But a furor erupted when it became known that political parties were among those benefiting from the program and using taxpayer money to fund political operations.

The Bloc Québécois was the only party in the House of Commons never to apply for the money. The Liberals and NDP also stopped taking it.The federal Conservatives have outpaced their rivals in fundraising efforts for years, and even with the pause forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, they still ended 2020 far ahead of the others.

The party's chief financial officer Scott Gibson told the convention the party is debt-free, and in 2020, raised $20.7 million.

"We ended the year with sufficient money in the bank, more than budgeted, to fund significant pre-election activities in order to support the new leader in advance of the next election, which may be very soon," he said.

The update on the party's financials was the first piece of official business for this year's Conservative policy convention, which kicked off Thursday not with balloons or rousing cheers, but with instructions on how to click the right links.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the event entirely online, and while robust debate is expected on the party's policy and governance, it will be hard to find the raucous spirit that normally takes over a convention floor.

The marquee event will be a speech from Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole on Friday night, his first address to the party's grassroots since he won leadership last year.

The opening elements of the convention also featured an appearance by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, who paid tribute to the former head of the party's fundraising arm, Irving Gerstein.

Tension over how Gerstein and Harper ran the party's fundraising operations — the Conservative Fund operates distinct from the party's overall governance — coloured the final days of previous party leader Andrew Scheer's tenure. The fallout from that debate, which included how party funds were used for Scheer's personal expenses and how much power the fund has to hire or fire party staff, will come back around at the convention. Motions to change the fund's relationship to the national council were up for debate on Thursday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2021.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press