Conservatives say they're united and flush with cash as policy convention kicks off

·4 min read
Conservative Party of Canada President Scott Lamb speaks during the 2020 leadership election in Ottawa on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Conservative Party of Canada President Scott Lamb speaks during the 2020 leadership election in Ottawa on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Scott Lamb, the outgoing Conservative party president, told Conservatives assembled for a policy conference today that they must unite to fend off their principal foes — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals — in an election that could be called at any time.

Lamb said that while there will be policy disputes at this week's convention — social conservatives have promised to push anti-abortion constitutional amendments, for example — internal squabbles can't be allowed to distract the party from the larger goal of winning over voters and forming a government.

"While we have vigorous and passionate debate in our party about policy and governance at conventions, we must come together as never before to show the country we are ready to govern," he said in a speech to the party conference.

"We need to show we are united, focused on the concerns of all Canadians across the country," he added, telling members that an election campaign could be just "weeks away."

Lamb said Tories should be proud of holding Trudeau and his team to a minority government in the 2019 election campaign — the first time a majority government had failed to win a second majority term in decades — and assembling record membership numbers last year. The party now has 262,000 dues-paying members.

Scott Gibson, the chief financial officer, also briefed delegates assembled for the convention on the financial health of the party.

He said the pandemic "cast significant doubt" on the party's ability to raise money, due to traditional in-person events being cancelled because of COVID-19 restrictions. But by year's end, Gibson said, the party had exceeded its fundraising goals "despite how far we fell behind during the darkest days of the pandemic."

Money in the bank

The party's accountant said fundraising in the fourth quarter of 2020 — when members donated about $7.7 million — was the best fourth quarter performance ever reported in the party's history. The Liberals raised $6.5 million over the same period.

After some belt-tightening at party headquarters — ending discretionary spending and keeping staffing levels at pre-pandemic levels — the party ended the year with a greater surplus than planned, Gibson said.

The party already has paid off its 2019 election bank loan and has stashed away funds in an election war chest.

"We're ready with the funding in place for a national campaign if and when the Liberals call an election," Gibson said, promising party members that the Conservatives are on "extremely solid ground financially."

At Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole's request, the party is also winding down the "candidate-sharing rebate program" — an initiative loathed by the grassroots because it forced riding associations to hand over half the money they collect in tax rebates for election expenses to the national party.

While he said the rebate was "immensely" helpful to the party, Gibson conceded it has been tough on local electoral district associations (EDAs) and created "great financial hardship." Conservatives will have to redouble their efforts to raise more money to remain "financially competitive" with the other parties, he said.

The program, launched after the previous Conservative government ended the federal per-vote subsidy, was a source of millions of dollars in additional party funding. Now, any money received through the rebate stays with individual riding associations to help fight local campaigns.

The party, like the Liberal, NDP and Green parties, collected the federal wage subsidy last year to cover the costs of staff salaries during the pandemic. The Tories stopped drawing on those funds after O'Toole's victory in August.

"We look forward to repaying what we took from the wage subsidy program and giving it back to the Canadian people," Lamb said, without giving a timeline.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper addresses delegates during the 2016 Conservative Party Convention in Vancouver, B.C. on Thursday May 26, 2016.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper addresses delegates during the 2016 Conservative Party Convention in Vancouver, B.C. on Thursday May 26, 2016.()

In a video message, former prime minister Stephen Harper, the party's first leader after the Canadian Alliance-Progressive Conservative merger in 2003, praised Irving Gerstein, a former senator and self-described "bag man," for securing the party's financial future.

"When he retired last year, Irving turned over the fund for enough cash on hand to fight the election tomorrow, without taking a dime for his efforts," Harper said of the former Conservative Fund chair.