I encourage you to read the first two parts of what has become a 3-part series on the Conservative Party’s clawback of the Elections Canada Rebate for the full background to the issues presented in today’s commentary.
This commentary begins with a brief overview of those two commentaries, followed by the three important lessons I learned by digging into the data behind the Conservative Party’s election rebate clawback and the conclusions I reached.
Prior to the 2019 federal election, the Conservative Party demanded 50% of the Elections Canada Rebate for every Electoral District Association (EDA) in the country.
I say demanded, because while the Party uses the word agreement, this was extortion, pure and simple. Any candidate who refused to sign the agreement would not be permitted to run under the Conservative Party banner.
The Conservative Party, like every other political party in the country, became complacent after a former Liberal government introduced a Per-Vote Subsidy for political parties.
When Stephen Harper ended the subsidy in 2015, the Conservative Party’s sense of entitlement allowed them to steal money owed to Conservative EDA as a way of making up for the “loss” of all that free government money.
Instead of ramping up their fundraising efforts, the Conservative Party’s solution was to steal millions of dollars that rightfully belong to the EDAs who raised the money in the first place.
All four entrants in the CPC Leadership Contest knew this was bad policy and promised to repay the money when they became leader of the Conservative Party.
James Dodds, an unelected Party official, flatly refuses to honour the promise made to Party members by Erin O’Toole, the elected Party leader.
In his letter to all 338 Electoral District Association presidents on October 1, 2020, James Dodds made it clear he would not, despite the elected Party leader’s wishes, give back the money.
Dodds’ refusal to honour O’Toole’s campaign promise led directly to me asking the question, Will the Real Leader of the Conservative Party Please Stand Up?
What is far more concerning than Dodds’ blatant refusal to honour his promise (at least to Conservative Party members like me) is the fact Erin O’Toole remains totally silent on this issue.
James Dodds’ October 1st Email to EDA Presidents
After stating he refuses to honour Erin O’Toole’s promise, James Dodds went on say this:
We recognize that in the past, funds from the candidate rebate were an important source used to replenish the ridings bank accounts after an election and/or pay off any campaign debt.
As such, for the next election, while the assignment of the candidate rebate needs to remain in place to ensure the Party qualifies for the various tax rebates (similar to the NDP and Liberals) the Leader has instructed the Fund to establish a new program that will disperse funds to all ridings that qualify for a candidate rebate.
This will ensure that ridings are made whole for the full equivalent of their candidate rebate that they would normally be due after the next election.
This is roughly a $5.5 million new commitment to the ridings after the next election.
As the Hill Times noted, James Dodds email to EDA presidents did not explain how he came up with the figure of $5.5 million owed to constituencies.
The Hill Times writer used the same figure I did – $100,000 as a campaign spending cap in each electoral district – to estimate what the Conservative Party withheld from EDAs after the 2019 federal election.
That estimate results in roughly $10 million clawed back from Conservative EDAs after the 2019 federal election, so why was Dodds claiming just $5.5 million?
I decided to dig into campaign returns for Conservative candidates in every electoral district in the country to find out why my estimate and that of others differed so wildly from James Dodds’ $5.5 million claim.
Where did the other $4.5 million go?
I built a spreadsheet containing every EDA’s spending limit, their campaign’s spending eligible for a rebate, their total spending in the election, and how much the Conservative Party clawed back from each EDA’s rebate.
I spent over a dozen hours researching Elections Canada campaign expense reports for Conservative candidates and writing this commentary – which turned out to be a very useful exercise – as this research opened my eyes to three key facts about missing election expenses clawback funds and Conservative Party’s overall election campaign spending.
- The missing $4.5 million in Elections Canada Rebates isn’t missing at all
- The CPC does not bother to fight an election campaign in over 70 Electoral Districts
- On average, CPC EDAs spend 50% or less of their Elections Canada spending cap
1. Failure to Spend During the Campaign
I was stunned to learn that most Conservative EDAs do not spend anywhere close to their Elections Canada spending limits because my EDA (Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon) struggled to stay under our spending cap in the last election.
Conservative EDAs were eligible for total of $11,719,195.76 in rebates after the 2019 federal election.
The Conservative Party clawed back half of that, or $5,859,597.88, so James Dodds’ estimate of $5.5 million in his email to EDA presidents was relatively accurate.
(NOTE: Election campaign expenses were not published for 18 CPC EDAs as of October 15, 2020.)
Average Electoral District Spending Cap vs Actual CPC Spending
Elections Canada Spending Cap $113,175.08
Election Cap Spending Eligible for Rebates $57,786.96
Total Election Spending per EDA $71,714.96
2. CPC Gives Up 70+ Electoral Districts Without a Fight
I was astonished to learn how many Electoral Districts the Conservative Party ceded to opposition parties without even putting up a fight.
Excluding the 18 Conservative EDAs who have not filed campaign expense reports with Elections Canada, I discovered that 16 Conservative Electoral Districts spent less than $10,000 of their election spending cap to promote their candidate in the last federal election.
The Conservative Party cannot win an election by refusing to share the Conservative message with prospective voters.
A total of 50 Conservative EDAs spent less than $20,000 of their election spending cap in the 2019 federal election.
Of those 50 EDAs, the Conservative Party candidate emerged victorious in a grand total of one – Alberta’s Yellowhead Electoral District.
Yellowhead spent $16,739.58 in rebatable expenses of a total of just $17,646.19 overall. This proves the Yellowhead EDA could run a dead dog as their candidate and still walk away with the election – not that spending so little is a legitimate path to victory.
Of the 79 electoral districts who spent $35,000 or less in rebatable expenses, the Conservative Party won just seven of them. Listed in order of spending:
- Yellowhead (AB)
- Medicine Hat–Cardston–Warner (AB)
- Tobique–Mactaquac (NB)
- Lanark–Frontenac–Kingston (ON)
- Saskatoon–Grasswood (SK)
- Albert–Edmonton (AB)
- Hastings–Lennox and Addington (ON)
The inescapable conclusion is clear.
The Conservative Party must spend money during the Writ Period if they expect to win your electoral district.
Spending money is no guarantee of success, of course, as former MP Lisa Raitt can attest.
Raitt’s campaign spent $214,147.84 in the last election, $79,176.58 of it covered under her Electoral District’s spending cap. Despite spending $100,515.58 more than her Liberal opponent, Lisa Raitt lost the election.
While spending does not and cannot guarantee success, refusing to spend all but guarantees failure.
The fact Conservative candidates lost of 72 of 79 electoral districts – 49 in Quebec – when spending $35,000 or less proves this.
The average Elections Canada spending cap for Quebec EDAs is $113,029.95.
The average election cap spending by Quebec EDAs is a pathetic $25,331.30.
The average total spending per Quebec EDA is not much better, a paltry $29,639.47.
I was shocked to learn the Conservative Party refuses to fight a competitive campaign in at least 70 electoral districts across Canada.
More disheartening is the fact the Conservative Party can’t be bothered to compete for 49 of 78 of Quebec’s electoral districts – a full 63% of Quebec’s federal ridings.
No wonder the Conservative Party can’t win in Quebec. They give up 2 of every 3 seats before the campaign begins.
The issue is not that the Conservative message doesn’t resonate in Quebec.
The problem is the Conservative Party refuses to spread the Conservative message in Quebec.
3. Failure to Maximize Election Expense Rebates
I was stunned to see how few EDAs took advantage of the campaign expenses rebate program by spending a lot of money before the Writ period, instead of during the Writ period. These expenses, while valid, are not eligible for the 60% rebate from Elections Canada.
This was arguably the biggest eye-opener for me personally because our EDA failed on this front, just like almost every other Conservative EDA in the country.
Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon’s campaign spending limit was $112,972.00 for the 2019 federal election, and while we spent a total of $102,065.71 during the campaign, only $79,505.40 of it was eligible for the Elections Canada Rebate.
I attribute this failure to three things, two of which are easily solvable by proper education.
- Far too many Campaign Managers are doing so for the first time.
- Candidates and Campaign Managers require a much deeper understanding of Elections Canada rules around spending with a focus on what constitutes a rebatable election expense.
- The Conservative Party needs to do a much better job of educating Candidates and Campaign Managers on these issues.
The following examples highlight how experienced campaigns spend their money versus inexperienced ones.
By the Money: Experienced Campaign Spending
These campaigns, win or lose, maximized their Elections Canada Rebate by ensuring most of their campaign spending (or the maximum allowed) came in the Writ period.
Calgary Nose Hill (CPC Win)
Spending Cap: $109.728.95
Rebate Eligible Expenses: $102,084.53
Total Campaign Spending: $110,633.23
St. Catharines (CPC Loss)
Spending Cap: $115,770.12
Rebate Eligible Expenses: $114,133.28
Total Campaign Spending: $210,016.15
Simcoe North (CPC Win)
Spending Cap: $121,112.02
Rebate Eligible Expenses: $100,103.63
Total Campaign Spending: $113,432.07
By the Money: Inexperienced Campaign Spending
Both these ridings flipped from Liberal to Conservative in the 2019 federal election, so by a win/loss standard these were both effective and successful campaigns.
From a financial perspective, however, had these two campaigns shifted most of their spending into the Writ Period they would have benefitted from an additional $12,000 in election rebates.
Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon (CPC Win)
Spending Cap: $112,972.00
Rebate Eligible Expenses: $ 79,505.40
Total Campaign Spending: $102,065.71
Vancouver South (CPC Win)
Spending Cap: $105,031.23
Rebate Eligible Expenses: $ 82,900.36
Total Campaign Spending: $102,803.26
It’s an important lesson for the next federal election when campaign fundraising will likely be more difficult than it’s ever been due to the disatrous effects of government-mandated COVID business shutdowns and the resultant job losses.
4. Closing Thoughts
James Dodds’ refusal to honour Erin O’Toole’s promise to return money clawed back from Election 2019 rebates disrespects every Conservative Party member and totally undermines the new Conservative Party leader.
Now is the time to solidify Erin O’Toole’s leadership, not undermine it.
The Elections Rebate Clawback was always bad policy and everyone in the CPC leadership contest knew it. That’s why every candidate promised to kill the program and give the money back.
As I highlight in Erin O’Toole: When Will You Keep Your Promise to End the Election Expenses Clawback?, the Conservative Party’s decision to steal this money from EDAs came as a result of two things:
- their dependence upon government handouts after a former Liberal goverment instituted the Pay-Per-Vote subsidy, and
- their failure to adjust despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s promise to kill those handouts, a promise he kept in 2015.
The only outstanding question is whether Erin O’Toole will stand up to his personally-appointed chair of the Conservative Fund and order James Dodds to do the right thing: honour O’Toole’s campaign promise and return the clawback money immediately.
Given the tone of James Dodds’ October 1st letter to EDA presidents and Dodds’ fundraising solicitation emails since then, there is no reason to believe Erin O’Toole will do that.
And so begins the demise of the newest leader of the Conservative Party of Canada – led by his own inner circle.