The federal Conservatives have changed their membership rules in a way that will significantly alter the dynamics of their looming leadership race.
At the start of 2016, with little public notice, the Tories' national council raised the fee to join their party from $15 to $25. In the process, and more consequentially, theirs became the first federal party to altogether end cash payments for memberships – requiring new members to instead pay with credit cards or personal cheques.
Party insiders acknowledge that the move was at least partly aimed at making it harder for leadership (as well as local nomination) candidates to conduct mass signup efforts in which the campaigns, rather than the new recruits, cover the membership fees. And given the degree of commitment now involved in paying to join, it could somewhat shift leadership contenders' focus from enlisting new members to winning over existing ones.
Whether that is a good thing is the source of some debate within Conservatives ranks, and could become a matter of contention at the party's national convention in Vancouver this spring, roughly a year before the leadership vote.
In recent conversations, some Tories – including caucus members and veteran organizers, willing to speak only on a not-for-attribution basis – expressed concerns that their party risks sending the wrong signals as it seeks to renew itself after ending nearly a decade in power. It should be trying to engage as many people as possible in the leadership process, they argue, not requiring an investment that could be off-putting to some demographics – including younger and lower-income Canadians – with which it needs to make inroads.
Indeed, the Conservatives' new membership policy is sharply at odds with the approach adopted by the Liberals during the 2013 leadership contest that put Justin Trudeau at their helm. Rather than requiring people who wanted to vote in their leadership even to pay their party's comparatively cheap $10 membership fee, the Liberals allowed them to join a new "supporter class" free. Roughly 300,000 Canadians took them up on that, even though only a minority of them actually wound up voting, and the Liberals' open approach proved valuable in subsequent volunteer recruitment, fundraising and voter identification.
In response to concerns about being more exclusive, the official response from Conservative brass is that even the increased fees are a small price to pay. "There is of course very good value in holding a party membership, especially now when Conservatives are going to be electing the new Prime Minister of Canada," party spokesperson Cory Hann said by e-mail, adding that "a substantial cost break is given to a two-year membership fee."
But even if Canadians take advantage of that deal, which lowers the average annual cost to $17.50, the party's new rules dictate they still can't pay with cash. And unofficially, senior Conservatives acknowledge that the change is aimed at thwarting any prospective candidates trying to swamp the party with instant members who have made little serious commitment.
That, fairly or not, is what some Conservatives perceived to have happened in last year's Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race, which former federal MP Patrick Brown won despite limited support from the party establishment. Mr. Brown drew heavily from supporters in South Asian communities, as well as social-conservative groups. And while no such complaints against him have been substantiated, it has not been uncommon for candidates in leadership or nomination races to go to places (notably religious centres) where large numbers of people can be reached at once, entice them merely to sign membership forms, then submit those forms with cash payments from campaign funds rather than the new members themselves.
There have been whispers in Conservative circles that the inability to use such tactics in the federal leadership could help explain the hesitation of Jason Kenney, a potential front-runner who would rely heavily on support from immigrant communities, to join the race. Allies likely to work on the former immigration minister's campaign if he takes the plunge dismissed that assessment – arguing that if anything the new fee policy would make it harder for those who haven't already put in as much relationship-building work as him.
As Jamie Ellerton, a former aide to Mr. Kenney, put it: "A candidate with more enduring ties and relationships would seem to me to have a competitive advantage with the new membership rules."
If other potential candidates or their backers are strongly unhappy with the new fees, they could try to do something about it this spring – either raising the issue on the floor of their convention, or trying to elect a new national council that shares their view.
If the debate comes more into the open, it will cut to the question of just how wide open a party should be. For the Liberals, hollowed out by the time of their 2013 leadership, the imperative was to engage (and collect data on) every person possible, particularly once it became clear Mr. Trudeau would easily win regardless. In much more solid shape at the outset of a race likely to be more competitive, the Tories for now appear mindful of protecting what they have.