How do you pay off a $200,000 leadership debt? $1,100 at a time

By Harold Jansen on Oct 21, 2008

So, Stephane Dion has announced he's quitting ... eventually. There's lots of speculation as to why he's staying, but one popular theory is that he's sticking around until the party crowns a new leader in order to pay off his lingering leadership campaign debt, estimated to be over $200,000. I thought it might be useful to quickly review the law over leadership finance to understand how daunting Dion's task is. When the Liberals changed the party finance laws in 2004, they put in a $5,000 cap for a number of kinds of donations, including to leadership contests. When they brought in the Accountability Act, the Conservatives then lowered that to $1,000, which when adjusted to inflation is now $1,100. That means that a person can donate a total of $1,100 to all of the contestants in a particular leadership contest. Unlike the other donations caps, this is not a limit per year, but a limit per leadership contest. So, to retire this leadership debt, Dion has to find at least 200 or so new people who did not donate the maximum amount to his or to any other of the other contestants in the 2006 contest and convince them to give up to $1,100. And remember that this is not getting people fired up with your vision of where you intend to take the party in the future. Instead, it's to get people to fund your campaign retroactively for where you took the party, which is, as we know, to defeat on October 14. And, to make matters worse, Dion will largely be fishing from the same pool of potential donors as the current crop of leadership contestant. The word "daunting" barely captures how difficult the task is.

I'm not sure the full ramifications of the the 2004 changes to party finance have been fully worked out, but I'm starting to conclude that the leadership donation rules are overly restrictive, especially post-Accountability Act. I'm sure the Conservatives (and the NDP and Bloc who supported the legislation) had a bit of a snicker over how difficult the Accountability Act has made life for the Liberals. But here's the thing. At some point, Stephen Harper, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe will all quit and their parties will have to hold their leadership contests under these rules. And they may find that their candidates also struggle under the restrictive limits.

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