Exclusive: The Liberal plan to respond to the Harper ads

Will the negative campaign help galvanize fundraising?

Exclusive: The Liberal plan to respond to the Harper adsThe Conservative advertising campaign against Michael Ignatieff has spurred the federal Liberals to sharply accelerate their fundraising activity so they can pay for a “focused response to the personal attacks” on the new leader, Maclean’s has learned.

The Liberals are rushing ahead with a major change to the party’s organization, which only two weeks ago they had planned for the autumn, so they can be ready for a much more robust summer of activity. Emergency meetings of the Liberals’ various governing bodies are underway, with more planned for next week. The goal: a $25 million annual war chest and a vastly expanded grassroots organization to pay for it.

On Saturday, May 9 — four days before the ads began airing — the Liberals’ new party president, Toronto lawyer Alfred Apps, and Rocco Rossi, who as the party’s executive director is in charge of fundraising, met Ignatieff to settle on a two-year strategic plan for the party. The plan’s emphasis was to “dramatically” increase private donations to the party by “significantly” expanding the part of the party’s organization that deals with fundraising.

A not-insignificant benefit of the changes would be “reducing the vulnerability associated with our reliance/ dependency upon the public subsidy of our operations and activities,” Apps wrote in a memo to Liberal riding association presidents.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper targeted public subsidies of political parties in last autumn’s economic and fiscal update, which led directly to the confidence crisis that forced Harper to seek the proroguation of Parliament to keep his job. Harper has told interviewers he still intends to cut public funding of political parties if he wins re-election. Because of longstanding weakness in attracting small private donors, the Liberal Party has, in recent years, been uniquely dependent on the public subsidy.

In his memo to riding presidents, Apps reports that he planned to get approval for structural changes and a new fundraising approach, based on “the possibilities that modern technologies and communication methods open up,” over the summer.

But that was before the Conservatives announced an ambitious nationwide ad buy, which portrays Ignatieff as a carpetbagger who is “just visiting” after 34 years abroad.

“I believe the advertising campaign undertaken by our opponents last week has created the opportunity to galvanize the entire Party around a reinvigorated fundraising effort now, even before the summer commences,” Apps writes.

So on May 18, five days after the Conservative ads started running, Apps held a special meeting of the Liberals’ National Management Committee, which agreed to move the implementation of the fundraising plan forward from Sept. 1 to June 1. A resolution passed at the management committee meeting says hurrying ahead with the fundraising changes will allow “a constructive, comprehensive and focused response to the personal attacks on [the party’s] Leader by instead addressing the Harper Conservatives’ failed approach to the economic crisis and refusal to adopt the Liberal EI plan.”

The resolution must be endorsed by the Liberals’ Council of the Presidents, which comprises riding-association presidents from more than 300 ridings across the country. Apps has convened a conference call for that purpose on May 28, next Thursday.

  • The fundraising plan is extraordinarily ambitious. The Liberals would seek, within a year, to nearly quintuple the party’s revenues from private donations over the 2008 level. The new goal: an annual war chest of $25 million, built on a massively increased pool of donors who, in most cases, agree to give at least annually, and often several times per year. Three mechanisms will be used for this objective:Membership in the Laurier Club, which is for people who contribute the maximum of $1,100 a year to the party, would be more than tripled to 10,000 members. A Leaders’ Circle will be created, with at least one member in every community in Canada with more than 50,000 people, to sign up new Laurier Club members.
  • The Victory Fund, a more broad-based group of Liberal supporters who authorize monthly donations of $10, would get a major push with the goal of an eight-fold increase to 25,000 members within a year.
  • Finally, the party would “make use of direct mail, telemarketing and established online/social media techniques to reach out to the millions of actual and potential Liberal supporters and sympathizers across Canada,” with the goal of raising $10,000,000 a year in small, one-off donations.

To say the least, it is not clear the Liberals can meet such ambitious targets. If they do, it will be in no small part due to the galvanizing influence the Conservative ad campaign has had on Liberals.