OTTAWA - Joyce Murray's underdog bid to become the federal Liberal leader is getting a last-minute burst of celebrity-powered momentum from online and grassroots advocacy groups.
The Vancouver MP is getting a boost — both direct and indirect — from a host of advocacy groups that support electoral co-operation and environmental preservation. Together, the groups boast close to 1 million members — a huge pool of potential supporters for Murray to tap into.
Leadnow.ca was one of the first out of the gate and it has now enlisted the support of actress Sarah Polley, anti-globalization activist Naomi Klein and award-winning author and poet Karen Connelly, among others, in its "co-operation for Canada" campaign.
The campaign is aimed at persuading Leadnow.ca's 225,000 members to sign up as supporters of the Liberal party by Sunday's deadline, thereby becoming eligible to vote in April for the party's next leader.
About 5,000 have done so over the past two weeks but spokesman Jamie Biggar predicted the biggest wave of sign-ups will occur over the next few days, fuelled by Sunday's looming deadline and the group's star-studded cast of persuaders, who issued statements Thursday endorsing the campaign for co-operation.
The celebrity backing of Leadnow.ca's campaign follows environmental champion David Suzuki's outright endorsement of Murray last week.
Leadnow.ca supports co-operation among Liberals, New Democrats and Greens to ensure defeat of Stephen Harper's Conservatives in the 2015 election and implement reform of the electoral system.
While it has not endorsed Murray directly, she stands to be the biggest beneficiary of the group's efforts since she's the only one of eight leadership contenders to advocate electoral co-operation.
Avaaz, an even larger online group that supports electoral co-operation, is similarly joining the fray, sending an email alert to its more than 500,000 Canadian members, urging them to participate in the democratic process of the party of their choice.
"But we also let them know that ... there is a leadership race where co-operation is up for grabs and in this case it's the Liberal party's leadership race and there's a candidate who's clearly out for co-operation," said Emma Ruby-Sachs, a campaign director with Avaaz.
The majority of Avaaz's Canadian members are "incredibly enthusiastic" about electoral co-operation so the group hopes its campaign will have the same kind of impact it had on last year's NDP leadership contest, Ruby-Sachs added.
Biggar estimates the combined efforts of Avaaz and Leadnow.ca resulted in some 10,000 people joining the NDP to back dark horse Nathan Cullen, the only candidate in that contest to support electoral co-operation. Cullen finished a surprisingly strong third.
Other pro-co-operation groups — including Catch 22 and the Liberal chapter of Fair Vote Canada — have directly endorsed Murray.
In addition to Suzuki, the former British Columbia environment minister is also getting a boost from groups who applaud her stance in favour of a price on carbon and against pipelines to bring raw bitumen from Alberta's oil sands to the B.C. coast.
She's been endorsed by Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, a grassroots group dedicated to mobilizing public pressure on governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Dogwood Initiative, a B.C.-based group devoted to maintaining the ban on oil tankers plying the waters off the province's northern coast, is not directly endorsing Murray but it is urging its members to sign up as Liberal supporters and pointing out that "the one candidate standing up so far (against tankers) is B.C. MP Joyce Murray."
"In fact, Murray is taking an even stronger stand by clearly opposing Kinder Morgan's oil tanker plans for our south coast as well," the group says in an email blast to its 150,000 members.
"This oil tanker issue is really one of the top issues in British Columbia," Dogwood communications director Emma Gilchrist said in an interview.
"I think it also taps into quite a politically engaged group of people so you could see the oil tanker issue play out, I think, quite significantly in the Liberal leadership race."
The Liberal party has made it easier for advocacy groups to influence the outcome of this contest than any previous leadership race. Anyone willing to sign up, for free, as a party supporter is entitled to cast a ballot, not just card-carrying, dues-paying members.
While it's unlikely the groups' efforts will derail front-runner Justin Trudeau's apparent juggernaut, some rival organizers privately worry they could propel Murray into a surprise second or third-place finish, ahead of higher profile contenders Marc Garneau and Martha Hall Findlay.
Murray has displayed an ability to tap into sources of support not traditionally associated with the Liberal party.
Former New Democrat MP Bruce Hyer, who now sits as an independent after splitting with his party over its support of the now-defunct long-gun registry, has endorsed Murray, as has Peter Russell, one of the country's leading constitutional experts.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May has stopped just short of endorsing Murray, as has Sierra Club Canada president Howie Chong and Gary Corbett, president and CEO of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union representing 60,000 government scientists and professionals.
Corbett said Murray is "speaking our language" with her pledge to lift the muzzle imposed on scientists by the Harper government.
The celebrities backing Leadnow.ca's co-operation campaign are predominantly well-known New Democrats, including Michele Landsberg and Avi Lewis, wife and son of former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis.
"I'm so frightened for Canada under the blandly malevolent Harper Conservatives," Landsberg said in a statement.
"That's why I'm breaking with my long fidelity to partisan politics and begging the opposition parties: Just this once, for all our sakes, please co-operate. Turf the Harper Conservatives, bring in fair elections, protect the environment, and then fight it out for parliamentary dominance. But first, save us."
Polley said she believes "it is urgent for progressive people in this country to join forces and elect a government that will change our electoral system to accurately represent us."
While the various groups have undoubtedly given Murray's campaign momentum at a critical moment, it remains to be seen how many of their members actually sign up as Liberal supporters and how many of those then take the next step — registering to vote — that is required before ballots are cast during the week of April 6-14.
In last year's NDP contest, less than 50 per cent of the party's 131,000 members voted.
As of early January, the Liberal party boasted 100,000 members and supporters, split roughly 50-50.