LONDON, Ont. - Federal Liberals posted their best fundraising haul in a decade last year, filling their party's war chest just in time for this year's election.
The final numbers for the fourth quarter of 2014 are to be filed with Elections Canada by the end of the month.
But party insiders say the Liberal take for the last three months of the year topped $5.6 million, bringing the total for the year close to $16 million.
That's likely not enough to beat the Conservatives, who are on track to exceed their 2013 fundraising haul of $18.1 million.
But it will take a big bite out of the Tories' fundraising advantage, which the governing party has enjoyed since 2006, when corporate and union donations were prohibited and severe restrictions on individual donations were imposed.
The Liberals, who had been heavily reliant on donations from corporations and wealthy individuals, struggled for years to raise money under the new regime. But they have been steadily closing the fundraising gap since Justin Trudeau took the party's helm 21 months ago.
Trudeau and his 34 MPs are to get an update on the party's fundraising efforts today during the first of a two-day caucus retreat to plot strategy for next week's resumption of Parliament and for the election, scheduled for October.
Under Trudeau, the Liberals are again holding winter retreats outside of Ottawa — another sign that the party is flush with cash. And the fact they're meeting in the midst of Ontario's battered manufacturing heartland is no accident.
Liberals were shut out of southwestern Ontario entirely in 2011, when they were reduced to a third-party rump. But strategists believe the area is now a fertile staging ground for a national comeback.
In a speech to party faithful Tuesday evening, Trudeau is expected to launch a critique of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's economic policies, a message Liberals believe will resonate in an area that has been hard hit by factory closures, most recently the historic Kellogg's plant.
"The people of southwestern Ontario are amazingly resilient and have demonstrated that moving beyond manufacturing-based employment is something they're willing to do,'' Trudeau said in a brief remarks kicking off the caucus retreat.
"But as is the case for so many parts of the country, they need a partner in Ottawa."
Trudeau will not, however, unveil any detailed economic policy proposals of his own, continuing to wait until closer to the election to release the party's platform.
He's been heavily criticized for being light on policy, particularly since last fall when NDP Leader Tom Mulcair began unveiling major planks of his party's platform.
But Trudeau's refusal to commit himself months before the election is beginning to look prudent as plunging oil prices suck billions from federal coffers. That's prompted the government to delay its budget until at least April.
And it's raised doubts about the government's ability to simultaneously balance the budget in the coming fiscal year while implementing $4.6 billion worth of family tax benefits, announced last fall.
It's also prompted questions about how Mulcair intends to pay for the NDP's big ticket promises, including a $5-billion per year daycare plan and a vow to restore a six per cent increase in annual health care transfer payments to the provinces.
"As the government's over-exposure in the last three or four months has demonstrated, it's better sometimes to be patient,'' said deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale, arguing that the government's credibility as prudent fiscal managers has been ``severely damaged because they jumped the gun.''
While no planks will be unveiled, Liberal MPs will spend some time discussing some of their own suggestions for the party's eventual platform.
Mandatory voting is one idea the caucus has been mulling over as a possible way to combat low voter turnout during elections.
"It's an idea that we have not yet committed ourselves to, but it's under careful consideration,'' Goodale said.
Following the caucus retreat, Trudeau and his MPs plan to fan out across southwestern Ontario.
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