EDMONTON — A longtime Conservative MP is blasting his own party for becoming an “elitist and white-only” club.
Calgary MP Deepak Obhrai, the dean of the Tory caucus, told The Huffington Post Canada he is deeply frustrated by new rules the party imposed earlier this year that raised the annual Conservative membership fee to $25 — “the highest of any party” — and set the entrance fees for leadership contestants at $100,000.
Deepak Obhrai and former prime minister Stephen Harper celebrate Diwali by lighting a candle on Parliament Hill on Oct. 8, 2009. (Photo: Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)
“Since we lost power in 2015, I have become very concerned about the direction my party has taken,” he told HuffPost over the phone on Thursday.
“These actions, in my view, have disenfranchised a vast majority of Canadians. Newcomers, immigrants, low-income Canadians, and those economically challenged will be turned off and walk away because they can’t afford these high fees...
“What is concerning me is that, unfortunately, [the Conservatives] will be seen as an elitist and white-only party,” he said.
Ethnic communities' outreach
Since his election in 1997, Obhrai said he’s been working his “butt off” to bring immigrants to the party, a job that was subsequently taken on with great fanfare by former cabinet minister Jason Kenney. Success in connecting with ethnic communities culminated in the Tories’ majority election win in 2011, Obhrai said.
But that work has been dropped as a priority for the Conservatives under the leadership of party president John Walsh, Obhrai said. He added that the party has lost touch with grassroots members and pointed out that the caucus was not consulted.
“This party has become a party that is seen [to be only] for like rich people, I ask why? Why only for those who can afford it? Why the rich?
“For a family of four, it’s like asking them to give $100, and then also asking them to give through a credit card, which many don’t have. I have had these problems and my EDA [electoral district association] passed a motion telling the national council that we are unhappy with these rules,” the Calgary MP told HuffPost.
“What is concerning me is that, unfortunately, [the Conservatives] will be seen as an elitist and white-only party.”
— Deepak Obhrai
“Plus, when you put $100,000 for a leadership, you are only attracting the rich, and guess what, most of them [members of ethnic communities] would be, believe it or not, excellent candidates but again, the impression will be whites only. And I’m the guy who worked my butt off to attract everybody and make the Conservative a party for all.”
In order to expand the Conservatives’ base, Obhrai said the party had opened up its membership to landed immigrants. “But now we are sending the wrong message: sorry, don’t come to us if you don’t have the money. Go to others.
“Other parties are reducing their costs to attract Canadians. And here we are going the other way, and these people hold Conservative values. Most newcomers, low-income, vast majority of Canadians are economically challenged, they will not join our party.”
Liberals cutting membership fees
Last weekend, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the Liberals’ national board had adopted a proposal to eliminate membership fees completely. Party members will be asked to formally adopt the motion at the Liberal party convention in May. It currently costs $10 to join the Grits, although people who have registered with the party but haven’t paid a membership fee can vote in a leadership contest.
Opening up the Liberal party to non-members during the 2012-2013 leadership race is credited with bringing in tens of thousands of new supporters to the Liberals and registering some 300,000 potential voters.
The no-fee supporter category is seen as so successful that there are currently three proposals at the NDP convention to try to mimic the Liberals’ strategy in fundraising and engaging with non-members to expand the tent and tap a new base of donors and volunteers.
Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai stands in the House of Commons during question period in 2014. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
At the Conservative convention next month, delegates will be electing a new national council, said Obhrai, and he’s asking them to elect individuals who will “change these offensive rules.”
Some within the party have suggested the Tories choose a high membership fee — $25 for a year, $30 for two — that is payable only through a credit card or personal cheque to avoid fraudulent practices that occasionally occur in ethnic communities where large group sign-ups are frequent.
Obhrai believes there are other ways to combat fraud. The party should invest the resources to call up members and ask them if they have signed their own forms, if there is any doubt, he said.
“All the arguments that they are giving are absolutely nonsense,” he said.
Obhrai, with his voice ringing in frustration, said he didn’t commit years of work to a party with these values. “I’m not part of this party…. It is going to be a club of the elitists, running elitist people [for the leadership].”
Cory Hann, the Conservative party spokesman, said the new membership fee was only a “modest increase” from its previous $15 charge and that a “substantial cost break” had been given on two-year memberships to allow new members to vote in the May 27, 2017 leadership contest.
“There is of course good value in holding party membership especially now when Conservatives are going to be electing the next Prime Minister of Canada,” Hann wrote in an email to HuffPost.
He also noted that the registration fee to enter the leadership contest is $50,000, and the other $50,000 is refundable if a contest follows all the rules.
“Our leadership fees have not changed in over a decade. In fact, our out of pocket leadership entrance fees are cheaper than those from the most recent federal Liberal leadership, and on par with those from the most recent Ontario Liberal leadership,” Hann wrote.
He pointed out that under Elections Canada’s rules, leadership campaigns can only accept maximum donations of $1,525 from individuals.
The entrance fee for the Liberal leadership race in 2013 was $75,000.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST: