“Taxpayers Federation’s” true Astro-Turf nature finally worms its way into public consciousness

Posted on October 17, 2016, 12:29 am
12 mins

PHOTOS: Canadian Taxpayers Federation Communications VP Scott Hennig at the 2013 Manning Conference in Ottawa, the annual spring bean-fest for right-wing activists organized by Preston Manning’s eponymous training camp for market-fundamentalists. Below: Winnipeg commentator Dougald Lamont, author of an opinion piece published yesterday by CBC Manitoba about the CTF; CTF Operations VP Shannon Morrison taxpayer.ca photo); and former Alberta Federation of Labour researcher Tony Clark.

The fact the Canadian Taxpayers Federation has only a literal handful of members is finally worming its way into public consciousness and, from there, into mainstream media.

Better late than never!

lamontEarly yesterday, CBC Manitoba posted an online analysis piece by Dougald Lamont, a University of Winnipeg teacher of government and business relations and a long-time Manitoba Liberal, about the disproportionate influence the right-wing mouthpiece organization enjoys in Canadian political discourse.

Mr. Lamont made it clear the CTF is not what it wants you to think it is – a broad-based popular movement or a large membership-based organization. It’s just another Astro-Turf front group set up to push the tired old conservative, market-fundamentalist, anti-union agenda that benefits the 1% and no one else.

The CTF, Mr. Lamont wrote, “has been around since the late 1980s, selling itself as a populist ‘citizens advocacy group’ looking to cut waste and ensure accountability in government. They get acres of free coverage in newspapers and on local and national newscasts; their spokespeople regularly get more coverage than elected officials.”

“The CTF’s media presence is truly remarkable when you consider it has a membership of five people,” Mr. Lamont went on, cutting to the chase. “You read that correctly: five – as in dwarves or deadly sins.”

Now, je digresse knowing everyone’s an editor, but there are seven dwarves and the same number of deadly sins. Mr. Lamont must have been thinking of one of those recent times when the CTF had seven members when he came up with this amusing, if slightly miscalculated, line. The CTF does have five members at the moment.

But let’s blame a CBC copy editor for that, or the lack of one. Probably the story’s been sitting around for a while, waiting for a slow news day. It’s a fact the CTF shuffles its minuscule membership periodically.

morrisonRegardless, while one of the CTF’s many operatives is likely to take to Twitter to mock the author for this, a couple of extra dwarves, deadly sins or Astro-Turf directors do not subtract one iota from the key point the author is making. To wit, in Mr. Lamont’s words, that the CTF’s “real membership of five people matters, as does its ideology.”

That ideology, he wrote, “is a fairly radical right-wing ideology that drives inequality by making the rich richer while neglecting the poor.” It is also an ideology that attempts to define “taxpayers” (excluding billionaires who pay no taxes, presumably) as the only citizens who deserve to be heeded, he notes.

Now, I’m going to take some of the credit for this growing awareness of the true nature of the CTF. Leastways, I’m pretty sure it was my scoop back in March 2013 that started this discussion.

The piece in question, published here and on Rabble.ca, caused a huge brouhaha – even if, as it appears from this vantage point, I buried the lead and made the same error as Mr. Lamont did, in reverse. (There were five members when I’d looked, seven by the time I published, requiring an embarrassing correction and forcing me to endure a snarky Tweet from CTF Communications Vice-President Scott Hennig.)

Still, the point was made, and the facts began their long journey toward public consciousness.

clarkTo give credit where credit is due, I would never have had the scoop were it not for the effort of the redoubtable Tony Clark, then a researcher for the Alberta Federation of Labour, who “joined” the CTF in hopes of getting a look at its closely guarded financials.

When Mr. Clark’s request to see the books was swiftly rebuffed, he was told by the CTF’s Operations VP, Shannon Morrison, that “technically the only ‘members’ are the board directors themselves. … We have never had a membership other than the board directors.”

The ensuing uproar when I reported that led to Mr. Hennig publishing a post on the CTF’s website headlined, “Setting the record straight: How the CTF is governed.”

“The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is certainly no small organization. We have 89,000 supporters,” Mr. Hennig wrote. (Emphasis added.) “However,” he went on, “from time to time some folks claim the CTF is not a grassroots organization because we have ‘five members.’ The truth is that we sometimes have four, sometimes six and currently we have five. According to our bylaws we can have as few as three and as many as 20. To be clear, what they, and we, are talking about are our board members.”

It would be fair to describe this as an effort to have it both ways – to acknowledge the truth because there was no longer any way around it, but to continue to imply everyone who has clicked a button on a website to find out more about the organization was a member, or at least a “supporter.”

Mr. Hennig’s meticulously worded statement notwithstanding, the CTF continues to play this game. How else are we to interpret the words elsewhere on its website that “any Canadian taxpayer committed to the CTF’s mission is welcome to join at no cost”? (Emphasis added again.) Normally, when one joins an organization, one thinks of oneself as a “member,” not just a name on a fund-raising list.

Based on the evidence that is publicly available, the CTF can be fairly described as an advocacy group for a right-wing, market-fundamentalist political and legislative agenda that has been very effective bringing its message to the public and to government officials, many of whom are clearly afraid of the CTF’s influence.

I believe the CTF when it says its budget is $4.7 million raised from donations, many of them small amounts given by like-minded members of the public. But what percentage of those funds come from well-heeled corporate sources is completely unclear because the advocate for transparency in government refuses to be transparent about its own financial affairs.

Like a business that does not publicly trade shares, the CTF has no legal obligation to act in a transparent way. Similarly, as Mr. Lamont observed, “political parties and politicians are required by law to disclose the names of donors over about $200. As a non-profit, the CTF has no obligation to disclose its donors – and it doesn’t.”

Mr. Lamont also pointed out it’s not clear where the bulk of the CTF’s donors live. If they are mostly conservatives residing in Alberta and Saskatchewan, what business do they have telling citizens in Ontario, Quebec or Atlantic Canada how to run their affairs? (And please don’t raise the topic of equalization payments, which are paid by all Canadian taxpayers.)

Certainly, if there’s a tax angle that upsets the corporate sector, the CTF will likely be there with bells on to oppose it. For example, the CTF is a member of the so-called National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco, a group that tries to frame cigarette smuggling is a bigger social problem than it arguably is, and uses that claim to call for reductions in tobacco taxes. The group is widely perceived by anti-tobacco activists as a tobacco industry front.

The CTF has published a research paper, the conclusions of which have been vigorously disputed, on this topic. The author was one Derek Fildebrandt, who today is the Wildrose Party’s finance critic, whether the Alberta Opposition party’s leader likes it or not. This is an example of another CTF role – acting as a training ground and profile-raiser for future conservative political candidates.

The CTF can also be described fairly as a business, one that raises revenue by soliciting constantly for donations. If there is a page on the CTF’s website without a “donate now” button, I haven’t seen it.

This is a completely legitimate business model, by the way, and I may take it up myself one of these days on this blog. But it does explain why the organization would like to give its donors the feeling they are part of something bigger when they “join.” It is another reason media should not treat the CTF as a disinterested “tax watchdog,” which it obviously is not.

Soon after the publication of commentary yesterday, the right-wing troll-o-sphere exploded into a full-blown tantrum over the fact Mr. Lamont makes no secret of the fact he is an unapologetic Liberal. I expect both Mr. Lamont and the CBC will have to endure several days of online abuse as a result. The rest of us, though, should be grateful to them for finally bringing this topic to a general audience.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

17 Comments to: “Taxpayers Federation’s” true Astro-Turf nature finally worms its way into public consciousness

  1. Ken

    October 17th, 2016

    They are a right wing propaganda organization that manipulates data with the purpose of privatizing all government services in order to, in their viewpoint, cut taxes. Part of their mythology is to place in the public mind that taxes are bad. Of course they get paid by right wing donors to ensure that the top 1-3% of high earners pay as little tax as possible. As well as low or no corporate tax. As Brad Wall gives billions of taxpayers money in subsidies and grants to the oil and gas industry and to the potash industry while cutting back on public services.

    Reply
  2. Rod Feland

    October 17th, 2016

    In the meantime, Environmental and volunteer organizations are under the watchful eye of Canada Revenue because their causes happen to be aligned with certain political parties (never mind concerned citizens), and thus threatened with loss of their charitable status due to “political activity”. Yet it is no problem for “bands” like the CTF to purport that they are non-partisan and speaking for taxpayers, when clearly they are not, and have no obligation to be open OR transparent!

    I use the term “bands” because I believe it is the proper terminology for a grouping of Trolls…

    Reply
    • John B.

      October 18th, 2016

      Is the CTF registered with the tax authorities and entitled to issue receipts for tax credits to donors? I know some critics, including Michael Harris in one of his recent books, have accused the NCC of being involved in political advocacy while entitled to issue such receipts, but that organization claims that it has no such standing with respect to the CRA, and it is on that account that it can keep private the identity of donors. I assume that the CTF would act in accordance with the same practice.

      Reply
  3. Tom Henderson

    October 17th, 2016

    According to grammarist.com, “Dwarfs is the standard plural of the noun dwarf. Dwarves is a newer variant popularized (though not invented) by English author J.R.R. Tolkien in his fantasy fiction works, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Tolkien spelling is appropriate when referring to little people in fantasy worlds.”

    For the benefit of readers of Mr. Lamont’s article, Alberta Politics and the five, seven, three whatever members of Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the seven fictional dwarfs or dwarves are Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy and Grumpy.

    Reply
    • Colin Bailey

      October 17th, 2016

      If we really are getting so foolish as to discuss the nature of a collection of dwarfs in a Grimm fairy tale, it should be pointed out that they actually didn’t have names originally, and the names you state are exclusive to the Disney animated film.

      Reply
  4. Ron

    October 17th, 2016

    Kudos to you, Lamont and the CBC.
    I noted angry (jealous?) tweets from D. Akin, S. Maher and E. McFarlane about how naughty it is of the CBC to do real journalism.

    After all – they get paid to fake it.

    Reply
  5. Keith McClary

    October 17th, 2016

    “it’s not clear where the bulk of the CTF’s donors live”

    As you say, “supporters” don’t need to donate, they could include anyone who has clicked for email alerts.

    Or if they are alive? I can’t imagine CTF crossing any names off their list. The term “Silent Majority” originally referred to the dead.

    Reply
  6. Filostrato

    October 17th, 2016

    The truth will out. Mr. Climenhaga had already written about it years ago. I’m glad the national broadcaster is finally on board. As for the Manning Centre for Subverting Democracy, I’d better not say too much. It might get very rude.

    Now, on to the Fraser Institute, whose dubious “research” is reported as if it were gospel.

    Reply
  7. ema

    October 17th, 2016

    Well done David, as you well well ahead of the curve in reporting on this bogus astroturf sham!

    However, can we have bets to see how long it will take before CBC and others will have their dubious spokeswoman Paige MacPherson trotted out to spout more CTF drivel?? For some annoying reason the local media still resorts to using CTF and Fraser spokespeople as if they had even a shred of credibility! Sheesh!!!! We need a fully functioning cease and desist movement to stop this RW propaganda on MSM, especially from reaching gullible souls who absorb their junk reports hook, line and sinker!

    Reply
  8. David

    October 17th, 2016

    Do the “supporters” of the CTF get to vote on choosing the directors for the group? – NO, Do the supporters get to vote on anything, related to how the group is run? – NO.

    Probably the only ones who have any influence, are the large corporate donors/funders and we don’t know who they are.

    This group has about as much transparency as North Korea, or perhaps less. It doesn’t say much for the intelligence of those in the media who confuse supporters and members.

    Reply
  9. October 17th, 2016

    Actually, the CTF Bylaws provide for a Board and by separate section, for membership. Membership is NOT the same as Directorship (being on the Board). Membership is by application to the Board and Directors are appointed by the Members. It would appear that CTF spokespersons are apparently confused about their own organic documents (so many astroturf culture warriors are.) So, CTF may have some donors, and some supporters, but in order to ensure that management of the corporation doesn’t stray, the organization is strictly controlled by a handful of members appointed by themselves to the Board

    Reply
  10. Expat Albertan

    October 17th, 2016

    Lost in this discussion of the dubious merits of the CTF is the fact that a perfectly good (and much more useful)tax watchdog exists in Canadians for Tax Fairness – we need to promote them more.

    Reply
  11. October 17th, 2016

    The CTF, same as its likeminded organizations (and their do not give a shit about anybody who cannot afford to think like them media pals) who have with varying degrees of success been trying to drag us kicking and screaming back to the social and democratic conditions that gave rise a century or more ago to organizations like the IWW and individuals like Bakunin, ought long ago to have their Persian rugs pulled from beneath their feet. They are the Anti-Canadian Tax Federation.

    Reply
  12. Farmer B

    October 18th, 2016

    If the continuous increasing of taxes and size of government lead to economic success than Ontario would have the best balance sheet in Canada. But the reality is that they have the largest non sovereign debt in the world and close to the most expensive electricity in North America. Therefore I think a government tax watch dog like the CTF has some value.

    Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      October 18th, 2016

      That’s if you believe their mission is to advocate for fiscal responsibility in an unbiased fashion. But, as is the case with much of the libertarian movement, they’re really more about reducing deficits to better eliminate social programs for the majority, all the better for their plutocratic backers to swoop in and privatize the public good for their own profit.

      Reply
  13. Kang the not-so-Barbarous

    October 18th, 2016

    A very large part of Ontario’s debt comes from its experiment with nuclear reactors – very capital intensive and absurdly expensive to upgrade.

    During off-peak hours nukes are the most expensive way to boil water in the world – Ontario and nukes is like an 80 acre farmer with a $500,000 combine – gets the job done, but at what cost?

    But hey the Conservatives wrecked their move to use Alberta natural gas to run decentralized gas turbine generators, so they are stuck.

    Reply
  14. Mary Nokleby

    September 23rd, 2017

    Missed this when it came out but better late than never. I recently read Jane Meyers. Dark Money…and must say, its a rather depressing eye opener. The billions the 1% spend on creating phoney astro-turf organizations designed to tell all of us how bad taxes are, and how wonderful the free enterprise system is, would have raised every community out of poverty, and quite possible fed every hungry kid on the planet.

    The time and money we’ve wasted, listening to this propaganda!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (not be published)