Back in January 2019, observers of the Alberta political scene wondered if the $6,000 administrative penalty levied against the Canadian Taxpayers Federation for failing to register as a third-party advertiser under Alberta’s election financing law would result in a long-overdue recognition of the partisan role the self-described “tax watchdog” clearly plays in Canadian politics. 

Mr. Justice Grant Dunlop (Photo: Canadian Underwriter).

The CTF, disproportionately influential in Canadian political discourse in large part because mainstream media organizations treat its questionable pronouncements as if they are credible, had purchased a couple of billboards the previous summer attacking the NDP’s carbon levy and the government’s argument it could win “social license” to build more pipelines to the West Coast.

“You can’t buy ‘social license’ when it’s not for sale,” the billboards proclaimed, which is a position a reasonable person could argue, although the opposite is more likely true. 

Be that as it may, the CTF’s problem had nothing to do with the merits of its argument or its right to state it, but with the requirement in Alberta law that anyone spending more than $1,000 on election ads had to register with the election commissioner as a third-party advertiser. 

“I believe that the CTF intended to convey a message in opposition to an issue associated with the leader of a registered political party and it was fully aware of the requirements for third party advertising registration,” said Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson in a 2018 letter to the CTF. 

“So the $6,000 question,” I wrote at the time, “is whether this development will make media more cautious about acting as if CTF claims come from an unbiased and disinterested source?”

Former Alberta Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson (Photo: Office of the Election Commissioner).

Fast-forward five years to last Wednesday and Mr. Justice Grant Dunlop of the Court of King’s Bench in Edmonton dismissed the CTF’s appeal of the fine, stating in his decision that “none of the three grounds of appeal relied upon by the Federation is established.”

The CTF had argued the election commissioner had failed to consider relevant evidence, that he also failed to consider that the organization intended to use the penalty as a test case of the constitutionality of the law, which should have mitigated the penalty, and that he failed to provide reasons why he raised the fine to $6,000 after saying he was considering a $1,000 penalty.

CTF President Scott Hennig told the Edmonton Journal this week that the organization will not appeal Justice Dunlop’s decision but will continue with its constitutional challenge of the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act later this year. 

Really, though, as things stand now Mr. Hennig has little cause for complaint. The fine’s pretty small in the great scheme of things – a fine example of white collar privilege, as it were. 

And by late November 2019, former United Conservative Party premier Jason Kenney’s government had passed legislation firing Mr. Gibson and moving the work of his office to that of the Chief Electoral Officer.

Canadian Taxpayers Federation President Scott Hennig (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

A few days after that, the CBC revealed that a lawyer for the Kenney Government’s justice minister tried to talk a judge into putting off the CTF’s challenge of the act on the grounds the government planned in 2020 to “rescind or amend part of the election finance act” the next spring. I guess it’s always good to have a former CEO of your organization in the Premier’s Office.

Then, in March 2022, changes to the Election Act and Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act in the Election Statutes Amendment Act of 2021 came into force, including the removal of “an advertising message that takes a position on an issue” associated with a party, MLA or leader from the definition of political advertising. 

More recently, last November under the Danielle Smith Government, the Standing Committee on Legislative Officers indicated it would be seeking a replacement for Glen Resler, the chief electoral officer.

With a co-operative government and a compliant media, the CTF needn’t have worried very much.

Yes, the CTF continues to insist it is non-partisan, which in a technical sense is true since it doesn’t openly advocate for any political party by name. But as a practical matter it remains part of the strategic infrastructure of the Conservative Party of Canada and the federal party’s provincial branches doing business under a variety of names.

Beyond delivering a mild sensation of schadenfreude, at this point, the possibility a mere $6,000 fine would deliver a fatal blow to the dubious credibility of the CTF in Canada’s moribund media ecosystem seems quaint.

Still, it probably explains the secretive organization’s decision just to pay the penalty and be done with it. After all, why draw attention to something that otherwise might chip away at your credibility?

CLARIFICATION: Whoops! Judge Dunlop is a justice of the Court of King’s Bench. Old habits die hard. DJC

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  1. From what I have seen, the CTF has no remaining credibility. At one point, it seemed like they did. I recall the CTF raking the Alberta PCs over the coals for the West Edmonton Mall lawsuit affair, which was over $400 million, and it had something to do with Ralph Klein. The same Scott Hennig, who is mentioned in this article, was the head of the Alberta branch of the CTF, and he was speaking openly against the $400 Ralphbucks. He got harsh criticism for what he was condemning, because people were praising Ralph Klein. These days, the CTF is just another talk box for the Conservative parties in Canada. Where was their condemnation when Danielle Smith and many UCP party members went to Dubai on some meaningless venture? Another one time member of the CTF, John Carpay, who happens to be a lawyer, if my memory serves me well, got into some type of doo doo in Manitoba, for some other type of infraction, which may have involved the Freedom Convoy malarkey. I think he may have tried to run as a politician, in some alt right party, but that also went nowhere. It was either provincially, in Alberta, or on the federal level.

  2. Looks good on them, a $6K fine. Here in B.C. we see the talking head of the week speaking on behalf of the anti taxers. Ah the governments are just so mean attempting to force all those companies and small businesses out of making a decent living. Yes, the just have them speaking into the mike and camera and its all as if it were coming from god or some sort of creature. No questions are asked. No statements challenged.
    If it weren’t so serious, the anti taxers would be a good comedy show. In B.C. the anti taxyers and various industry talking heads are all wanting less taxes and more money from government. Its like some great disaster has befallen them. However, when it is suggested rent allowances are increased to stem the flow of unhoused seniors because their pensions are too small its all, not necessary, it will increase the deficeit, etc.
    The CTF simply represents the corporations and they don’t pay enough taxes as it is. Love it when the CTF refers to businesses as the job creators. what a laugh. They’re the moochers in our society.
    Thankfully we have bloggers these days who pay attention to organizations such as the CTF and offer a more truthful version of events.
    Business is provided with a hell of a deal. the government provides roads, air ports, educated staff all paid out of all our taxes. Perhaps if businesses doesn’t want to pay taxes, they could be charged for the use of the things society provides to individuals and corporations.

    1. e.a.f.: I’m sure you’ve noted that the CTF doesn’t just speak out against increased taxes, but almost anything that makes society a better place, including minimum wages that come closer to covering the actual cost of living, decent pensions, and the like, even if the tax implications are not particular significant or indeed even measurable. Indeed, the CTF used to and may still run a supposedly separate advocacy website that appears to exist to argue specifically against affordable public health care. Since the U.S.-style health care system that this sub-group advocates is more expensive for taxpayers, although arguably more convenient for rich ones, this is not the work of a tax watchdog! This is because, as I have argued many times, the CTF is in reality a neoliberal lobby group, much like the so-called Fraser Institute (which is something more like a public relations agency or department and is certainly not an institute). DJC

      1. thank you for the additional information. oh, yes we do see the CTF whinning every time there is an increase in the min. wage. OMG, its as if its the end of the world, corporations will collapse, and small businesses will all have to close and the owners will be living on the street. If a company/small business can not afford to pay a living wage, then its not a business. Its a hobby which is being paid for by others at great expense. When businesses don’t pay their workers an adequate salary, they are increasing the number of children living below the poverty line so the CTF is in fact advocating for children living below the poverty line.
        Ah, yes the Fraser Institute, the great advocates of no unions, no standards for workers or products, no WCB, just tax breaks for corporations and low salaries for workers, so the profits can be increased. They also love to rate schools, with the private schools topping the lists and public schools not so much. I suspect they really would like a private school system. An uneducated population works so much better for corporations, and those poor corporations simply do not make enough money for their owners and share holders. Ah, yes, the Fraser Institute, the good friends of the B.C. Socreds, then the B.C. Lieberals and now the B.C. United Party. (for those outside B.C., that is actually one party which keeps changing their name as the scandals happen)
        didn’t know about the website. I’m sure they advocate for a private health care system, its the last great grasp for Canadian dollars by medical corporations who would like to own Canadian hospitals. A lot of Canadian hospitals sit on very valuable land. The well to do can go anywhere for their health care, so leave our public health care system alone. The rest of the citizens need it. Many today don’t remember when we did not have a public health care system, but I do. If your dad didn’t have MSA through their work, you didn’t have health care. The parental unit in our family worked for a large unionized corporations (thank you IBEW) and never had a problem, but many did. (was a great little eavesdropper as a child).

        Back in the day, the B.C. N.D.P. had an MLA, Emory Barnes, who twice took a month living on the DTES on the amount given to people who were on welfare. Each time he lost at least 20 lbs. The Vancouver Sun would chronical his experiences and so would T.V. news. My dream has always been to round up the various leaders of the right wing parties in B.C. along with the Fraser Institue people and CTF and leave them on the DTEs for a month with just their allotment from Human Resources.
        Some people don’t want to deal with, if you don’t pay parents an adequate salary the children will suffer. Children living in poverty is not a nice thing. Society gets all “concerned” about kids at Christmas and carry on about “deserving children” and the need for Christmas presents. Come 2 Jan. its back to business and they don’t seem to give a shit about kids and the lack of food, health care, a safe place to live, etc.
        Part of the problems we see in society these days, homelessness, drug addictions, etc. have their beginning back into the 1980s. Children were not provided with the basics of life in many parts of our country and that has a negative impact. Governments were concerned about organizations such as CTF, Fraser Institutes, those who advocated for lower taxes, etc. We could say those anti taxers are in some ways very responsible for the social problems we have today. so how is that working for them now?

  3. Chip away at the CTF’s credibility? Why, it’s nothing but a pile of chips anyway! The Schadenfreude that the tarp of secrecy has revealed some of the mountain of chips the CTF is founded upon is indeed mild. Still, Schadenfreude where it’s due.

    Nevertheless, through tears of Schadenfreudanliche mirth, I saw the CPC’s “increasingly provincial branches of doing business” ambiguously, encompassing, first, the jurisdictional sense—the CPC’s strong connection to the Landlockian provinces, for example— but also, in the rurality sense in some other provinces where CPC prospects are restricted to farming areas only, not the whole provincial jurisdiction. Rural-urban dichotomy is significant for the CPC in provinces where it doesn’t also own urban ridings—and especially bad in Quebec where, owing to the politics of culture, it doesn’t even own all rural ridings; not so bad in Ontario where it owns virtually all rural ridings yet can’t break into the many populous urban ones or hitchhike into town with the provincial Tories; but, hey!—check out the growth of the upstart BC Conservative Party at the expense of the former representative of BC’s rural Interior, the former governing party formerly known as the BC Liberals, the self-described “free-enterprise coalition” of business Liberals and blue conservatives which, now disunited from the Liberalish faction (which renamed itself “BC United”), should be more amenable to the CPC’s Reform faction (of which the CPC leader is one).

    Each of the these sub-provincial branch operations illustrates in it’s own way a sundering fissure that features prominently among parties of the right everywhere these days.

    Economically covered is both possible meanings of “provincial”. One can’t help but consider the second most common meaning of ‘provincial’: “ [adj.] unsophisticated or uncultured in manner, speech, opinion, etc.” and “—n. 2 an unsophisticated or uncultured person.” Or even “3 Eccl. [the head of] a religious order in a province.” That might also describe the CPC’s increasingly provincial branches of operations.

    Now, I happen to know that rural Canadians aren’t necessarily unsophisticated or uncultured. It just so happens the partisan right, particularly the Western-Reformer half which owns virtually all of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the BC Interior, cultivates the stereotypical hick’s natural suspicion of government and defensive traditionalism, just like the CTF cultivates the stereotypical farmer’s supposed preference for plain-spoken economic fundamentals and distaste for taxes. Unfortunately it leans heavily towards sloganeering—and therefore needs to register with respect elections.

    1. Scotty: I was ambiguous because a word that didn’t belong there slipped in. I have recast the sentence about the CPC’s provincial parties to make it clearer. DJC

    1. Anon: It’s been fixed. Having lived through the entire reign of Elizabeth II, the adjustment is hard to make. DJC

  4. The blogger is correct, the CTF will likely survive. A non-profit with reported income of $5.1 million in 2021-22 and no taxes to pay, the non partisan organization will live on. Nevertheless, if hard pressed to pay the $6,000 fine and should any of their five members seek financial assistance through the Alberta Politics website, I will gladly pledge $2.

  5. I believe this case ended up being heard in the Court of King’s bench. What with the passage of time and Her Majesty.

  6. The really dumb part of this is CTF’s delusion that the public at large (and likely even most UCP supporters) has the slightest idea what their message – “You can’t buy ‘social license’…” even means. Maybe letting CTF off the hook, allowing them to waste their money on meaningless signage, would be more effective than fining them.

  7. “the organization’s dubious credibility will likely survive”, because the blog author is fully aware that CTF has been characterized as “more astroturf than grassroots” and argue they are “less about creating an elite consensus and more about promulgating to popular audiences what has been called the ‘corporate agenda’ of neoliberal capitalism”.” And that like minded groups have been “historically associated with capital and resource extraction industries”. It is a fairly predictable pattern of behavior for the economically privileged and powerful to seek out ways and means to further promote their own interests at the expense of everyone else. CTF is but one means.

    And then . . . . “Alberta’s use of acetaminophen imported from Turkey increased the risk of a life-threatening illness in neonatal patients, according to provincial government documents detailing some of the issues that plagued Premier Danielle Smith’s $75-million deal for children’s medication last winter. . . . . he United Conservative government’s deal with Atabay has come under intense criticism for being ineffective and costly, but these documents show the medication resulted in adverse effects in young patients and indicate reports of children “gagging and refusing to take the medication.””

    The only things that they (UCP/TBA) have going is that at least they are organized,

    and well funded.

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