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Taxpayers Federation's true Astroturf nature finally worms its way into public consciousness

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Dougald Lamont

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!

Early 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.

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 Astroturf front group set up to push the tired old conservative, market-fundamentalist, anti-union agenda that benefits the one per cent and no one else.

The CTF, 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,” 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. 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.

Regardless, 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 Astroturf directors do not subtract one iota from the key point the author is making. To wit, in 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 AlbertaPolitics.ca, caused a huge brouhaha -- even if, as it appears from this vantage point, I buried the lead and made the same error as 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.

To 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 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 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," 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.”

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 in 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 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."

Lamont also pointed out that 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 as 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 Lamont makes no secret of the fact he is an unapologetic Liberal. I expect both 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 David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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