Who’s Afraid of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation?

I had CBC radio playing in the background on Monday and an item about property tax assessments in New Brunswick came on and the next thing I knew, I was listening to Kevin Lacey of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF).

I didn’t actually catch what he said but I can guess with some degree of certainty it was something along the lines of: “CUT TAXES!”

Lacey and the CTF are a notoriously one-note chorus, but boy are they ever given lots of opportunities to sing.

 

Represent?

Whenever a government enacts a tax or cuts a tax or spends money or doesn’t spend money, some reporter with a microphone will rush off to get the opinion of the CTF, which claims to speak on behalf of all Canadian taxpayers. I know they don’t because I’m a Canadian taxpayer and they don’t speak for me, even if I do occasionally agree with them. (They’re like a group that claims it’s always 6 o’clock: twice a day you have to admit they’re right, but it doesn’t make you think, “Man, these people have such amazing insight.”)

Hearing Lacey reminded me of a piece John Oliver did on Last Week Tonight about the National Rifle Association. That group, which has successfully blocked gun control laws in the United States for decades, has 5 million members. In a country of 330 million, that represents 1.5% of the population and yet they exert this outsized influence on something as serious as the regulation of firearms. Their secret, according to one commentator, is that they have one issue and pursuing it simply means saying “No,” over and over and over again.

Sound familiar?

Except the NRA actually has members who pay dues and attend annual general meetings and vote on things.

The CTF is a totally different bird.

 

Astroturf

To Alberta-based journalist and union activist David J. Climenhaga, who has been tracking the CTF for years, the organization is a textbook example of astroturfing, which he defined in a 2013 rabble.ca article as political activities:

…designed to mask the sponsors of the message to give the appearance of coming from a disinterested, grassroots participant.

Climenhaga revealed that the CTF, rather than being a grassroots, anti-tax organization actually consisted of five members — its board of directors. Three years later, he noted that:

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.

That’s because Dougald Lamont (long-time Liberal, lecturer in Government-Business Relations at the University of Winnipeg, policy adviser to Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette) wrote an October 2016 opinion piece for CBC Manitoba, picking up on Climenhaga’s story:

The CTF’s media presence is truly remarkable when you consider it has a membership of five people. You read that correctly: five.

This might come as a surprise, but the CTF is not now, nor has it ever been, a grassroots, member-based organization where anyone can pay $10 to sign up (or sign up free) and have a say in how the organization is run.

Instead, it has supporters — about 90,000 of them, who, like followers on Facebook, can like, comment, answer surveys and make donations, but they have no actual say in how the organization is run.

Lamont explains that those “members” are the CTF’s board of directors (they now number six) then points to a CTF article entitled, “Setting the Record Straight: How the CTF is Governed,” (written in response to Climenhaga’s original story) which explains the CTF’s governance structure this way:

[F]rom 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.

(I love that defense. “People say we don’t really represent all Canadian taxpayers because we only have five members but they are SO WRONG. Sometimes, we only have THREE members.”)

CTF goes on to explain why it opted for a lean, mean, all-powerful board of directors rather than letting the people it claims to represent have a say in its doings:

[T]he more important reason is effectiveness. What structure most effectively advances the organization’s mission: One bogged down in meetings, procedures and elections or one that is lean, performance-based and nimble?

Many reading this will have sat through the AGM of a broad member-based organization where two hours is spent arguing over some small change to the bylaws. Well intended to be sure, but largely a waste of time and at the end of the meeting half the attendees leave disappointed and disillusioned.

Rather than spending our staff’s time and our donors’ funding renting halls for AGMs (ours would require the Skydome), we choose to put our resources where our supporters want them most.

Yes, rather than renting the Skydome (or the Rogers Centre, as I believe it is now known) and boring the 49,282 people it can seat to death by letting them participate in CTF decision-making, they just do it themselves, the way they claim Greenpeace and the Canadian Wildlife Federation do. I didn’t have time to do a full fact-check on this, but I did look up Greenpeace’s governance structure and besides its international board it has national and regional boards which:

…are usually elected by a voting membership of volunteers and activists, who are firmly rooted within the local environmental communities and are well positioned to represent the wider public in influencing Greenpeace decisions and policy.

So yeah, there’s that.

 

Show of Support

What the CTF, which describes itself as a “citizens’ advocacy” group, has in place of a broad membership is “supporters.” By its own reckoning, they numbered 117,000 Canada-wide in 2016. A supporter, the organization explains, is:

…anyone who voluntarily signs onto a CTF campaign or join appeal. There is no cost associated with being a supporter. Supporters will be asked for financial contributions.

And how many of those supporters actually pony up money? In 2015-2016, according to the About section of the web site, 29,102 supporters donated $4.7 million (Interestingly, elsewhere on the site, the organization posts a chart that shows that in 2014-2015, the CTF had 30,663 donors who also contributed $4.7 million. How…cool?)

To put that in perspective, Canada’s population as of Q4 2016 was 36,443,632, which means CTF “supporters” represent 0.32% of Canadians.

If you narrow that down to taxpayers, it’s not much better — 26,233,828 Canadians filed tax returns in 2016, so CTF “supporters” represent 0.45% of them. CTF donors represent 0.11%.

By way of comparison, the YMCA of Canada has 1.1 million members. Girl Guides of Canada have 90,000 members. Either organization would be as qualified to discuss taxes as the CTF is, but do you ever hear a reporter rushing off to ask a local Brown Owl what she thinks about the latest federal budget?

 

CUT TAXES!

The funny part is, the CTF can’t quite believe the coverage it gets either. It knows it’s not connecting with people:

Our biggest challenge at the CTF is less about high taxes, government waste and unaccountable government as [sic] it is apathy: to build the idea that – like special interests – taxpayers need to make their voices heard.

If just 10% of the country’s 21-million tax filers gave a small donation to a taxpayer advocacy group and took 15 minutes a year to engage in public policy advocacy, both our household budgets and country would look very different than they do.

Yes, Canadian Taxpayers Federation, “apathy” is your greatest challenge, not the fact that your response to every social, political and economic problem facing the country (or the province or the municipality) is “CUT TAXES!” I bet the response is so kneejerk people like Lacey spit it out whenever they’re asked a question:

“Would you like fries with that?”

“CUT TAXES!”

“Window or aisle seat?”

“CUT TAXES!”

And let’s get real: if “just 10%” of the country’s (now) 26 million taxpayers were to give “a small donation” to “a taxpayer advocacy group” like, oh, say, yourselves, your membership and financing would jump exponentially. You are basically admitting you have no support.

Of course, if you were to attract more donors, we’d never know anything about them — as a non-profit, the CTF doesn’t have to make its donor list or finances public and so, this great crusader for accountability keeps all that secret. As Climenhaga points out, whether the CTF is actually funded by Canadian taxpayers is anybody’s guess. (For the record, the “Join Us” section doesn’t require you upload your Canadian tax returns. It doesn’t even require you to send two pages from your 2005 return to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.)

Moreover, in the “Myth Buster” section of their site, where they debunk or validate issues raised by concerned taxpayers — like “Are Most MPs Criminals and Wife Beaters?” and “Are Income Taxes Illegal?” — they seem to admit they get queries from Americans. Consider this excerpt from an article entitled “Canadian Pension Plan Myths,” by CTF research director Jeff Bowes:

Claim 6: “THE ENTITLEMENT: They are calling CPP payouts an entitlement. ENTITLEMENT my foot,,,, Just because they borrowed the money for other government spending, doesn’t make my benefits some kind of charity or handout!!”

False: This is a clue to the emails [sic] American origans [sic] because in Canada we don’t often call government benefits “entitlements”.  Also this isn’t true because the government didn’t spend any of the CPP contributions. CPP contributions aren’t used to fund other programs, and after reforms over the last few decades CPP is well-funded.

(I’m impressed Bowes could get past the aggressive use of the comma in that question/statement — I paused so long I lost track of the writer’s concern.)

But still, credit where credit is due, the CTF does debunk where debunking is called for, explaining patiently to an audience that seems to get most of its information from “chain emails” that most MPs are not criminals and wife-beaters; income taxes are, in fact, legal; Canada did not spend $15 billion on foreign aid in 2012; and refugees are not entitled to more government support than pensioners.

 

Call to Action

When it’s not sharing its expertise on basically any and all aspects of Canadian government or presenting its “Teddy” awards for government waste (there’s an explanation for the name, but I really can’t be bothered, let’s just say the fact they’ve chosen a “waste-hating pig” as their mascot shows they know about as much about the natural world as they do about good government), the CTF is busy drafting petitions and gathering signatures for its causes du jour.

Currently, for instance, you can sign a “Cut Vancouver Housing Taxes” petition or a “No Federal Carbon Tax” petition or an “Axe the [Ontario] Travel Tax” petition. Here in Nova Scotia, if you feel the best way to make your opinions known to the premier is to sign a three-line petition that begins by misspelling both his name and that of the finance minister, the CTF has you covered:

 

 

That would be Premier Stephen MCNEIL and Finance Minister Randy DELOREY.

Asked by a correspondent if the CTF worried that petitions (presumably even those that spelled the recipients names correctly) were “worthless,” CTF president Troy Lanigan replied:

It is true that online petitions are not accepted on the floor of legislatures and the House of Commons.  However — whatever the outdated and arcane legislative rules – this concern is irrelevant because the CTF would never waste time delivering a petition to the floor of any legislature.

The CTF believes petitions should be marched directly to relevant lawmakers outside of the legislative body. This way we can bring media in tow and often force a response directly from the public official who is responsible.

Remember, politicians are followers, not leaders.  Demonstrations of large numbers of voters who support a policy does have sway. And while it’s true that many petitions fail, it’s also true that all petitions fail that are never attempted.

The CTF believes it leads not just reporters but politicians around by the nose. And the problem is, that’s often true.

 

Testify

In fact, the one thing the CTF can be justifiably proud of is the amount of media coverage it attracts, samples of which can be found in its “Testimonials” section.

Mind you, the CTF has a very different definition of “testimonial” than I do. That highly unflattering Dougald Lamont column cited earlier is listed as a “testimonial” on the web site.

So is this clip of former Nova Scotia finance minister Graham Steele on 26 May 2011 or Gas Tax Honesty Day (which I always celebrate by siphoning gas out of a politician’s car, dousing what remains of my Christmas tree and torching it in front of the provincial building):

 

There’s even a quote from our own Cape Breton Post:

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s role is ‘to advocate the common interest of taxpayers.’ We thought that was the job of the politicians, who appear to be increasingly taking their directions from the CTF.— Lead editorial Cape Breton Post, February 24, 2013

As is its wont, the CTF cherry-picked the quotes it liked from that editorial and conveniently skipped the part where the Post calls out CTF Atlantic spokesman Kevin Lacey for getting his facts wrong on the subject of MLA pensions:

‘The MLA pension program is so rich that for every $1 contributed by a politician the taxpayers contribute $22 toward their retirement – this amounts to $11 million a year,’ Lacey said back in September, adding that figure includes interest.

According to the province’s Finance Department, taxpayers actually contribute $6.79 for every $1 contributed by MLAs, not including interest.

Oh, $6.79/$22, Delory/Delorey, what’s the difference when you’re doing the Lord’s work?

Of course, the CTF’s pride is the Canadian media’s shame — it’s just journalistic laziness that allows this handful of anti-taxers to punch so far above their weight. Behind any given taxation issue — take that property tax assessment question in New Brunswick — you’ll find serious people who’ve given the matter real thought. I’ve been doing some research on property taxes and I’ve found lots of interesting material, from both the US and Canada. I read a report on property taxes prepared for the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities in 2014 and a study by two American academics for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. You know what I didn’t do as part of my research? I didn’t contact the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Because I know what they’d say:

“CUT TAXES!”

 

Non-Partisan

CTF board members and staff do not belong to political parties, the web site is very clear on this matter.

But could you be partisan without being a card-carrying partisan? I mean, consider Lacey’s bio (compliments of the Cape Breton Post), prior to becoming the CTF’s Atlantic spokesperson bureau:

A Halifax native, Lacey worked in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office (2006-08), was an adviser to former Nova Scotia premier John Hamm (2003-06), worked for both the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Fraser Institute, and ran a consulting business “providing advice to leading politicians and corporations.”

OMG guys, what is it that Harper and Hamm (which sounds like a fantastic vaudeville team) have in common? Oh, right, they’re TORIES. And how do the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Fraser Institute lean? (I’ll give you a hint, “right.”)

And here’s an excerpt from President Troy Lanigan’s bio:

Prior to the CTF, Troy worked for an educational foundation in the United States and experimented with – but never inhaled – partisan politics on both sides of the border.

Board chair Adam Daifallah sat on the editorial board of the National Post and was Washington Correspondent for the New York Sun.

Board member Ken Azzopardi “spent a number of years involved in provincial politics.”

Board member Karen Selick was outed by Climenhaga as the former “litigation director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, a registered charity that takes legal action to undermine Canada’s public health care system and gun registration laws, as well advocating on behalf of as other far-right causes.”

Board member Melissa Mathieson “worked for the federal government, first as part of the issues management team in the Prime Minister’s Office, and then as an advisor to the Minister of State for Finance.” And in case you’re wondering which prime minister and finance minister, let me offer a few details she was more forthcoming about when she sought the Conservative nomination in Ted Menzie’s old riding of Macleod, Alberta (now Foothills) in 2014. At that point, her bio stated proudly that she had worked “most recently at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, heart of the so-called Calgary School that produced Stephen Harper.” (She lost the nomination to John Barlow, now Conservative MP for Foothills.)

If you still haven’t figured out the CTF’s politics, let me just add that newly elected Alberta PC leader Jason Kenney is a former CTF president and CEO and current Wild Rose finance critic Derek Fildebrandt is the organization’s former Alberta director and national research director.

Does it really matter, then, that “CTF staff and board directors are prohibited from holding a membership in or donating funds to any political party?”

I’m thinking…no.

 

Citizen/Taxpayer

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation claims to advocate for government accountability and you know me guys, I’m all about the accountability, but they lose me at “Taxpayers.”

Lamont makes the same point in his article — the use of the term “taxpayer” instead of “citizen” is pernicious and leads to nonsense like the CTF call to replace Employment Insurance as it currently exists with a system that allows you to save money only you or a close relative can access. What a great idea — we should do the same with blood.

I feel like this would be a good time to explain, in detail, the difference between a “taxpayer” and a “citizen,” but luckily, I don’t have to: The Ethicist has already done it for me.

If you happen to know any CTF board members, feel free to share.

 

Featured image: Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s Federal Director Aaron Wudrick (right) at 17th annual Teddy Waste Awards with Porky the waste-hating pig (left). (Photo by Matthew Usherwood, via iPolitics )

 

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