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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

The Canadian 'Taxpayers' Federation: Pure unadulterated anti-taxpayer AstroTurf

| February 9, 2011
Scott henning of the Canadian 'Taxpayers' Association

Scott Hennig, Alberta director of the so-called Canadian Taxpayers Federation, says Alberta's public employees should have their wages slashed by 5 per cent.

But Hennig, the ubiquitous free-market fundamentalist, also thinks it was just fine for Edmonton's City Council to vote themselves a pay increase of close to 5 per cent.

What’s with this?

Well, it's hard to say, actually, what the youthful Hennig was trying to prove with his defence of elected public employees' pay raises, since his arguments don't make much sense even from the perspective of the highly ideological pro-business claptrap normally spouted by the CTF. Who knows? Maybe it was just a momentary lapse.

Plenty of Edmonton taxpayers may have been in a knee-jerk fury at reports last week that council voted itself a 4.64-per-cent raise, but Hennig argued in the Edmonton Sun that since the justification for the raise was based on Statistics Canada cost of living and weekly wage calculations, that made it OK. He described the process as "open and transparent."

Never mind that all the public service unions he regularly slams use the same "open and transparent" process to argue for increases to their members' much more modest salaries. Presumably, from the CTF perspective, that's somehow different.

Hennig also made the claim that it would cost taxpayers less if politicians take a significant raise now and give themselves another big one later than if they just vote themselves a single huge pay raise at some future date. He provided no explanation of the logic behind this conclusion, and apparently the Edmonton Sun reporter who recorded it didn't think to ask.

But then, why would he? After all, Hennig is quoted with such metronomic regularity by the Alberta media that his many pronouncements have come to possess the quality of expert testimony, or even engraved tablets toted down from the summit of Mount Sinai. He would undoubtedly be in the Rolodex of every working journalist in Alberta if working journalists still used Rolodexes.

However, Hennig's attack on public employees, one of numerous suggestions in a slick CTF publication called "Roadmap to a Balanced Budget" churned out by the group to generate media publicity in advance of the 2011 Alberta budget, is standard fare for the organization.

So let's ask ourselves just who or what the CTF represents. Here's a hint: not taxpayers.

Now, the CTF describes itself as "a not-for-profit citizens' group dedicated to lower taxes, less waste and accountable government," and claims to have "over 70,000 supporters nationwide."

The group has a grandly titled factotum in each region of the country who seems to spend a lot of time hanging out at events where media congregate, giving gravely concerned interviews to respectful reporters. An opening of Alberta's Legislature or a Budget Speech rarely passes without being graced by the lean and well-spoken Hennig.

In addition to its five "regional directors," the CTF employs a president and CEO, a vice-president of operations, a director of online campaigns, a financial manager, a webmaster-publisher and a national research director.

So how does this "citizens' advocacy group" pay for a nationwide staff with unlimited time to lollygag around government buildings, produce fancy publications and regular "action updates," plus manage its slick labour intensive web and social media presence?

Well, that's not entirely clear, seeing as its "supporters" (not members, note) are "welcome to join at no cost," and indeed it is remarkably easy to do so using the CTF's efficient on-line form.

Now, no doubt, some naïve taxpayers make donations to the CTF in the belief it is working for them against the interests of, to quote the well-heeled group's website, "big unions, big corporations and government-funded special interest groups."

However, since virtually all of the CTF's positions are boilerplate reflections of the corporate low-tax, anti-worker, high-privatization, anti-democratic agenda, the organization carries with it a strong whiff of the chemical odour of AstroTurf.

"AstroTurfing," colloquially speaking, is the establishment of groups that really represent commercial or political special interests while pretending to represent "grassroots" citizens. This activity is named for the brand of synthetic carpeting that is designed to look, from a distance, like real grass.

As a result, notwithstanding the interests of real taxpayers, the CTF is a particular and dedicated foe of all public services, defined-benefit pension plans, fair election financing laws, the long-form census questionnaire, measures to reduce the effects of climate change and even the life-saving Canadian Firearms Registry. On the other hand, it is strangely silent about such spectacularly expensive taxpayer-supported boondoggles as the F-35 fighter jet or multi-billion-dollar federal prison-building schemes.

While the CTF claims not to be affiliated with any political party, it has also served as a talent agency for the Harper government in Ottawa, the Harris government in Ontario and sundry Conservative Party offshoots elsewhere. For example, Jason Kenney, Canada's immigration minister and censor in chief, used the CTF as his springboard to politics. Hennig himself worked as a speechwriter for the Alberta Conservative caucus and it seems quite likely based on his activities that he has political ambitions of his own.

What the CTF emphatically does not do, it is worth repeating, is represent the interests of the ordinary taxpayers it purports to speak for, who benefit from fair public services, decent pensions, elections that can't be bought by wealthy corporations and even "red tape" -- a term that, after all, is just market fundamentalist vilification of fair regulations that protect consumers and citizens.

Naturally, unlike one of those "big unions," there is no mechanism by which the CTF's "supporters" can control, or even influence, the selection of the group's leaders and spokespeople, or influence its policy positions.

Indeed, for a group that claims tirelessly to stand for transparency and openness, facts about the CTF's own "donation-based" funding sources are remarkably difficult to come by.

It would be very interesting to see the CTF's complete donor list so that Canadians could know who really funds this organization … and why.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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