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Market-fundamentalist right looks to 'Super PACs' like so-called Alberta Prosperity Fund to grab back power

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Barry McNamar

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Having received serious and unexpected shocks nationally and in Alberta in 2015, the market-fundamentalist right is now reaching enthusiastically into the vast tickle trunk of pernicious American political ideas to regain control of the political agenda north of the Medicine Line.

And if these market true believers can't win a fair fight in the "marketplace of ideas," well, they know there's more than one way to skin a cat.

Consider the rise of the Alberta Prosperity Fund and other Canadian "Super PACs."

"The Alberta Prosperity Fund can't give money directly to political Parties, candidates or campaigns," the group tells supporters on its revealing Facebook page, "but we can direct unlimited resources to specific ridings to run ads, mail letters, make phone calls, identify voters and even encourage them to take action on specific issues." (Emphasis added.)

There's a case to be made that some of those acts may violate Alberta's tough election financing law, but it is true that "independent expenditure-only committees" can raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, individuals and associations, and even act as cut-outs for foreign corporations and governments to intervene in the domestic political process however they wish.

In the United States, Super PACs arose out of a series of court cases early in this decade in which the conservative-packed U.S. Supreme Court invalidated several Federal Elections Commission rules to allow unlimited spending by deep-pocketed groups to support or attack political candidates.

Still, U.S. Super PACs have a legal definition and are subject to some controls -- for example, their spending cannot legally be coordinated with political candidates as the APF seems to propose and they must report their donors periodically to the FEC.

In Canada, the situation is murkier. Outside legally defined election campaigns, there are essentially no controls on the advocacy activities of groups like the APF, which was introduced to Albertans back in November in a deferential Calgary Herald story as an effort to unite Alberta’s conservative political parties to topple Premier Rachel Notley's NDP Government.

There are virtually no Canadian restrictions on where non-profit organizations without charitable status can raise money. Such entities don't have to open their books or identify their donors. They have no obligation to report how much money they've spent, or what it was spent on.

Readers will recall how in the spring of 2015 a new Canadian Super PAC called HarperPAC launched an advertising campaign that seemed closely coordinated with the federal Conservative Party's efforts to elect then prime minister Stephen Harper by smearing Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau and heaping slime on Canadian unions.

One HarperPAC message claimed that: "After months of mistakes, Justin Trudeau's poll numbers are free-falling. Canadians from coast to coast now think he is unfit to be prime minister." As it turned out, that's actually not what Canadians thought.

Like Harper, HarperPAC spokesperson Stephen Taylor was a former head of the secretive National Citizens Coalition, which one could argue was the original HarperPAC.

In June, HarperPAC suddenly shut down -- seemingly at the demand of the Harper campaign. In a social media message, Taylor took credit for having "contributed to a new discussion about political financing in a fixed-election era" before pulling the plug on the entity.

That was hardly the end of Canadian Super PACs, though.

The APF seems to have been established at approximately the same time with similar goals by people from the same circle.

The group's uninformative website tells little about what the APF proposes to do and nothing at all about who is behind it. It quotes Friedrich Hayek, one of the saints of the market fundamentalist right, on the need to propagandize intellectuals and writers before winning over the masses.

Who is on the APF board? The website doesn't say.

On Dec. 17 the APF Facebook page introduced former talk-radio host Dave Rutherford is a member of the group’s advisory council. Yesterday it announced former Wildrose Party political operations director Cameron Davies had joined the council. Presumably there are more to come, although there is no mention of the council on the website. Nor is there anything there about the group's funding.

Nor did the Calgary Herald story attempt to answer those questions back in November.

While the Herald's report is not very informative, it does tell us that the group's director is Barry McNamar, who has worked at various times in his career as "an official with the federal Reform Party, Manning Foundation and Fraser Institute.” He has also been director of the University of Calgary's taxpayer-funded neoliberal think tank, the so-called School of Public Policy, and is currently operations vice-president of the Frontier Centre, a Winnipeg-based Fraser Institute clone.

Given McNamar's connections, his claim to the Herald "the organization was well on its way to achieving its goal of a $2-million annual budget" is probably quite realistic.

The APF's objective of uniting Alberta's right will be a harder sell, given the mistrust between PC supporters and those of the more radical Wildrose Party, not to mention the weak performance of Wildrose Leader Brian Jean.

But the APF's connection to neoliberal front organizations such as the Manning Centre (of which the Manning Foundation is the charitable arm), the Fraser Institute and the Frontier Centre suggests its game plan is to create conditions in which the Wildrose Party can engineer a hostile reverse takeover of the PCs. That way, the Conservatives' big-tent brand could be preserved to reassure voters while market-fundamentalist activists purged the party leadership of "Red Tories" and other PC "wets."

If that sounds familiar to you, it's exactly how Preston Manning's Reform Party, temporarily rebranded as the Canadian Alliance, took possession of the soul of the now defunct Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

If you want to understand the APF's goals, remember that the first speaker invited to inspire its supporters was Grover Norquist, the American anti-tax extremist who famously pronounced: "I'm not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Norquist inspires strong feelings. Democratic Party strategist James Carville has characterized him as "pond scum." His operations in the United States are known to be financed by the notorious billionaire Koch Brothers and George W. Bush Administration campaign dirty trickster Karl Rove.

If you want to anticipate the APF's likely strategy, consider its overheated rhetoric about NDP "economic vandalism" and its false claim the government intends "to unionize the family farm."

Blogger Dave Cournoyer cleverly called the APF's strategy uniting the right by moving further to the right. It certainly shouldn't require a weatherman to tell Albertans which way the wind is blowing from this particular front.

Given the arrival in Canada of groups like the APF, Canadian governments must not delay passing strict laws to prevent the spread this invasive and noxious weed within our political ecosystem, and to regulate and constrain the efforts of already-established Canadian Super PACs to get around Canadian election spending limits.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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