Shannon Morrison

When it comes time to hand out the annual Turfy Award — named for AstroTurf, the green synthetic blades that look like grass and feel like grass but do not absorb carbon dioxide like grass — I expect the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to be a contender.

Indeed, consider ’em nominated.

After all, seeing as I cooked up the Turfies just now, the CTF’s chances are likely pretty good to win the award for the Canadian organization that best exemplifies the concept of Astroturfing — a slang expression for political activities that, in the words of our wonderful collectively owned Wikipedia, “are designed to mask the sponsors of the message to give the appearance of coming from a disinterested, grassroots participant.”

As has been said in this space before, while the CTF is likely Canadian, although there’s really no way for us to know for sure, it is emphatically not a federation, and, given the causes it espouses, it most certainly does not represent the interests or the wishes of most ordinary Canadian taxpayers.

Regardless — and we must give credit where credit is due — the CTF’s engaging and articulate spokespeople spread across the regions of Canada are masters of framing their attacks on almost any form of legitimate government spending as exposes of waste and demands for transparency. Their often-misleading claims are solemnly reported by media with metronomic regularity.

People like President Troy Lanigan and Communications Vice-President Scott Henning, the latter familiar to Albertans in his former role as the group’s regional director, do an excellent job for the corporate self-interest groups they truly serve.

The CTF has also been a great launching pad for a number of politicians — every one some kind of conservative — best known among them Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

That said, until recently I had no idea just how pure and refined an example of Astroturfing is the clever-boots organization that gave Canadian political discourse the “Teddy Award” — allegedly to highlight government waste.

But the fact is — and we have CTF Operations Vice-President Shannon Morrison to thank for this revelation — the organization has only five members.

Let me say that again, just to make sure there is no misunderstanding: The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has only five members!

Now, you may have had the impression that the CTF — which is almost invariably referred to by the mainstream media as a “taxpayer watchdog” — has something like 70,000 members, every one a concerned Canadian frowning grimly at the idea of governments wasting their hard-earned tax dollars on things like pensions for public employees, the long-gun registry and the long-form census.

Mind you, if these taxpayers also happen to be concerned about wasteful plans to spend bazillions on easy-to-shoot-down F-35 stealth bombers or mere billions for unneeded and counterproductive prison cells, of course, they’ll need to look elsewhere for support. Notwithstanding its claim to be “non-partisan,” the CTF is reliably pro-Conservative and has nothing bad to say about those particular Tory boondoggles.

Now, to be fair, the CTF is fairly scrupulous about always referring to its 70,000 sign-ups as “supporters,” although I don’t see any signs its staff members rush to the telephones and demand a retraction when the mainstream media slips up and talks about the group’s supposedly vast membership.

Nevertheless, many people who sign on with the CTF are operating under the misapprehension they are members of the group. Indeed, that may have been what Edmonton-based corporate ethics advocate and researcher Tony Clark thought when he signed up for the CTF, just to see what would happen. 

At any rate, with a copy of the CTF’s letters patent in hand, Clark wrote the organization and asked for more information. Morrison responded on the CTF’s behalf. Here are some excerpts from their correspondence:

CLARK: “I’m a member. May I see the CTF’s audited financial statements?”

MORRISON: “Thank you for your support! Please see our financial highlights on our website…”

CLARK: “Thanks, Shannon, but can I see a copy of the audited financial statements? I do appreciate the highlights, but I’d rather see the audited statements.”

MORRISON: “This is what we provide for the public.”

CLARK: “Shannon: I have a copy of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s letters patent. … According to the bylaws, I have the right to see the audited financial statements. …”

MORRISON: “Tony, I apologize for my delay in answering. In law, the CTF is a federal not for profit corporation. Technically the only ‘members’ are the board directors themselves. … The bylaws you quote are extremely out of date but even with that we have never had a membership other than the board directors. We have worked very hard to use consistent language to reflect this over the last several years. The financial summary found on our website is what we have for our donors and supporters.” (Emphasis added.)

So there you have it. The entire membership of the CTF is made up of five people. As it was, it is now and ever shall be. And the finances of their organization are none of your business — even if you thought you were a member.

So, who are the actual members of the five-member CTF, you ask? They are:

Michael Binion, who boasts of having established the first western company in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia after the civil war

– Erin Chutter, another investor in the former Soviet Union and former federal Conservative candidate

Karen Selick, Litigation Director for the Canadian Constitution Foundation, a group that among other things litigates for “patient choice in health care,” code for the right to bypass public health care

Paul Pagnuelo, a retired Bank of Montreal Executive

John Mortimer, president of the Canadian LabourWatch Association, a group that says it helps companies in “maintaining or achieving union-free status”

That’s it. The entire CTF. And to top it off, these great crusaders for transparency, when you get down to where the rubber hits the road, aren’t very transparent themselves.

“The CTF is a true Astroturf organization, a textbook Astroturf organization if ever there was one,” says Clark.

What’s more, he notes, the corporation’s letters patent indicate its headquarters are in Edmonton, but it appears to be operating out of Regina. So on top of it all, have they gone rogue?

Speaking of watchdogs, the CTF is no more a true taxpayer watchdog that my Bichon Shitzu Riley — who, by the way, happens to be one of the CTF’s no-doubt many non-human associate members, or whatever they are.

A five-member federation. If that’s not the perfect example of Astroturfing, I don’t know what the heck is!

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

Clarification: CTF posts sudden ‘membership’ spurt

Since this morning’s post, I have been informed a sixth board member has appeared on the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s website.

According to the CTF, the biography of Ken Azzopardi, a former Mountie also on the board of the “World Taxpayers Association,” has been there for a week. Perhaps the update has just been slow to populate to all corners of the Internet – like St. Albert, Alberta.

Regardless, congratulations to the CTF for its 17-per-cent growth spurt in a single week.

Henceforth, I promise, I will always refer to the organization as the six-member CTF.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...