The Canadian Taxpayers' Federation 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.

Perhaps the CTF gets the coverage it does because it is seen as less biased than politicians — it is seen as advocating for taxpayers against all politicians, on the right and left.

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.

Why does this matter?

While the CTF's mandate is to hold elected officials to account, who holds the CTF's five members to account? Each other. Who decides who else can become a member? They do. It should be no surprise that the CTF has, as a result, faced accusations of being an Astroturf organization — a fake grassroots organization.

This has clearly struck a nerve, and on Aug. 22, 2014 CTF spokesman Scott Hennig published Setting the record straight: how the CTF is governed.

"From time to time, some folks claim the CTF is not a grassroots organization because we have 'five members,'" he wrote.

"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."

Hennig says voting memberships aren't allowed because the CTF was "designed by its founders to prevent a takeover by hostile groups."

The resulting "lean" organization doesn't get "bogged down in meetings, procedures and elections," which he considers a waste of donors' money.

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Lamont says there is an important distinction between the terms citizen and taxpayer: all citizens are equal while taxpayers are not. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Imagine the reaction if the CTF's usual targets (political parties, unions, governments) announced they were going to scrap voting and elections because they slowed things down too much and were a waste of donors' money — while refusing to disclose who those donors were.

By the CTF's own argument, it appears that it is not a citizen's advocacy group, but a donors' advocacy group. Hennig boasts the CTF has more donors than political parties — but political parties have thousands of members and volunteers, and elections have millions of voting citizens.

No obligation to disclose donors

Almost every MP has more constituents than the CTF has supporters. The CTF also boasts that it receives no government funding. But as a non-profit, it pays no taxes on the $4.7 million in donations it received in 2014-15.

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.

Where donors live matters too.

In the 1990s, the CTF shuttered its Manitoba office because it couldn't survive without transfer payments from Alberta, but despite a lack of support, created a "Prairies" office that still hectors Manitoba politicians.

If all of the CTF's donors are still in Saskatchewan and Alberta, it raises the question of what business they have in telling governments in other provinces how to tax and spend.

The CTF's focus on donors indicates a deeper problem.

Since the 1980s, there has been a deliberate effort to reframe citizens as "taxpayers" and public spending as "taxpayers' money," as if taxpayers are shareholders.

Taxpayers vs. citizens

Journalists and politicians in every political party routinely use these terms without considering that this framing is anti-democratic. That is because politicians are elected by citizens, not just taxpayers.

The word "taxpayer" is not in the constitution; the word "citizen" is. All citizens are equal. Taxpayers are not.

It is self-evident that you can contribute to the economy and society without paying taxes.

Many citizens don't pay income taxes, notably children, the working poor and a few millionaires and billionaires.

Charities, churches and places of faith are all tax-exempt.

Defining taxpayers as the only people who matter has real and serious consequences for policy.

It is not a politically neutral position: it is a fairly radical right-wing ideology that drives inequality by making the rich richer while neglecting the poor.

That is why the CTF's real membership of five people matters, as does its ideology. We don't have to care what they think, but we should be clear on just where they are coming from.


Dougald Lamont, a long-time Liberal working in policy and communications, is a lecturer in Government-Business Relations at the University of Winnipeg and a policy adviser to Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette. These are his own views, not those of his employers.

Clarifications

  • The author's tagline has been updated to include Lamont's role as a policy adviser to Robert-Falcon Ouellette.
    Oct 16, 2016 10:19 PM CT