Who is driving the conservative agenda in Canada?

In America’s Forbes Magazine this weekAlejandro Chafuen praised the leadership of the conservative policy think-tanks that helped set the stage for the election of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority government in 2011 and the success of conservative politicians across the country.

This apparatus of conservative special interest groups, think-tanks and news media has contributed to shifting Canada’s political narrative toward the political right. Who are these groups? It only takes a quick look to discover how connected and small this network actually is.

If you even pay casual attention to political news in Canada, you will undoubtedly hear clips from spokespeople representing the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Fraser Institute, the National Citizens Coalition, the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business or the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. These are just a few of the groups that are pushing the conservative agenda in this country.

Together, these groups have been very adept at advancing an anti-public services, anti-taxation, anti-labour union, and pro free-market agenda nationally and provincially. For many of them, these goals are the sole purposes for existing.

While most of these groups will frequently call for increased transparency in government, some refuse to make public their own financial backers. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which refuses to release the names of his own financial bankrollers, was found to actually have a only handful of members. Not much of a “federation,” though this revelation does not seem to have hurt the group’s ability to earn the attention of the mainstream media. It is hard not to give points to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation operatives for their relentless and entertaining media stunts.

These groups even have their own media platform – the Sun News Network – which is applying to the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission to charge Canadians a mandatory  fee for a spot as regular cable and satellite channel. Launched in 2011, Sun News Network describes itself as “unapologetically patriotic” and “less politically correct” than other TV networks. Fox News North’s distinctly Tea Party flavour has led to no shortage of controversy since it launched.

Another group that refuses to release the names of its financial donors is the National Citizens Coalition. Drawing connections between this group and Fox News North, a former vice-president of the National Citizens Coalition, Gerry Nichollsquestioned why his former organization has focused on “shilling” for Sun News Network.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that the NCC has dramatically changed since my time. It’s the nature of any organization to evolve. And the NCC has clearly evolved into a kind of organizational zombie,” Mr. Nicholls wrote on iPolitics.ca. “It still staggers along from issue to issue and reacts from time to time, but it no longer has a soul.”

The National Citizens Coalition is directed by former Conservative nomination candidate and prolific tweeter Stephen Taylor. While the organization’s president its denies ties to the Conservative Party, the lines are blurred.

These organizations have also served as a training ground for career political operatives who later jump into political office. The connections between these organizations and today’s conservative political establishment run deep and demonstrate a significant record of success in helping raise conservative politicians.

Prime Minister  Harper was the President of the National Citizens Coalition before returning to parliament in 2002. Senior cabinet minister Jason Kenney was the president of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation before he was elected to parliament in 1997. New Brunswick  Southwest Conservative MP John Williamson was a national director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Looking at the provincial level, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith was the Alberta director of Canadian Federation of Independent Business and an intern with the Fraser Institute. Kevin Lacey, Atlantic Director for Canadian Taxpayers Federation worked for the Fraser Institute and in the Prime Ministers Office. Even Sun News caricature Ezra Levant once attempted to run for political office.

Founded by a godfather of Canada’s conservative movement, Preston Manning, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy is training a new generation of conservative candidates and activists how to win elections.

Last year, a leaked video revealed that wealthy Calgary developers – the “sprawl cabal” – were shovelling money into the Manning Centre’s municipal governance initiative with plans to block uber-popular Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s plans to implement smarter urban planning rules in the city. The project is run by Dimitri Pantazopoulos, who has worked as a Conservative Party pollster and strategist.

Looking toward the future, the Manning Centre is also fostering creative ideas that could help forward their movement. Mr. Manning’s group has awarded $10,000 annually to a project that will advance the conservative movement in Canada. Last year, BlueCrowd.ca, a crowd-funding project received the award.

It is somewhat ironic that one of the strongest roots of the modern conservative movement in Canada stems from a small group of tenured professors teaching at a publicly funded post-secondary institution. Conservative academics Tom Flanagan, Barry Cooper, Ranier Knopff, David Bercuson, and former Alberta Finance Minister Ted Morton at the “Calgary School” in the University of Calgary Political Science department long ago made it their mission to drive the Conservative agenda in Canada. They have done this through academic research, their own political activity and commentary, and involvement in election campaign strategy.

Notable students of the conservative Calgary School have included Prime Minister Harper, Mr. Levant, Ms. Smith, Conservative cabinet minister Pierre Poilievre, conservative strategist Ken Boessenkool, Fraser Institute senior fellow and former Taxpayers Federation director Mark Milke, and former Prime Ministerial Chief of Staff Ian Brodie among others.

While their are different brands of conservatism emanating from the school, from social to economic, one observer of the Calgary School reflected on its almost cultish following of libertarian economists Ludwig Von Mises and Milton Friedman.

According to Forbes Magazine, “the history of Canadian free-market think tanks and their contribution to Canadian reforms continues to be written. The leaders, supporters, and staff of the groups mentioned above deserve much credit for changing the economic face of Canada and of North America.”

Whether or not these groups accept credit for all the consequences of “changing the economic face of Canada” their opponents on the political left and centre can learn many lessons from how effective the political right machine has become in Canada.

9 thoughts on “Who is driving the conservative agenda in Canada?

  1. Sara-Anne Peterson

    The Anderson brothers have recently bought into National Newswatch. This has been kept fairly quiet. No one watches Sun TV so there has been a way found to get their people’s conservative rants into the public realm that way. I have noticed the shift to the right on that site and Preston Manning’s face appears on it.

    Reply
  2. jerrymacgp

    I just finished reading Paul Adams’ book, Power Trap, which puts forward a case for electoral collaboration among the Liberals, the NDP and the Greens to avoid another Harper Conservative majority. While I do not agree with all of his arguments, he does a very fine analysis of how free-market ideology, including the counter-Keynesian obsession with budget deficits even in times of economic slowdown, has infiltrated even centre-left parties’ policy positions (alliteration unintended). My take on that is that the corporate-dominated mainstream media (MSM) have made it very difficult for a left-wing or even centrist party to argue that there is any upside to running deficits, intervening in the market, or even shifting focus from price stability to employment stability even during a recession. The MSM buy into these right-wing lobby groups’ and think tanks’ arguments because their ownership and management are fellow travellers of those very same right-wing organizations.

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  3. Justin

    “their opponents on the political left and centre can learn many lessons from how effective the political right machine has become in Canada.” Yes. That’s the takeaway here. Also, it took 30 years or more for this to happen. Flanagan was at U of C since the 1960s, and the other guys since the early 80s or earlier.

    Also, the new design for your blog looks great Dave.

    Reply
  4. Bob

    There is no better strategy than to present yourself as the overwhelming political opinion without having to prove your claim. When you control media outlets this is even easier to do. The sad thing is this promotes Canadians to turn inward and try to find the culprit who is waisting government money. Some feel it is education, we would be better off with ignorance than education. Some blame the elderly, the sick, the poor. The Alberta Government gives wealthy Albertans a 5 Billion dollar gift each year by getting rid of progressive taxation of incomes. This is slim pickings compared to low royalties, low corporate taxation rates and numerous breaks on inspections and regulation enforcement. We have seen the enemy and he is us!

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  5. Doug

    Solid article and great sourcing! The next step is extending the network into Ontario with Flaherty, Clement, Baird, Van Loan, Leitch, etc. The Conservative Party couldn’t have happened without the Alberta-based neo-cons allying with the Ontario neocons of the Harris years.

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  6. daveberta Post author

    Thanks for all the comments and feedback.

    @Justin – Time is a key factor. This has been something that the conservative movement has focused a concerted effort towards for a number of decades. Persistence pays off.

    Reply
  7. Sam Gunsch

    for a useful book treatment of this post’s topic.

    Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy, by Donald Gutstein, Key Porter Books, 376 pages

    http://donaldgutstein.com/reviews/book-describes-how-business-propaganda-subverts-democracy/

    Seems to me that Gutstein’s done quite a good historical treatment of conservative/neo-con/neo-lib crowd, providing substantive in-depth documentation of long-term work of this anti-public interest gang.

    excerpt:
    Book Describes How Business Propaganda Subverts Democracy

    Roy LaBerge. CCPA Monitor. Oct 2009. Vol. 16, Iss. 5, p. 5 (1 pp.)

    Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy, by Donald Gutstein, Key Porter Books, 376 pages, $22.95, paperback.

    Readers who suspect that major corporations heavily influence the mass media will find their suspicions fully confirmed in Not a Conspiracy Theory, How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy, by Donald Gutstein.

    Gutstein exposes “the incestuous relationship” between the mainstream media and big business. He writes that, because of the success of its corporate propaganda, business is not just one voice among many in the democratic debate: “It controls the debate.”
    – See more at: http://donaldgutstein.com/reviews/book-describes-how-business-propaganda-subverts-democracy/#sthash.9qzEmrvw.dpuf

    Also, Gutstein blogs this related content:

    “Canada West Foundation rewrite history: Think tank tracker

    http://donaldgutstein.com/canada-west-foundation-rewrite-history-think-tank-tracker/

    Canada West Foundation senior economist Michael Holden wants us to believe his think tank is the only one “dedicated to being the objective, non-partisan voice for issues of vital concern to Western Canadians.” This is laughable.

    For the record:

    The Canada West Foundation is where the Reform Party got started.
    The Canada West Foundation is backed by Western Canada’s biggest business tycoons.
    The Canada West Foundation is pro-market, anti-union, anti-environmental and anti-social justice.

    If it’s the voice for Western Canadians, it’s a small grou
    – See more at: http://donaldgutstein.com/canada-west-foundation-rewrite-history-think-tank-tracker/#sthash.QMn3nH9X.dpuf

    Reply
  8. Angus

    Hello,

    Thanks for letting me post my thoughts. I find it interesting that many believe there has been a shift to the right in political thinking. If you look at the facts the majority of our population voted for a party other then the Conservatives. This tells us that most Canadians do not want the conservatives running the country and don’t agree with there policies. It also tells us that the system that we have for electing our governments is not working properly, is not democratic, and needs to be changed. The idea of proportional representation was introduced a number of years ago based on recommendations and was put to a vote and it was voted down. Mainly because the political parties at the time where not overly enthralled with the idea probably because each believed that they could form the next government and run the whole show! It is pretty obvious that the views and wishes of Canadians will not have representation in parliament until we change how our leaders are elected. I would hope that members in all parties will campaign for change to our electoral system heading up to the next election so all Canadians can be represented in our parliament and then our country will begin to move in the direction that we want. Thanks for taking the time to consider my comment.

    Reply

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