In America’s Forbes Magazine this week, Alejandro 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 Nicholls, questioned 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.