You have to hand it to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. In the face of a pandemic and an unprecedented surge in government spending and economic support that has widespread public approval, the organization remains steadfast in its belief that governments ought to be doing less rather than more.
In a recent open letter to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, the CTF argued that “Canada’s debt is about to hit $1 trillion. Temporary programs are too expensive to go on forever. We need an economic recovery that’s realistic in the long term.”
Its proposed solution? Cutting taxes, reducing government spending and salaries and defunding the CBC. If nothing else, the CTF is consistent.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation traces its roots back to a 1990 alliance between the Saskatchewan Federation of Taxpayers and something called the Resolution One Association, which Link Byfield — son of Alberta Report founder Ted Byfield — created in 1989.
Its goal? “To do all things and take all steps possible to have government at all levels recognize and realize that deficit financing cannot continue and must be opposed by reductions in expenditures rather than increases in taxes.”
And for the last 30 years, it has lived up to that objective by campaigning against every new tax measure imaginable and for every possible reduction in pay or compensation for public-sector workers.
But make no mistake: Despite its predictability, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation has punched way above its weight over the course of its existence. After all, the organization only has five voting members, and it counts just 235,000 supporters across the country — just a smidge more than 0.6 per cent of the Canadian population.
And yet it is consistently quoted in, and featured by, mainstream media organizations across the country whenever there is a dollar of government spending worth talking about. Its ubiquity may drive progressives up the wall, but they can’t pretend its media strategy isn’t effective.
Meanwhile, the organization has served as a de facto farm team for the Canadian conservative movement, with high-profile alumni serving in a wide variety of offices and roles. The biggest success is unquestionably Alberta Premier (and former CTF CEO) Jason Kenney, but the roster of former employees includes elected officials like former Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt and Conservative MP John Williamson and media personalities like columnist Candice Malcolm and Toronto Sun editor Adrienne Batra, along with a litany of current and former political staffers across the country.
All of that is at risk right now, though. While it has long managed to cloak its obsession with fiscal austerity in the rhetorical finery of fiscal populism, the current moment is putting the lie to all that. After all, millions of Canadian businesses and households have gotten by this year because of the investments the federal government made in programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS).
And what was the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s reaction to those programs? Worrying that people might be fraudulently claiming benefits on behalf of their horses. No, really.
"(The Canadian Taxpayers Federation's) allergic reaction to any new government spending may have played well in more normal times, but recent times have been anything but normal," says @maxfawcett.
But for all the joking about horses that greeted federal director Aaron Wudrick’s suggestion that equine-related CERB fraud might be worth the government’s attention, his organization's response to the pandemic has revealed the danger that can come with being a one-trick pony. Its allergic reaction to any new government spending may have played well in more normal times, but recent times have been anything but normal.
And as many Canadians have discovered over the course of the last year, governments can play a crucial role in our lives. That role isn’t about to shrink any time soon, either, given that vaccines for COVID-19 will be delivered by governments over the course of the next year.
Don’t expect the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to change its tune, though. Rather than reckoning with the new political landscape we’re in, it will almost certainly try to bring us back to the one we just left behind. It will demand spending cuts, reject new taxes or tax increases and fearmonger about debt and deficits, as Ontario director Jasmine Moulton did in a recent op-ed for the Toronto Sun.
“Perhaps the scariest part of Ontario’s recent budget was the forecast of double-digit deficits for years to come,” she wrote. “Each Ontarian’s portion of the provincial debt is already $25,000. Add in federal debt, and that number grows to $50,000. That’s $200,000 in government debt owed by a family of four.”
The real question is whether the public, and the media, will be as open to the familiar prescription of spending cuts and lower taxes as they have been in the past. That’s because the organization is starting to sound a little bit like the doctors who continued practising bloodletting deep into the 19th century long after more effective and credible procedures had been developed.
Yes, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation will talk about the dangers of inflation, even though we haven’t seen any of it for the better part of 20 years. And it will swear up and down that Canadians can’t afford a single penny of new taxes, even though that’s demonstrably false. But after a year in which government spending saved millions of Canadians from outright ruin, those Canadians may have finally realized that the treatment being prescribed by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is worse than the alleged disease.