Of all populist movements to spring from the Prairies in the Mulroney era – and there were dozens – none achieved a more enduring impact than the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Disparaged by critics as a Conservative shill, nobody gave spendthrift Conservatives more grief.
The group once rolled up its giant debt clock outside the party’s national convention: “It was detained by the RCMP and searched by bomb-sniffing dogs,” recalls Federation president Troy Lanigan.
Does the language commissioner really need a car and chauffeur? Did cabinet really have to spend $12 million training geologists in Ethiopia? What was the defence department thinking when it wrote 167 pages of specifications to order mukluks? The Federation has an opinion on that.
Fighting For Taxpayers is an affectionate account of the group’s founding and grassroots financing. Born as the Association of Saskatchewan Taxpayers in 1989, it became a kind of national magpie caw-cawing over frugality in a cheeky, abrasive manner guaranteed to irritate officialdom. “Years ago a TV reporter in the Victoria press gallery, Robin Adair, made the point to me that government employee unions had spokespeople in the capitals who built relationships with legislature reporters and were available for quick comment on provincial affairs,” Lanigan writes. “Part of our media success, especially breaking into the daily news cycle, was building similar relationships and offering a counterpoint in an arena where big-government advocates had enjoyed a virtual monopoly for decades.”
In the pre-Federation era media heard no taxpayers’ voice save the annual rumblings of the Auditor General and Question Period needling of opposition MPs. The Federation opted for pitchforks and torch parades. The results delighted ratepayers.
“Few things have provided more laughs than writing the Teddies script each year”, the name given the Federation’s dubious awards for wasteful spending, Lanigan writes: “From snowplows moving nothing but air in Montreal, to an escalator going straight into a wall; the Saskatchewan government losing $36 million trying to grow potatoes; the federal government advertising a non-existent jobs program; Liberal Senator Raymond Lavigne ordering his staff to cut down trees on his neighbour’s property.” This is gold.
Fighting For Taxpayers pulls some punches. The Federation has always been strangely silent on farm subsidies; many farmers are subscribers. And it pays homage to Jason Kenney, a pioneering organizer from 1991 to ’95, without noting Kenney as a member of cabinet voted for the largest single deficit in Canadian history, a whopping $55.6 billion in 2013. “Post-Kenney, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation would become a better organized, more stable place, but it would lose the naïveté, the fearlessness and the rawness that defined those early years,” Fighting reports. Taxpayers are left to wonder what it was that Kenney took from the experience.
Yet the Federation remains essentially true to its mandate. Few employees have taken government jobs – Lanigan counts 10 in 25 years: “If I had my way the number would be zero”. And Federation directors to their credit are rarely seen at Ottawa cocktail parties.
The Federation remains a hell-raiser that delights in ridicule, as shown in their choice of mascot: Porky The Waste Hater, the invention of former research director Adam Taylor: “It cost $50 to rent Porky at Malabar costume rentals in Ottawa, but since it was rarely rented, the owner told Adam in 2005 ‘for an extra $40 you can have it’. And so, for the princely sum of $90, Porky earns hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of publicity each year, primarily as the star attraction of the Teddy Waste Awards.”
Fight the man!
By Holly Doan
Fighting For Taxpayers: Battles Fought & Battles Ahead, by Troy Lanigan; Canadian Taxpayers Federation; 163 pages; ISBN 9780-9940-13200; $21.95