THE TAX FIGHTER
E. KAYE FULTON
His shirt is white, with a buttoned-down collar and an unruly habit of escaping the grip of his belt during moments of rhetorical flight. This is such a moment for Jason Kenney, the executive director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. At a pre-budget rally
in Pickering, Ont., just east of Toronto, the stocky Alberta-based lobbyist delivers his signature protest slogan of “No more taxes!” with polished ire. Beside the podium, a digital “debt clock” ticks off the mounting national debt. At the start of his speech, Canada owed just over $543 billion; at its end, 15 minutes later, interest charges had swollen the total by another $1 million. Combined with the relentless clock, Kenney’s demand for severe cuts in government spending rather than increased taxes has a powerful effect on an appreciative crowd of 2,000. “You are part of that Canadian tradition of politeness and deference,” he declares. “But Canadians are begin-
ning to lose their manners, and for good reason.”
That reputed Canadian complacency is being challenged—and prodded. Riding a wave of fiscal
conservatism that shaped the economic policies of the group, the taxpayers federation, led by Kenney, has pushed itself onto the national stage in an effort to influence this week’s federal budget—and the debate that will follow it. To
its harshest critics, the anti-tax lobby is a bullying force intent on protecting the interests of the wealthy at the expense of social programs. To its supporters, the movement has already accomplished at least one goal: it has clearly focused attention on how the sheer size of the debt, and the $40-billion annual interest payments required to service it, is eating more deeply, year after year, into the money Ottawa has to spend. With little doubt, the group has struck a chord with many taxpayers. “Most Canadians are frustrated,” said pollster Donna Dasko, vice-president of Environics Canada in Toronto. “But for those people going out to rallies, there’s a ‘can’ttake-it-any-more’ feeling.”
The successful tapping of anger and bewilderment among voters springs in large measure from the unusual 26-year-old lobbyist who leads the campaign. Articulate and politically savvy beyond his years, Kenney has approached guru-type status among many of his archconservative peers. He made his name in Alberta in 1993 when, as leader of the Association of Alberta Taxpayers, he led a successful drive that ended in Tory Premier Ralph Klein’s decision to eliminate the pension plan for provincial politicians. Kenney has set even higher sights since he was appointed head of the national taxpayers’ umbrella group in July, 1994. In the subsidy-dependent Atlantic provinces, he boldly called for an end to seasonal industry support and regional development schemes. In Ontario and Saskatchewan, he extolled the virtues of legislation to limit the authority of politicians to tax, borrow and spend. In some opinions, including his own, he is out-reforming the Reform party. Said Kenney: ‘We’ve actually been able to have more constructive influence than most people in office can ever hope to have.”
Those words carry a certain irony. Before he joined the anti-tax crusade in Alberta in 1991, Kenney was a devoted Liberal activist, a respected member of the national party’s youth wing with every prospect of a successful career in politics. Drawn by instinct to the party’s right wing, he was steeped in the 1970s Liberal vision of a strong central government, and personally awed by what he calls “the
startling charisma” of Pierre Trudeau. None of those allegiances exist now. The majority of programs that he wants cut or entirely eliminated—including subsidies to business, foreign aid, official bilingualism and government-funded multiculturalism—are cornerstones of traditional Liberal policy. In fact, Kenney derides the very convictions that once directed his ambitions. “What scares me about people my age who are involved in politics is that, by and large, they are terribly superficial and shallow,” he told Maclean’s last week. “Their partisan allegiances are no more rational than one’s allegiance to a hockey team.”
Disenchantment with conventional politics is nothing new. Canadian populist movements are the historical catalysts for some of the
‘We’re being forced by cold, hare
the proper function of goveri
country’s most radical, and arguably most innovative, political reforms. Like the federation’s predecessors, the western grassroots movement that spawned the Reform party and a legion of protest groups in the late 1980s was fuelled by discontent. In particular, the formation of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in Regina in 1990
ealities to reassess
was an alliance of alarm over runaway deficits, government spending and the arrival of the Goods and Services Tax. Tax groups in Saskatchewan and Alberta started the federation, but soon chapters were added in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and, most recently, New Brunswick. The federation claims a membership of 83,000, a staff of 100 and an annual budget of $3.4 million. It also generates much controversy. “Jason gets 1,600 people to a rally in Edmonton and the media calls it a tax revolt,” said Alberta Federation of Labor president Linda Karpowich. “We get 10,000 people outside the legislature rallying against Alberta government cuts, but that’s not called a revolt.”
It was not always so. Until Kenney came along, the tax protest lacked the focus or the profile to wage a truly national campaign against any increase in taxes. In April, 1993, an angry Klein accused Kenney of spreading false information about gov-
ernment spending while “robbing” senior citizens by charging $55 annual fees in aggressive membership drives. It was a remarkable exchange—all the more so since it occurred in a public hallway in the legislature—during which Kenney coolly rebuffed the charges and threatened to sue the premier for slander. His sangfroid impressed critics and cemented his reputation as a cult hero among disaffected neoconservatives. At the University of Alberta last September, a respectable showing of 30 students turned out for a 7
a.m. meeting of a campus libertarian club to hear Kenney talk about free markets. “He’s not a Generation X do-nothing guy. He’s out there changing the country,” said club president Ezra Levant. “It’s inspiring. Jason has given young libertarians and young conservatives a role model.”
Such accolades make Kenney visibly wince—if only because he loathes public affiliation to any party, cause or group other than his own. In fact, he contends that universal distrust of politics and big business has reduced the left and right to anachronisms from another generation. ‘We’re being forced by cold, hard mathematical realities to reassess the proper function of government,” he says. “It is a question that every responsible person has to think about and answer.” That, he says, is best accomplished from outside the political system. The group, however, openly associates itself with the Toronto Sun newspaper chain, which jointly sponsored several of the 20 anti-tax rallies held across the country since Feb. 1, as well as an anti-tax petition that attracted 230,000 signatures. It is another matter with politics. Federation rules forbid executives and staff members from having ties or making contributions to any political party, a policy that Kenney says allows the group to freely criticize without promoting ulterior interests.
The sentiment is endorsed—but not necessarily followed—by every member of the federation’s executive. Alberta lawyer Andrew Crooks,
a director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, for example, ran unsuccessfully for the Reform party nomination in Calgary Centre in 1992. After he joined the group, Crooks gave up his Reform membership, but nonetheless showed up on the party’s 1993 list of individual contributors with a donation of $3,000. Asked about the discrepancy, Crooks told Maclean’s that personal tax records indeed show a contribution in his name—of $1,000—as well as contributions from his wife, Doreen, who is still a Reform member. Like Kenney, Crooks said that being affiliated to a particular party would harm the group’s grassroots legitimacy. Conceded Crooks: “If we allow ourselves to be owned by any political party, we cut ourselves off from a broader cross-section of taxpayers.”
To maintain that distance, Kenney is free with both compliments and criticisms of the political process and its players. Despite his past
‘As soon as you become an enthusiast of hair
shirts, you’d better not be found buying suits’
verbal tussles with Klein, Kenney occasionally meets with the premier or members of his cabinet. He publicly chided the Reform party for its lacklustre debut in Ottawa.
Finance Minister Paul Martin called Kenney before his 1994 budget after watching him on national television. The two talked for 20 minutes about Kenney’s vision of alternatives to tax hikes. “I was really impressed by that call out of the blue,” said Kenney. “I appreciate that he has unbelievable pressures pulling him in 18 different directions.”
Kenney’s Edmonton office reflects his eclectic interests. On one wall hangs a painting of Sir Winston Churchill, on another a portrait of the 16th-century English statesman Sir Thomas More. Kenney’s bookshelf holds weighty tomes that range from the classics to American economist Milton Friedman. A devout Roman Catholic, he is a person of conviction but wary of stereotypes. “As soon as you become an enthusiast of hair shirts,” he said, “you’d better not be found buying suits.” With an annual salary of $58,000—which includes a $10,000 raise from 1994—his income is middle class, but his personal tastes are Spartan. A
self-described classical music buff, Kenney has yet to buy a television for his downtown apartment. He owns a used 1987 Ford Taurus, in need of repair. “Jason’s idea of a vacation,” says Saturday Night editor Kenneth Whyte, a friend, “is two weeks talking politics on whirlwind visits with his Republican friends in New York City and Washington. He comes home completely relaxed.”
Kenney’s upbringing was not particularly conventional. Born in Oakville, Ont., in 1968, he was the youngest of three sons of Martin and Lynne Kenney. “Jason at 4 was going on 40,” said his mother. He spent his entire educational life—from kindergarten in Oakville to university in San Francisco—in residential dormitories. In 1976, his father, a private school headmaster in Ontario and Winnipeg, moved his family to Wilcox, Sask. (population 220), to run the legendary Notre Dame College, a Catholic school best-known for its hockey program. The family stayed in Wilcox for 16 years. “Priests would come to town for a couple of months at a time to help my father get the school in shape,” recalled Kenney. “We’d sit around the dining-room table until 2 in the morning listening to all these fabulous Catholic priests expostulate about all manner of things.” Once, when Kenney was 8, former Tory prime minister John Diefenbaker dropped by the college. According to family lore, Dief asked the young boy if he liked school. “No,” replied Kenney.
“Why not?” asked Dief. “Because,” said Kenney, “it’s too easy.” Ironically, Kenney’s shift to the political right took place in one of the most liberal cities in North America. On the advice of a family friend, Saskatchewan businessman Fred Hill, Kenney enrolled in a special four-year humanities program at the University of San Francisco in 1987. The course introduced him to the discipline of Jesuit education. “Unlike the now standard undergraduate course, which I call the cafeteria approach to learning, this program systematically proceeded through the history, literature, philosophy and theology of Western civilization,” recalls Kenney. The small group of 40 students shared more than the classics; they were also the most conservative enclave on campus. The only Canadian in the program, Kenney moved into a house with four friends.
Eight blocks from the Haight-Ashbury district, where rich kids
roamed in search of the ghosts of the 1960s, the house became a drop-in centre of free-market thought and serious political discourse. ‘We’d sit on the balcony with a beer, solving the fiscal problems of the world,” says roommate Tom Hoopes, now an
aide to Texas Republican Congressman Bill Archer in Washington. “Jason was the bill collector, the responsible one who made sure things didn’t get too heavy.” Accustomed to political activism after years in the Liberal party’s youth wing, Kenney met with his first major political failure. A member of the university’s student government, he tried to reintroduce the practice of prayer before each meeting. “Jason struck out on a lonely road with little support,” recalled his friend Eric Ueland, then editor of the campus newspaper and now executive director of the Republican Senate Policy Committee in Washington. “In that unsuccessful effort, he learned that without the building blocks, ideals alone just don’t work.” Those years also changed the way he thought about his own country. Open to political questions and a range of ideas he had never been exposed to in Canada, Kenney says he finally realized the essential differenees between the two countries. “Fundamental political debates are at the core of American politics,” he says. “In Canada, we always talked about which responsibilities the federal government should have as op-
posed to the provinces, or how we should marry the French-English fact.” Kenney’s opinions on economic matters were even more hardline. “When we started to build this elaborate welfare state in the Sixties, no one ever projected three decades ahead and asked if they were sustainable,” he says. “They are all wonderful programs, but we are facing some difficult consequences. Our ability to pay is changing.” The debates that echo through the Kenney family may well reflect the political discussions in other Canadian households. At 85, Kenney’s grandfather, Mart Kenney, the big-band leader of Mart Kenney and the Western Gentleman, is a lifelong Liberal with predictably differing views. “Maybe its my age, but I don’t look at things in black and white any more,” the Kenney patriarch said. ‘We have to make some choices and some tough decisions. Jason is doing his share to stir that up. It should balance off our thinking.”
That is precisely what Kenney is intent on doing. “There are people out there losing small businesses, their life’s work, who work harder every year and fall further behind because the tax burden has reached an unsustainable level,” said Kenney. “Who is being compassionate to people who are working 60 to 80 hours a week, struggling to survive?” To Kenney, that is a provocative question that needs an answer.