A malevolent conservative strategy takes shape in the black heart of oil country

Feature | by Gregory Beatty

Last December, it surfaced that former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall was doing some fundraising at private Calgary dinner parties for the Buffalo Project.

Styled as a political action committee, the project is fronted by six Calgary businessmen: Dallas Howe (ex-chair, Potash Corp. of Sask.), Brad Gustafson (portfolio manager), Grant Fagerheim (oil executive), Stan Grad (rancher, oil executive), Bill Turnbull (real estate & construction) and Don Chynoweth (president, SNC Lavalin O&M Logistics).

The group takes its name from a 1905 proposal by then North-West Territories premier Frederick Haultain that Alberta and Saskatchewan enter Confederation as a single “super-province”, called Buffalo.

Doing so, he reasoned, would give the region political and economic weight to counter Ontario and Quebec.

Consistent with its name, the Buffalo Project has an undercurrent of Prairie nationalism. With two big elections in 2019: Alberta’s, which is on now, and the federal election in October, the group’s professed goal is to champion conservative values and resource-friendly policies, including axing the carbon tax, killing the federal revamp of regulations around energy projects (Bill C-69) and building pipelines.

PAC Attack

South of the border, political action committees (especially, super-PACs) play a major role in politics. They owe their existence to two 2010 U.S. court decisions Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Speechnow.org v. FEC that gave corporations human-style constitutional rights such as free speech and freedom of political association.

“The impact was dramatic, as it opened the door to unlimited corporate influence” says York University political scientist Dennis Pilon.

“In practical terms, it means that those with money are able to spend their way into influence through agenda control, advertising, even the candidates on offer via so-called ‘wealth primaries’ where politicians, before they even go before the public, have to be vetted by wealthy individuals who can fund their campaigns,” Pilon says.

According to OpenSecrets.org, in 2018 (which was a mid-term election year in the U.S.), 2,395 super-PACs reported total receipts of $1.6 billion and expenditures of $809 million. That comes with a caveat, though, tied to the unique nature of American politics.

“The party system there is weak,” says Pilon. “The parties don’t act collectively like they do in other countries where there’s a lot of discipline, and party leaders have more power to define policy and demand obedience from members. The American system is much more decentralized. What that does is create many more openings for funders to influence what’s going on.”

Through targeted support of individual members of the U.S. Congress and Senate, PACs and other well-funded advocacy groups such as the National Rifle Association can get the laws, taxes and regulations they want.

“In Canada, we have groups that would like to see American-style gun availability,” says Pilon. “But they have to buy a whole party so it’s much harder to do. And parties that play footsie have to consider the potential cost.

“That’s always been a problem for the Conservative Party because they have rural people and gun manufacturers who are clearly strong supporters,” says Pilon. “But they have to worry they may lose swing voters who might say, ‘I’m for free markets, but not for guns everywhere. And hey, the Liberals are pretty much free market too, so I’ll vote for them.’ So that’s a check on PACs in Canada.”

While Canada’s party structure, along with reasonable campaign finance laws (outside of Saskatchewan, where there are virtually no laws), do serve as a check on money in politics, power can be wielded in other ways, says Simon Enoch, Saskatchewan director of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“I always caution people when they talk about campaign finance reform,” he says. “Sure, that’s important. But there’s also structural power. Corporations make investment decisions that can create jobs, build infrastructure and bring billions of dollars into a community.

“No politician wants to say ‘We drove industry away because we asked for too many regulations or too high a tax rate’”, says Enoch. “So industry is able to play that race to the bottom. We even see it with oil and other resources. If royalties are less in Alberta, investment goes there. If Saskatchewan drops its royalty rates, then investment comes here.”

Climate Denial

Enoch is currently participating in the Corporate Mapping Project — a federally-funded  research project to measure the fossil fuel industry’s overall reach in western Canada. Evidence so far indicates it’s pretty extensive.

“We’re looking at how the industry translates its economic power into political influence,” says Enoch. “Whether that’s through lobbying, party contributions, public relations, education programs, and other advocacy that maybe isn’t designed to target politicians but instead influence public opinion on energy and environmental issues.”

The fossil fuel industry’s rearguard action to fight steps to address climate change has been compared to the infamous campaign tobacco companies mounted in the 1950s to deny conclusive scientific evidence that smoking caused lung cancer.

At least in public, the industry has moderated its position in recent years, says Enoch.

“They have a line they put forward that’s changed from outright denial of climate change to ‘we believe the science.’ But when there’s a piece of regulation or legislation that they feel is going to adversely affect them, that’s when you see their true face.

“Rather than trust their rhetoric, we should look at their actions,” says Enoch. “And that shows the industry is still fighting tooth and nail to prevent the types of regulations we need.”

Enoch’s statement is backed by a recent Guardian report that noted the world’s top five publicly owned oil companies (ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Chevron and Total) have been spending $200 million a year to promote an anti-climate change agenda. In 2018, that included $13 million to defeat a proposed carbon tax in Washington state.

Lately, the fossil fuel industry has even begun touting a David vs. Goliath narrative where it’s being bullied by environmental groups, such as Leadnow and Tides Foundation, bankrolled by foreign philanthropic interests.

“People like Vivian Krause really play up the angle that Canada’s energy industry is at the mercy of Big Green,” says Enoch. “We’re talking about one of the richest industries in the world, so to claim it’s being outgunned by non-profit environmental groups is ridiculous.”

Still, the narrative has traction. In fact, it was one of the motivating factors cited by a Buffalo Project spokesman for the Calgary-based PAC’s formation.

If the fossil fuel industry is being outgunned, it’s by the growing mountain of scientific evidence that climate change is real and well underway.

But the industry hasn’t given up fighting. And the Buffalo Project is further proof of that, says Enoch.

“It sounds like it has some heavy hitters, and the fact it has Brad Wall — who is probably one of the savvier politicians in Canada — means we need to take it seriously.

“The fact they even think they need this is kind of scary,” Enoch adds. “If they’re going to fight this hard against the most tepid federal policies — a carbon tax that’s nowhere near where it needs to be, and Bill C-69 which is just trying to restore what the Harper government eroded in 2012 — what might they do if they actually had to confront a robust climate change policy?”


The PAC Threat to Democracy

In the U.S. there are PACs that support both conservative and liberal causes. And to the extent that they allow individuals and groups to participate in politics, they can have value, says York University political scientist Dennis Pilon.

In the mid-2000s, he notes, the Working Families Coalition (a sort of proto-PAC) was thought to have been quite effective in the elections that brought Ontario’s provincial Liberals to power, and then re-elected them.

“There were a lot of complaints from conservative forces and corporate media that this group was interfering in the democratic process unfairly,” Pilon says. “At the same time, we’ve also seen right-wing groups try to do this. The difficulty is that a lot of their issues just aren’t as popular with the public.”

But fuelled by the power of social media and flush with cash from wealthy donors, conservative PACs are cutting a pretty big swath through our politics these days. Ontario Proud, a corporate-backed Facebook group which paved the way for the Doug Ford PCs to win last June’s election through attack ads on the Liberals and NDP, is the latest example.

Like everyone else, conservative advocacy groups are entitled to have input into public policy. But to prevent money from becoming dominant in politics we need to address two concerns, says Pilon.

One is transparency.

“This is one thing the Americans actually do very well,” he says. “If people are going to give money, and groups are going to come on the scene and make claims, people should be able to know immediately who is financially backing that group.”

The second step involves setting reasonable limits on spending.

“Civil society organizations campaigning to raise awareness around issues of public importance, that’s great,” says Pilon. “The problem, though, is when there are thinly veiled front groups for powerful interests.”

The Fraser Institute is one example, says Pilon. It has charitable status and a bevy of wealthy corporate funders.

“It’s been very successful at introducing into public debate a host of concerns that aren’t backed by credible research,” says Pilon. “It’s made ‘Operation Waitlist’ a major issue in healthcare. It isn’t supported by credible evidence, but by virtue of being able to promote it, they’ve shifted the debate and arguably opened the door to more private care in Canada to ‘solve’ the problem.”

In politics, money inevitably translates into power. And if we value our democracy, says Pilon, we need to regulate PACs.

“Democracy has embedded within it the notion of equality,” he says. “If we can’t demonstrate some kind of substantive equality in terms of participation, then we’re not a very meaningful democracy.”