Harper's former lobbying group looks to US for thoughts and ideas
“Stephen Harper ran our organization from 1997 to 2001,” says Peter Coleman, Chief Executive Officer of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC). “Is he a friend? Of course he is!”
It's an hour after the end of the work day in Toronto - on a Friday.
The head of what is arguably Canada's most prominent right-wing advocacy group phones the Vancouver Observer, offering a larger-than-expected half-hour of his time.
What about rumours that the NCC has consulted with Republican operatives like Karl Rove or the Tea Party-backing Koch family?
“We've never done that,” he insists. “Sometimes, when you go to stuff at the Manning Centre, you'll see some guys from the Heritage Foundation or other groups like that in the States.
“We don't do that. There's no question we'll look south of the border for thoughts and ideas. The Americans never get out of the political cycle. On both sides of the aisle (Democrats and Republicans), they're pretty good at fundraising, web campaigns. They never stop campaigning. . . We look to them, from an operational perspective. But we have no working relationship with them."
He speaks readily of his personal friendship to Prime Minister Harper – something widely speculated, considering the NCC is a foremost producer of third-party ads in the country. Two recent NCC ads targeting Liberal leader Bob Rae raised eyebrows - one juxtaposed a repeated sample of the former Ontario premier chuckling, with dark, grainy images and messages that he destroyed the economy.
"I thought the Bob Rae ad was very factual, about his political career in Ontario," he says. "If that's a negative ad, what about when Liberal ads tried to stop Stephen Harper from becoming Prime Minister – with a bullet exploding from barrel of a gun?
"Those were nasty attack ads, negative ads – frankly, they went over the top. All parties do that."
Does Coleman talk to the prime minister? Are they friends?
“Do I know the guy? Of course I do,” Coleman continues. “I'm not going to back off from that.
“Do I see him? I see him at public events. I don't make a phone call to see him – we try and keep our distance that way. I consider him a friend. We talk about family stuff more than we talk politics.”
The NCC – founded in 1967 by an insurance salesman incensed over the impending creation of public medicare in Canada – has built a reputation for fiercely negative television and billboard advertisements, a ferocity directed in particular at the New Democrats and Liberals. Over the years, the group has campaigned tirelessly against the Canadian Wheat Board, social programs, and large government.
But the group's current leader is all too eager to talk about the past – which we discuss, controversy by controversy. In the last election, he came under fire for Tweeting that former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had bad “optics” because his wife was not a Canadian citizen.
“The comment about Ignatieff's wife was that she wasn't a Canadian citizen,” he admits. “If that was Harper's wife, there would have been a hue and cry.
“All these barking dogs in Toronto said, 'It's racist – it's despicable. But if that was somebody else in the Conservative party. . .”
He trails off at that point, ruminating on the inherent nature of politics as vicious. All sides play dirty, he reckons – don't vilify him for slinging some mud, too. In fact, in the eyes of the NCC, Canadian politics are vastly distorted in favour of the left.
“For every group like us on right side of the political spectrum, there's ten on left side of the spectrum,” Coleman states. “That's just the reality here, and it is in States as well.
"We're not like (the David) Suzuki Foundation where we get to issue charitable receipts. We're at a competitive disadvantage that way."
What about corporate donations? Surely a leading pro-business advocacy group gets some advantage from a bonanza of big business funding?
"I always find that comment laughable, but we get it all the time," he says. "It's very far from the truth.
"No, not a penny. We've been accused for a long time that it's all corporate money. . . it's all individuals. There's no question there's some entrepreneurial guys – if I told you who they were, you'd know who they were. But the money comes from them as a person. They may make their wealth from running a corporation, but the money we get all comes from individual folks."
Earlier this year, the Hill Times noted that the NCC's donor list – as declared from election campaign expenses – overlapped substantially with the Conservative Party supporters. The paper posited that high-level Tory funders had maxed out their legal support of the party, and then funnelled additional money toward the NCC. It was, in Coleman's words, “a hatchet job” that reveals the left-wing bias of most Canadian media.
“An awful lot of the national media – of journalists – their point of view never changes, whether they hate Harper or hate the Conservatives or love the NDP or Liberals,” he says, getting fired up about past distortions in articles about him and the organization he heads. “A lot of them just don't show the balance.
“I don't expect anybody to agree with what we do as an organization all of the time; we're not always right, but we're not always wrong. But you get some media types who just don't give you the time of day. They say we're just crazy right-wing nuts. Well, I'm not that way in my personal life, and I don't think we are as an organization.”