Think Tanks Changing Their Minds

In the United States, think tanks are hugely effective and a major part of the political debate. They play a constant role and an interactive role with government in terms of where government wants to go and trying to help with the kinds of policy prescriptions and the issues that they need to have looked at by independent people," Here in Canada, Think-tanks here tend to present research that they have done in the abstraction from the public debate.

OTTAWA — A generation of influential Canadian policy-makers are moving on. They’re not politicians or bureaucrats, but the heads of think-tanks, the deep thinkers sought out for fresh ideas by government leaders.

It is part of a widespread rollover that is leaving Canada’s think-tank sector at a crossroads. Even some of the current crop say the field may be strong but it could use something more — a bit more edge, a little worldliness, or a touch more relevance — to fill a market of ideas undersupplied by a sterile political debate.

Hugh Segal, former senior aide to Brian Mulroney and one-time Conservative leadership candidate, will leave the presidency of the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy after being appointed to the Senate.

Judith Maxwell, the last head of the now-defunct Economic Council of Canada, will step back from full-time work at the Canadian Policy Research Networks, a think-tank she founded in 1992 and virtually personifies — if and when they can find a successor.

And Jack Mintz has announced that he will leave the influential C.D. Howe Institute next year to return to the University of Toronto.

“It’s a bit of a changing of the guard,” Mr. Mintz said of all the big think-tank changes. “But I think it’s by accident.”

It is still unclear who will fill those posts, which often combine academic ability, policy experience, media savvy and fundraising. Successors won’t be chosen for months, but the wish lists include former chief executive officers, diplomats or star academics.

Former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray was suggested by some as a potential candidate. The name of McGill University economist Bill Watson, who occasionally doubles as a newspaper opinion writer, was raised by some close to the C.D. Howe Institute, and another McGill professor, political scientist Antonia Maioni, was rumoured to be a possible contender at the Institute for Research on Public Policy, which has yet even to strike a search committee.

The conservative Fraser Institute decided last month to promote from within to replace co-founder Michael Walker with Ontario policy director Mark Mullins.

The think-tank positions certainly have influence. Brian Guest, a former senior aide to Paul Martin who left the prime minister’s office to co-found the Canadian Centre for Policy Ingenuity, which deals with the issues of cities and the environment, said his interest in think-tanks was sparked because he had to keep up with Mr. Martin’s demands for arguments about their papers or perspective from someone such as Ms. Maxwell.

The C.D. Howe Institute, among others, is credited with influential arguments in the early 1990s that led to public support for deficit-cutting. More recently, Mr. Mintz noted, papers commissioned by the institute from lawyers Patrick Monaghan and Stanley Hartt about the legal underpinnings for a right to timely medical care were reflected in Michael Kirby’s Senate health-care report and the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision on private health insurance.

And the Caledon Institute, a small Ottawa-based social-policy think-tank, is widely credited with creating the child tax credit the Liberal government adopted in 1997.

But even so, Mr. Mintz said, the sector could improve by shedding a slightly parochial mindset to gain a better grasp of ideas and trends elsewhere.

Jodi White, head of the Public Policy Forum, believes that the country needs think-tank work to generate policy outside the public service, but she admits she also believes that the think-tank sector needs more eclecticism, a bigger streak of moxie and a country willing to back it.

“I don’t know if we need bigger ones, but we need more funding of ones where people say, ‘They’re shit disturbers, but I want to give them money,’ ” she said. “Maybe more independence — I don’t feel a lack of independence, but maybe more ‘go-to-it.’ “

The current class of think-tank heads says the sector is doing relatively well. The Fraser Institute’s budget is growing by 15 per cent a year, and C.D. Howe’s has doubled since 1999.

“I think we had for a long time at the federal level one party that was so entrenched and the opposition parties so weak that I think more and more people got interested in think-tanks as a way of getting more discussion of public-policy issues,” Mr. Mintz said.

Some people inside government will point to another problem that creates a need: Government policy branches were cut deeply in the 1990s and civil servants focus on implementing policy rather than new ways to approach it.

But the gaps are not being completely filled by Canada’s disparate and stretched group of about 30 independent policy institutes.

“In the United States, they are hugely effective and a major part of the political debate. They play a constant role and an interactive role with government in terms of where government wants to go and trying to help with the kinds of policy prescriptions and the issues that they need to have looked at by independent people,” Mr. Guest said.

“Here in Canada, I have found it is less like that. Think-tanks here tend to present research that they have done in the abstraction from the public debate.”

He recalled sitting in the Prime Minister’s office, impressed by a think-tank paper, thinking, “Imagine how useful this would be if it was more focused on what we are actually dealing with.”

Mr. Guest said an emerging trend in think-tanks must be expanded: the combining of ideas with a road map to put them in place — as his centre hopes to do on issues such as generating energy from waste.

Canadian and U.S. think-tanks are certainly worlds apart in terms of money and muscle.
In both countries, the label covers a wide range of independent institutes on a spectrum between pure academia and lobby groups.

The Institute for Research on Public Policy is quasi-academic, publishing peer-reviewed papers; the Public Policy Forum creates an exchange between public servants and outsiders, such as corporate executives, through conferences; and the Fraser Institute takes its free-market economic studies to the people through accessible ideas such as Tax Freedom Day.

But Canada has only one think-tank comparable in size to the big U.S. ones: the Conference Board of Canada, best known for economic forecasting with a $30-million-a-year budget funded by corporate members. Most of the other “big” players are about a 10th of that size, rounded out by a group of smaller shops that scrounge for funds from donors and government grants.

In the United States, however, the think-tank sector is populated by many big players with vast budgets and incontrovertible influence.

They range from the highly respected Brookings Institution to more politically motivated players such as the conservative Heritage Foundation, which spends $6-million of its yearly budget of $40-million (U.S.) on media and government relations and funds an internship program for young conservative thinkers complete with dorm rooms and gym.

The difference is partly due to the bigger sums available in the United States, fuelled by more favourable tax laws for donors, big charitable foundations and the country’s sheer size and wealth.
And in the U.S., interests organize more around think-tanks, often with firmly set viewpoints, believing that policy research in a specific area or by an institute that reflects their ideology can advance their views.

But some people in Canada think that the U.S. institutes are playing a zero-sum game. “I think what they’re doing is devaluing each other,” Mr. Segal said. “They’re too shrill. And they tend to be pre-cooked, in terms of where they’re going to be on an issue.”

Even so, that doesn’t mean Mr. Segal thinks that there should not be think-tanks with political points of view. Asked what Canada needs most, he instantly suggests a moderate conservative institute — to supply a demand that is not filled.

It might be true that Canada could use a little more edge in its think-tanks, but it has to be genuine edge, based on research work, not a predictable pose, Mr. Segal said. And edginess is already there at times, even if moderation is more the Canadian norm. “When [economist] Tommy Courchesne says, in one of the papers that he did for us, that federal fiscal and energy policy is such that you’re better off to drill in Ottawa for money than in Saskatchewan for oil . . . it sounds pretty edgy to me.”

But Mr. Segal, whose mandate at the IRPP was to raise its profile and direct it to relevant research, warns that the policy institutes have impact in the germination of ideas, but can’t expect to compete as power brokers when they are being implemented.

“In the end, at best we are peripheral organizations,” he said.

“I know what the variables are within which a prime minister and a cabinet and a caucus have to make decisions and I know to what extent expert advice or opinion or research can be formative. But I understand what the competition is for issues like equity across the country, the political mix, definition and mindset of the caucus . . . all of which exert much more weight than a superb, well-written paper from somebody who has been doing work with a think-tank.

“But I think we add texture, and new ways of looking at things outside the box.”

Campbell Clark is a member of The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau.

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