Canada faces great challenges.  We need more independent, creative policy thinkers to address them

Canada faces great challenges. We need more independent, creative policy thinkers to address them

Canada faces policy challenges today that are broader and more complex than perhaps ever in our history. Several are well-known: climate, health care and the next contagion, sliding productivity and widening inequality. Each will be expensive to tackle, and all will require great creativity to address.

In the US, the UK and Europe much of that thinking is done by an array of policy think tanks. We have a few, and some of those we have are far too predictable. One need not do more than read the headline on a CD Howe Institute economic report to know what the next 5,000 words of analysis and recommendations will be. The Fraser Institute’s views on private health care, climate change and lower taxes have been repeated hundreds of times with changes only to the names and dates.

Two of Canada’s political parties have policy think tanks that are aligned philosophically, but independent in their prescriptions. The Manning Center (now the Canada Strong and Free Network) was an important ginger group of new conservative thinking in the Harper years, though it appears to have lost a great deal of energy since the departure of its founder Preston Manning.

Canadian conservatives desperately need a bold center for testing policy if they are to return to being a party of government. It has long failed to elaborate a credible conservative agenda for action on any of the tough issues. Ken Boessenkool’s Conservatives for Clean Growth may be a valuable new player on climate, perhaps one that will inspire new groups on other priorities.

Curiously, the Liberal party has several times failed in its efforts to create a similar center to feed its need for creative new centrist thinking. The gap is evident in areas such as security policy, wealth inequality and growth through innovation. The obstacle maybe the number of Liberal thinkers who are parked in the academy or in non-partisan centers such as the Institute for Research on Public Policy, who don’t fancy a new competitor.

The least likely of the three national parties, in terms of resources, has three policy centres. The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives was created by New Democrats and labor more than 40 years ago, and regularly serves up new progressive policy proposals. The Douglas Coldwell Layton Foundation, recently revived under former Jack Layton staffers Karl Belanger and Josh Bizjak, is plunging into new policy research. But it is the youngest of the three that shows the greatest strength and communications skill.

The Broadbent Institute is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. It staged its Progress Summit this week, returning to its regular cycle of policy conferences, training sessions and research. Alone among any of the big institutes, it also runs its own media business, Press Progress. Key to its success has been finding the right balance between being a forum for new and often dissenting progressive voices, and for party loyalty. New executive director Jen Hassum brings a formidable reputation as an organizer and communications strategist.

All governments need external nudges (and occasionally shoves) to keep them out of policy ruts, or from repeating the same mistakes. Our governments today need broader and richer sources of policy innovation than ever before. The academy is curiously weak in experts who bring creative thinking combined with an understanding of tough political realities. Too many of the civil society organizations who do sponsor research promote only their own agenda. Many of the health charities are especially guilty of this.

This week, the government released its “new” climate agenda. Apart from the fact much of it was announced many times before, it was short of implementation details. Fortunately, on this file we are well served by an array of independent climate policy experts. But it’s been over two decades since we last had a serious discussion on national security; Ukraine has revealed the cost of that failure. And health care is desperately in need of bold action, not just new funding.

We need more creative thinkers and new think tanks to make all that happen.

Robin V. Sears was an NDP strategist for 20 years and later served as a communications adviser to businesses and governments on three continents. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robinvsears

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