In the Tank - 2008-05-12
Opinion is divided about the importance of Canadian think tanks, those private sector "institutes," most of them funded by large corporations, that seek to influence governments in matters of public policy. For example, historian Michael Bliss, writing in the National Post, argued that "for some years Parliament, the universities and the national civil service have been increasingly upstaged as centres of political discussion by organizations such as the C. D. Howe Institute, the Conference Board of Canada, the Institute for Research on Public Policy . . . the Donner Canadian Foundation." Indeed, it is from such private research groups, not from elected representatives, senior civil servants, or cloistered academics, that most advanced policy prescriptions seem to come. But John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail dismisses them. "Most think tanks in Canada are a waste of time," he has written. "Those on the right twist and distort data to prove the country is overtaxed and underproducing. Those on the left use the same data to prove that society is increasingly unequal and unjust."
Think tanks use a variety of media to spread their messages — the Internet, in-house publications, conferences, forums, even radio — but they tend to concentrate on Canadian newspapers, which often report the release of a new think tank report as though some actual news event had taken place. And the papers give the think tanks access to op-ed pages as well, where mere opinion doesn't need to disguise itself as news. Many or most newspapers, and the news services that supply so much of their content, often (but not consistently) try to provide readers with a little context by describing a particular think tank as either politically left or right. I'll apply the same principle here in taking a look at how a representative cross-section of think tanks — the right-wing Fraser Institute, the more moderate C. D. Howe Institute, and the left-of-centre Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — fared in three similarly diverse newspapers over a two-year period. I chose the dates May 1, 2003, to May 1, 2005, because the stretch of time seemed long enough to reveal general trends, and because it was largely free of economic downtowns, terrorist attacks, or other calamities that might skew the results.
During the period in question, the National Post, in one context or another, mentioned these three think tanks a combined 373 times, with the C. D. Howe getting the most hits. The moderate Globe was no slouch either, mentioning one or another of these think tanks 305 times. The liberal Toronto Star, the country's highest-circulation daily, ran 210 mentions of various sorts, including 41 for the Canadian Centre on Policy Alternatives. Taken together, the three think tanks got space in these important newspapers — whether positively or negatively, with or without contextualizing adjectives — more than once each day. If one takes into account not only the other media, but also the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute, the Parkland Institute, the relatively new Martin Prosperity Institute, or any number of the hundred or so Canadian institutions generally referred to as think tanks, one sees that they blanket the landscape like a heavy snowfall covering the Prairies.