Earlier this week, David Climenhaga seized on the ludicrously suggestive “freedom of information” campaign being waged by conservative forces in this country (CBC and unions should have to open their books for public inspection; corporations and the rest of government, not so much) to advance an even more radical solution: any organization that receives government money should have to publicly report how much money it gets and what it does with it. That would also include think tanks, subsidized corporations, and churches.
I’m not sure whether it’s intended in all seriousness or not, but I think Climenhaga raises an interesting idea while still sort of missing the point. I am not particularly excited by the idea that every citizen should have the right to pore over the public account books on a whim (though in a democracy, she should). More important, where think tanks and the like are concerned, is that most of these groups routinely put themselves into a conflict of interest when they advocate policies which benefit their large donors (mainly foundations owned by large corporations and billionaires who own large corporations), and compound that conflict of interest by not disclosing it. This position isn’t about accounting transparency; it’s about basic public ethics.
Finding out where think tanks get their money from is exceedingly difficult in Canada because they are not required to disclose who funds them, and the Canada Revenue Agency does not list all recipients of grants from a charitable foundation (unlike in America, where this information can and is retrieved by organizations like MediaMatters. Still, I want to make use of some of the limited available material we do have to make some observations about how the Canadian think tank sector works.
Since the 1990s, Canada has seen a proliferation of narrowly focused corporatist think tanks. These are not, I want to stress, “conservative” think tanks. They are much narrower. They are not normally interested in social conservatism: they are interested solely in economic freedom, what used to be (in previous centuries) actually called liberalism. To that end, they argue that taxes cannot be lowered far enough, government services like healthcare cannot be privatized quickly enough, and public-private partnerships cannot go too far in hollowing out the supposedly inefficient public sector of the economy.
These organizations include the Fraser Institute, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, the Montreal Economic Institute, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the C.D. Howe Institute, which I refer to as the Big Five, and their most recent sibling, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. The irony of naming a free-market think tank over the only two prime ministers in our history to repeatedly blow the budget building thickly subsidized national railways, one of whom loved high trade tariffs and the other of whom was immeasurably corrupt, apparently escapes them.
What is even more striking about the uniformity of perspective from these think tanks, though, is the uniformity of funding. Once you begin digging, you find that the same big names keep cropping up in the donation records. So what we have in Canada is an incidence of false pluralism. There appear to be many economic policy think tanks in Canada. But they get a large chunk of their funding from the same group of wealthy donors, and they espouse the basic policy prescriptions, which, conveniently, will help their donors get even more obscenely rich than they already are. It’s a pretty circle:
- Peter Munk (Barrick Gold) — Over the past five years, Munk has quickly eclipsed the American-based Donner family as the chief source of funding for right-wing causes in Canada, including the rabid climate change denialism preached by the Frontier Centre. Munk donates hundreds of thousands of dollars per year via his two think tanks, the Peter and Melanie Munk Charitable Foundation and the Aurea Foundation. In 2009, the Munks donated around $1 million to the Big Five and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
- Donner Family — The American-based Donner family, through their Donner Canadian Federation, was largely responsible for the think tank renaissance of the 1990s, vastly expanding the Fraser Institute and creating its cousin institutes the Frontier Centre, the Atlantic Institute, and the Montreal Economic Institute. In recent years the Donners have scaled back their political granting, though they continue to fund all of these organizations.
- Weston Foundation — Established by the founding family of the Loblaw grocery chain. The Weston Foundation typically donates around $2 million per year to the Fraser Institute (equal to one-sixth of its budget), almost all of which goes into its school choice program.
- John Dobson Foundation, Max Bell Foundation, Pirie Foundation (Sabre Energy), Carthy Foundation (Mannix energy firms), Hecht Memorial Foundation, Zeller Family Foundation, etc. — Donate smaller amounts to members of the Big Five.
The think tanks insist that they are fiercely independent and do not allow their donors to influence their so-called “research.” In at least some cases, I am certain this is not true, and the Fraser Institute’s documented soliciting from the tobacco industry seems to speak against it, too. But the point is moot. When you commission a study from a group like the C.D. Howe Institute, you can be fairly certain about what you’re going to get out of it. And in the meantime, the rest of us deserve to know who funds the research, so that we can judge for ourselves how much weight to attach to any potential conflict of interest. That’s how grown-up, mature researchers operate. The think tanks should be prepared to do likewise.
If, as the think tanks insist, they are truly independent, then they shouldn’t mind dislosing who their largest donors are. The most plausible reason to hide this information is because you fear that if your readership learns who they are, they will start to doubt the credibility of your research. If that’s the case, then there must be conflicts of interest. And the best way to resolve a conflict of interest is to acknowledge it up-front and allow readers to weigh for themselves what effect that has on the substance of the reports.
For several months now, I have been toying with the idea of setting up a database related to issues like donation funding, a la Media Matters in the United States. The reduced freedom of information with which we must cope here in Canada automatically means it will be less effective, but that doesn’t mean it would be pointless. However, I lack the technical skills to publish this resource, or the free time to develop it consistently and comprehensively.Tweet