Think-tanks and the right-wing quest to shape public debate

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In the conservative quest to shape public debate in recent years, no tool has proved more useful than the think-tank. Nobody understood this better than the director of the ultra right-wing U.S.-based ATLAS Foundation, who once stated that his mission was "to litter the world with free-market think-tanks."

Mission accomplished. Certainly the Canadian landscape is cluttered with right-wing think-tanks -- the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, the Montreal Economic Institute, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the Frontier Institute, just to name a few -- all well-funded by a business elite keen to have its message packaged in a manner that makes it appear grounded in serious research.

These right-wing policy shops have played a huge role in implanting an ideology that treats the rich as "wealth creators" who must be freed from government regulation -- and whose goodwill must be constantly cultivated, lest they be discouraged from investing. This has boiled down to a simple message -- government bad, private sector good -- that has become the mantra of our times, the guiding force in shaping public policy.

To the extent that anything manages to poke holes in this prevailing ideology, it usually comes out of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), the Ottawa-based think-tank routinely described in the media as "left-wing" -- even though corporate-funded think-tanks are generally spared the label "right-wing."

Of course, we're all familiar now with how Stephen Harper suppresses information that contradicts his agenda: blocking the collection of statistics, muzzling government scientists, auditing charities that critique his policies. And yet, somehow the news that the Harper government is conducting a harassing audit on the CCPA manages to break fresh ground.

This time there's no recourse to the pretence that the audit was random. A Canada Revenue Agency document, obtained through Access to Information, makes it clear that the organization is being audited because its research and educational materials were considered "biased" and "one-sided."

As a result, the CCPA has been subjected to an exhaustive audit that already has lasted 11 months, with no end in sight. The tax department demanded copies of literally everything produced by the organization, carting away enough material to fill a small boardroom. The audit is far more intrusive than two previous, routine audits conducted in the pre-Harper era, according to CCPA executive director Bruce Campbell.

This is the truly ugly face of the Harper government -- blithely brushing aside the basic democratic principle of tolerance for dissent as it shamelessly uses state resources to crack down on an organization doing nothing more than making the case for an alternative set of policies.

The charge of "bias" and "one-sidedness" is bizarre, since all think-tanks have a set of values that shape the issues and questions they address. Right-wing think-tanks certainly do, and yet they appear to have escaped the special audit program set up by Harper in 2012 to monitor the political activities of charities. (Most think-tanks, including the far-right Fraser Institute, are registered charities, allowing them to give their donors tax breaks.)

What makes the singling out of CCPA's political activities so striking is that, compared to the right-wing think-tanks, the CCPA's political connections are minimal. Although it shares similar values, its relationship with the NDP is arm's-length, according to Campbell. A recent CCPA report on tuition fees gave top marks to the Progressive Conservative government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

By comparison, Harper himself, as prime minister, maintains close ties to many of the right-wing think-tanks, speaking at their events and warmly praising their work, as documented in Donald Gutstein's new book, Harperism.

Another thing that makes the CCPA an odd choice for an audit is its reputation for academically rigorous research -- which explains why almost 500 academics, from universities across the country, quickly signed a petition this week defending the quality of the CCPA's work.

It would be a stretch for the Fraser Institute, for example, to make a claim of academic rigour. Every year, the institute receives widespread media coverage for its "Tax Freedom Day" -- designed to make Canadians feel overburdened by taxes -- but the research behind this PR gimmick is shoddy, based on wild exaggerations, flawed math and chicanery, according to an analysis done by tax expert Neil Brooks.

For instance, by failing to factor out inflation and income growth, the Fraser researchers concluded that over the previous four decades taxes on Canadians had risen by a staggering 1,550 per cent … when, in fact, they had risen by about 40 per cent, Brooks showed.

For years, the corporate world has bestowed bountiful, tax-deductible resources on right-wing think-tanks, allowing them to baffle the public with this sort of misinformation.

Meanwhile, alone and often ignored by the media, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives keeps churning out quality research exposing the fallacies of the right-wing arguments that have come to dominate our public conversation.

What choice is there for a paranoid, controlling, undemocratic, right-wing government but to call in the auditors?

Winner of a National Newspaper Award, Linda McQuaig has been a reporter for the Globe and Mail, a columnist for the National Post and the Toronto Star. She was the New Democrat candidate in Toronto Centre in 2013. She is the author of seven controversial best-sellers, including Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and other Canadian Myths and It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet. Her most recent book (co-written with Neil Brooks) is The Trouble with Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World, and How We Can Take It Back.

This article is reprinted with permission from iPolitics

Photo: pmwebphotos/flickr

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