Pol­icy for hire

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc Twit­ter: @Wanger­sky.

Here’s a lit­tle regime-change ad­vice that could make a big dif­fer­ence in this coun­try un­der a new fed­eral gov­ern­ment: let’s start mak­ing our own pol­icy.

Sounds pretty dry, hey? But the fact is, hav­ing a gov­ern­ment use its own peo­ple to de­vise, de­fine and im­ple­ment gov­ern­ment di­rec­tion should be a mat­ter of course.

Up un­til a week be­fore the fed­eral elec­tion, I thought we were do­ing ex­actly that — that some­where within the great Cana­dian pub­lic ser­vice, ed­u­cated and ex­pe­ri­enced pol­icy wonks were, well, wonk­ing away at the the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal foundation of fed­eral law. They’d use ev­i­dence-based anal­y­sis to set a home-grown di­rec­tion for fish­eries pol­icy, mone­tary pol­icy, things like that.

But then I heard from a former fed­eral pol­icy spe­cial­ist talk about an in­ter­est­ing sea change un­der the Harper gov­ern­ment — the out­sourc­ing of pol­icy plan­ning.

In­stead of ask­ing pub­lic ser­vants to con­sider pol­icy, the former gov­ern­ment was es­sen­tially de­pend­ing on out­side re­search, of­ten from right-of-cen­tre think­tanks, to sup­port tak­ing the pol­icy di­rec­tions the gov­ern­ment was al­ready in favour of any­way.

Any­one who has read my col­umns for an ex­tended pe­riod knows I al­ready have con­cerns about the growth of think-tanks in this coun­try, not the least be­cause, in Canada, they are con­sid­ered char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions, and are able to hand out tax re­ceipts for donors. The think-tanks ar­gue that they do in­de­pen­dent re­search; that may well be the case, but while the re­search may be in­de­pen­dent, the choice of what is to be stud­ied seems to reg­u­larly align with the philo­soph­i­cal di­rec­tion of the think-tank it­self.

As I’ve pointed out, At­lantic think-tanks study things like the value of get­ting rid of in­ter­na­tional tar­iffs, but never seem to quan­tify the financial value of hav­ing sea­sonal work­forces ready and at hand be­cause those work­ers stay in a low em­ploy­ment area thanks to EI. There aren’t stud­ies on the net ben­e­fit to fish­ing com­pa­nies of hav­ing work­ers avail­able in a re­gion for the whole year, while those same fish­ing com­pa­nies pay work­ers for only a few months of that time.

But back to pol­icy: af­ter hear­ing about pol­icy out­sourc­ing di- rectly, I be­gan to see more and more men­tions of the prob­lem in news sto­ries across the coun­try, a cou­ple of men­tions in the last week alone. It’s not sexy, it’s not scan­dal, and it’s not flashy.

But if we have the in­ter­nal tools to do our own ev­i­dence­based pol­icy re­search al­ready in house, why not have im­par­tial pub­lic ser­vants, econ­o­mists and pol­icy spe­cial­ists do the work, in­stead of hav­ing some­one out­side the gov­ern­ment, with their own ide­o­log­i­cal di­rec­tion, call­ing the tune?

At least that way, the gov­ern­ment would be able to start with a clean slate.

Oh, and the use of think-tanks as a source of pol­icy? That might ex­plain why some char­i­ties, en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and free speech or­ga­ni­za­tions were be­ing au­dited by the Cana­dian Rev­enue Agency over their po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties, while right-lean­ing think tanks were not.

They didn’t have to ac­tu­ally do any po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, if all they were do­ing was serv­ing up ide­o­log­i­cally-tasty pol­icy on a plate.

At­lantic think-tanks study things like the value of get­ting rid of in­ter­na­tional tar­iffs, but never seem to quan­tify the financial value of hav­ing sea­sonal work­forces ready and at hand be­cause those work­ers stay in a low em­ploy­ment area thanks to EI.

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