media and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

04 Dec '14

CCPA Monitor – Neoliberal Bedfellows

Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada By Donald Gutstein

Lorimer (September 2014), 288 pages, $22.95. Reviewed by Frank Bayerl

While it may sometimes seem the Harper government’s policies are an ad hoc mixture of right-wing populism, poll- driven opportunism and economic austerity (with a dash of nationalism and military swagger thrown in), a new book by Donald Gutstein argues that Conservative policy development is more calculated than that, and heavily influenced by the work of think tanks.

The shared objective is neoliberalism, the political philosophy that sees economic freedom as the highest good—over and above political freedom. To right-wing think tanks, the role of government is simply to bring about the conditions that will allow markets to flourish, unhindered by regulatory and social constraints. In Harperism, Gutstein offers a clearly written explanation of how this political philosophy continues to guide the actions of the current government.

Achieving a free-market utopia first requires a change in the climate of ideas, and this is where think tanks play their role. Gutstein, an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University’s school of communications, takes the reader through a brief history of the post–Second World War founding of neoliberal thinks tanks in Britain and North America, under the influence of such key thinkers as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

Hayek and Friedman were co- founders of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947, whose ideas can be directly linked to the victory of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Other influential neoliberal think tanks include the London- based Institute of Economic Affairs, founded in the 1950s, and the American Heritage Foundation, dating to 1973. A publication by the latter, A Mandate for Leadership, became a blueprint for the Reagan administration when it came to power in 1981.

Here in Canada, the Macdonald- Laurier Institute has come to occupy a similar position of influence within the Harper government. Despite being established as late as 2009, the institute has already had an impact on government policy in the areas of “tough on crime” legislation, immigration policy, and securing Aboriginal support for the Northern Gateway pipeline. The institute also endorsed the idea of refocusing the Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization) so that it featured prime ministers and wars instead of human civilization in a broad sense.

Harperism reveals the close and often hidden connections between Canada’s right-wing think tanks (e.g. the Fraser and C.D. Howe institutes) and such neutral-sounding institutions as the University of Calgary’s School for Public Policy, which is actually a neoliberal think tank embedded in a university, and Sustainable Prosperity, a project of the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law that counts Preston Manning on its board of advisers.

The Fraser Institute is perhaps best known for its annual world economic freedom index. The fact that Hong Kong has consistently held first place in this index tells us much about the kind of society the institute desires. (Hong Kong also leads the developed world in income inequality and has been much in the news lately for its notable lack of democratic freedoms.)

As Gutstein explains, a neoliberal propaganda system has now become established in Canada. Think tanks transform the ideas of Hayek, Freidman and their followers into research.

“Sympathetic academics provide research studies compatible with the think tank’s goals; corporate executives and the foundations of wealthy businessmen finance the research; and sympathetic media owners and commentators disseminate the research to target audiences. It’s a package deal.”

Gutstein devotes a series of chapters to illustrating how this system operates to advance various policy objectives, including weakening labour unions, encouraging the privatization of land on First Nations reserves, eviscerating environmental protections in the interest of giving a free hand to industry, preventing the free circulation of scientific knowledge by muzzling government scientists, denying income inequality by muddying the statistical waters, and promoting a narrow nationalism by emphasizing Canada’s history as a warrior nation rather than its peacekeeping tradition.

He offers two especially poignant examples of co-operative reframing exercises in the environmental field: one in which “dirty oil” becomes “ethical oil,” the other, spearheaded by former natural resources minister Joe Oliver, where environmentalists are transformed into foreign-funded radicals far outside the mainstream.

In four months, “Ethical Oil” went from being the title of a book by Ezra Levant to an official government talking point. Support for the deeply flawed concept came first from newspapers of the Sun Media chain, which employs Levant and published excerpts from his book, giving it national exposure. This was followed by a column by the author attacking Greenpeace, then more favourable coverage, also in Sun papers, of a speech he gave to the Economic Club of Canada.

Ethical Oil—the book but more importantly the talking point—was given further exposure in the National Post. Levant also appeared at least four times on CBC radio and television, and was offered prominent appearances at The Vancouver Club and Fraser Institute events.

Conservative senators Nicole Eaton and Linda Frum soon jumped on the ethical oil bandwagon in a Senate inquiry into the oil sands, and Levant later testified on the subject before the House of Commons standing committee on natural resources. Soon the Harper government took full ownership of the dubious concept, using it in the Prime Minister’s speeches, and otherwise making “ethical oil” the linguistic weapon of choice for avoiding discussions about Canada’s dirty oil project.

Gutstein provides equally clear analysis of the Harper government’s attempts to limit dissemination of scientific knowledge and research by cancelling the long-form census, abolishing the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, the First Nations Statistical Institute and the National Council on Welfare, and severely cutting funding to departments with an environmental mandate.

With a truly spectacular misunderstanding of the purpose of independent research, the Prime Minister is said to have asked a reporter on one occasion why his government should fund these agencies when they offer solutions that differ from government policy.

Harperism makes for dispiriting reading and the author sees a difficult path ahead for progressives. The changes already in place will make it hard to reverse many Conservative policies, he says, adding that the effort must still be made to imagine a new role for government that doesn’t treat everything as an offshoot of the economy.

Gutstein is a bit vague as to how this is to be accomplished, but certainly it must involve changing the conversation in as profound a way as Hayek, Friedman and friends did half a century ago.

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Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada

harperism cover

Margaret Thatcher transformed British political life forever. So did Ronald Reagan in the United States. Now Canada has experienced a similar, dramatic shift to a new kind of politics, which author Donald Gutstein terms Harperism. Among its key tenets:

  • A weakened labour movement – and preferably the disappearance of unions – will contribute to Canada’s economic prosperity
  • Cutting back government scientific research and data collection will improve public policy-making

The success of Harperism is no accident. Donald Gutstein documents the links between the politicians, think tanks, journalists, academics, and researchers who nurture and promote each other’s neo-liberal ideas.