RESEARCH INSTITUTES: A NEW WORLD OF CORPORATE “SPIN” by ALVIN FINKEL

The election of an NDP government in Alberta was opposed by every daily newspaper in the province and by the entire corporate sector. So will they be gallant losers and give the new government a chance to implement its promises, waiting till the next election to try to show the wrongheadedness of a better distribution of wealth and power in Alberta, better environmental policy, and other such examples of “socialist rot”? Of course not. Both the corporations and the corporate media will oppose the new government every step of the way. But much of the dirty work will be undertaken not by the corporations or the media directly and in their own name. Instead the corporations will operate through so-called “research institutes” whose “findings” the corporate media will report without critique and without allowing rebuttals from non-corporate social actors. Here is the take of a recent Canadian history book, of which I am one of three co-authors on why these research institutes were established, how they are funded, and what they have achieved for their funders. Full disclosure: I wrote this section of the book, though my co-authors approved the wording. The book in question is Margaret Conrad, Alvin Finkel, and Donald Fyson, History of the Canadian Peoples Volume 2: 1867 to the Present, Sixth Edition (Toronto: Pearson, 2015).

From 1945 to 1975, as the interventionist state grew in Canada, business interests attempted to shape public opinion against expensive social programs, corporate taxes, and state regulation of industry through campaigns by traditional business organizations such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Manufacturers Association. They had little success in swaying public opinion. A survey presented to the 1965 Canadian Chamber of Commerce convention suggested that most people discounted what business organizations had to say as self-interested propaganda.

Gradually, the leaders of large corporations in Canada began following their American and British counterparts in establishing allegedly non-partisan, non-profit “research institutes” and “think tanks” to conduct and disseminate research meant to create public support for state policies that corresponded with the corporate agenda. Such efforts began modestly with the creation of the National Citizens Coalition in 1967 by Colin M. Brown, a London Life insurance agent who opposed universal medical insurance. The NCC was incorporated in Ontario in 1975 and expanded its focus to include campaigns against many government programs and unions. Between 1998 and 2002, Stephen Harper, who later became a Canadian prime minister, was president of the NCC.

While the NCC focused primarily on political campaigns, the Fraser Institute, founded in Vancouver in 1974, styled itself as an independent research group with a focus on market-oriented solutions to social issues. Its founder, Michael Walker, an economist at the University of Western Ontario, received financial support from MacMillan-Bloedel, the forestry giant, which was at loggerheads with British Columbia’s NDP government from 1972 to 1975. Walker claimed that the Fraser Institute, as a non-profit research organization, was controlled by its staff, and not its funders. In practice, its well-paid staff knew that their research results had to conform to the funders’ interests. The organization received charitable status, making contributions to its work tax-free. In 1975, the Institute generated revenues of $421,389, which would explode to almost $11 million by 2010.

The Fraser Institute published studies of its research results, along with a monthly magazine, and a bi-monthly newsletter. It also sponsored student essay contests, held seminars for students, and created internships. Most importantly, it created close relationships with the media, which often published the Institute’s results without raising issues about its funders or underlying ideology, and without reporting the views of scholars or public figures who took issue with Fraser’s assumptions and methodologies in its research.

Before long, the Fraser Institute inspired copycats. The Montreal Economic Institute was founded in 1987, followed by the Canadian Taxpayers Foundation in 1990, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in 1995, and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Prairies grouping, in 1997. The C.D. Howe Institute, which had its origins in the work of the C.D. Howe Memorial Foundation, became an independent organization in 1982, with funding from major corporations and investors. The previous year, the Conference Board of Canada emerged from its former incarnation as a wing of an American business think tank, and by the early 2000s employed about 200 people. Each of these organizations had public relations departments that made use of sophisticated communications techniques to shape public opinion. Supporters and detractors alike credited the seemingly objective corporate-sponsored research institutes for a major shift in public attitudes regarding the relative roles of government and the private sector. They also played an important role in encouraging support for free trade.

Opponents of neo-liberalism, particularly in the labour movement, funded competing research institutes such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which began work in Ottawa in 1980, and Alberta’s Parkland Institute, founded in 1997. These organizations had modest funding relative to their corporate counterparts and far less coverage for their findings in the corporate-controlled media.[i]

[i] On think tanks and research institutes in Canada, see Murray Dobbin, The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen: Canada and Democracy in the Age of Globalization (Toronto: James Lorimer, 2003). Their impact in other countries is explored in Richard Cockett, Thinking the Unthinkable: Think-tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution (London: Fontana, 1995).

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