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Rescuing Canada's Right

Conservative thought is losing the battle of ideas across the country. Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah argue that there's only one way to change that--and it's not through traditional party politics

Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah - November 8, 2004

The result was a vast conservative network that spent more than $1 billion in the 1990s alone. Money went to fund such influential policy organizations as The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Manhattan Institute--all of which played crucial roles in the advancement of conservative ideas in the eighties, shoring up support for Ronald Reagan's presidency (the current Bush administration would later loot the think-tanks to fill various government posts). A roster of subsidized conservative magazines--most notably The American Spectator--was later crucial in exposing details about Bill Clinton's sexual dalliances, helping to lead to his eventual impeachment in the House of Representatives. The growing chorus of conservative media voices was key in defeating several Clinton administration proposals, such as Hillary Clinton's big government health care reforms. The movement has become so popular, it has taken on a life of its own in the mainstream media. Regnery Publishing has consistently churned out one blockbuster right-wing book after the next, while television's Fox News channel and right-wing talk radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage are ratings hits. By 2000, conservatives had displaced liberals as "the party of ideas," according to the late New York Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In an article published in the September-October 2004 issue of Philanthropy magazine, James Piereson, executive director of the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, notes that "there is now a robust debate in American intellectual life between conservatives and liberals. The one-sided debate, dominated by the left, is a thing of the past."

If Canada wants to once again engender genuine policy debates, ones that are open to all perspectives, it's going to have to follow suit, creating the media and scholarly networks that will bring conservative thought in from the cold and back to mainstream acceptability. With the right united and the popularity of the federal Liberals weaker than it's been for a decade, the time to do it is now.

Luckily, the timing is also right in terms of available capital. "Canada will undergo a $1 trillion intergenerational wealth transfer over the next decade," says Sylvia LeRoy, a policy analyst for the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based free-market think-tank. All that money changing hands, from parents to children, means nonprofit groups will have access to a whole new market of potential donors. "This is a huge opportunity for conservatives--as long as the message gets out and they take up the challenge," says LeRoy. And, these days, it's easier than ever to establish charitable foundations. While a typical foundation requires a minimum investment of about one million dollars, the establishment of community foundations allows smaller donors to band together by pooling smaller donor-directed funds of as little as $25,000.

Despite the fact that Canadian tax law does not allow "activist" organizations to qualify for charitable status, charities focused on education and research are legal. But it's not as though the Canadian public policy landscape is rife with foundations bankrolling conservative scholarship. "You could list on one hand the number of philanthropic foundations in Canada that support or bankroll the efforts of Canadian think-tanks," says Don Abelson, professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario and author of the 2002 book, Do think tanks matter?, "For the conservative movement, if they could somehow tap into some success stories in the United States, they could really have an impact, and what it might come down to is drawing on conservative foundations in the United States and elsewhere to support the policy initiatives they want to advocate."

Because private money is so scarce in Canada, even a small reduction in funds can have an important impact on the well-being of the conservative cause. Such is the case with the Donner Canadian Foundation, the lifeblood of conservative research in this country. A decade ago, with a mission to "encourage individual responsibility and private initiative to help Canadians solve their social and economic problems," and an annual giving budget of over $5 million, the Donner made a huge difference. From 1993 to 1999, under the leadership of executive directors Patrick Luciani and Devon Cross, it provided seed money to start a host of top-notch free-market think-tanks across Canada: the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the Montreal Economic Institute, the Frontier Institute, the Society for Advancing Educational Research (dedicated to promoting charter schools), the conservative The Next City magazine (now defunct), and Energy Probe (a free- market-oriented environmental organization).

According to the Donner's records, in 1997 it gave $4,632,944.49, or 69 per cent of its total budget, to public policy research. The bulk of it went to projects with conservative themes, such as advancing the role of free markets, the effects of trade liberalization, and the impact of taxes and regulation on jobs in Canada. In 1998, the Donner allocated $2,190,561, or 67 per cent of its budget, to the same sort of work.

But, starting in 1999, that figure dropped dramatically, to $1,041,802, or 25 per cent of that year's budget. Insiders say that the cuts happened when family members on the Donner's U.S.-based board decided they wanted more say in the granting process in Canada. And, besides funding projects that, in the words of then program director Sonia Arrison, "promoted liberty," the foundation also started backing causes that mattered to individual board members, including donating money to land and wildlife conservation, international development, medical research and the arts.

Today, while the Donner's pro-individualist mission statement remains, only 26 per cent of its 2003 budget--$1,349,667--ended up in the hands of public policy researchers. (By comparison, the Donner gave half that much--$624,985--to animal welfare organizations, including $270,000 to the Calgary Zoological Society to repatriate its mountain bongo antelope to its native Kenya). Arrison, now with the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based free-market think-tank, calls the impact of the cutbacks on the conservative movement in Canada "devastating."