Friday, February 01, 2008

Graham Parsons & Prairie Policy Centre: economist and think tank push conservative message; major players contributed to Sask. Party


At an event organized by the conservative think tank Prairie Policy Centre at the Hotel Saskatchewan on Jan. 25, the equally conservative economist Graham Parsons released advanced copies of his new book Saskatchewan Rising and gave a brief five-to-10 minute speech outlining its key concepts.

Either Parsons’ performance was riveting or it was a slow news day because the Regina Leader-Post published two identical articles on the event. The first was on Jan. 26 on the front page of the business section under the title Former Devine adviser pragmatic about Crowns. The second was on Jan. 27 under the heading Looking forward.

Parsons is a former chief economist with the Canada West Foundation and was deputy minister of economic development and chief economist with the disgraced Progressive Conservative government of Grant Devine. Parsons is also president of the Organization for Western Economic Cooperation (OWEC) in Regina.

According to the Leader-Post Parsons told the news media and other interested members of the audience that a pragmatic and professional approach should be taken in managing the province’s Crown corporations and determining their role in Saskatchewan’s economic future.

That pragmatic approach might involve expanding the scope of activities of some Crown corporations so they can act as engines of economic growth, he said. But major restructuring of other Crown corporations might be necessary as well, he added.

Parsons also advocated for infrastructure improvements, irrigation and water management projects, additional education and training, and entrepreneurship “where profits and enterprise are rewarded.”

Finally, the phony crisis of interprovincial trade barriers was once again dragged out of the closet.

“Barriers to trade also need to be torn down, Parsons said, adding that he believes Saskatchewan should have signed the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) with other provinces last year,” the article states.

Parsons’ comments about Crown corporations are puzzling because that’s not what he seemed to be saying a few years ago.

In a study he authored for the Prairie Centre Policy Institute called This Year Country: Creating Wealth in Saskatchewan (March 2002), Parsons complained that “Crown and government involvement has “crowded out” the development of a strong and growing private sector in Saskatchewan.”

In many sectors Parsons believes Saskatchewan “is constrained by the province’s excessive dependence on the commercial crown sector and its role in weakening the ability of private sector companies to act more quickly.”

Parsons also questioned “whether such crown activities as telephones, power, natural gas, and insurance are most efficiently delivered through the state. In most places in the industrial world, many of these public services are delivered through the private sector within a public regulatory framework.”

Saskatchewan “requires a total rethinking of the role of government in its society and economy” and “the size, inefficiency and scope of government” is a “key factor that directly affects the macro economic framework facing the Saskatchewan economy and its fiscal burdens,” Parsons said.

Saskatchewan’s economic policies are “inward-looking” and it should open its doors to “freer trade, external investment and a restructured role for government.”

“Economic policies in Saskatchewan have for too many years been seen in terms of wealth redistribution, rather than wealth creation. Federal equalisation, provincial fiscal policies, regulations and pricing have strongly supported redistribution. Social policies and spending have taken priority over economic and infrastructure spending to create wealth,” Parsons said.

The worldview peddled by Parsons seems to be one that is most supported by conservative think tanks members and donors and special interests like business federations. This would include a wide array of fiscally conservative and business-oriented, socially conservative and free-market-oriented approaches to public policy questions.

There certainly appeared to be no advocacy for expanding the scope of Crown corporations in Parsons’ report or suggestion that some Crowns “might” need restructuring. He seemed pretty definite on what should happen.

In Sask. population drop blamed on Crowns, taxes (Leader-Post, March 13, 2002) business editor Bruce Johnstone covered the event and reported that Parsons said some Saskatchewan Crown corporations should be sold if they have fulfilled their public policy purpose or compete directly with private business.

For much of the last century, “Saskatchewan experimented with policies towards the economy that systemically weakened the province,” said Parsons.

“In my view, the experiment in economic socialism failed,” he said, referring to Saskatchewan’s reliance on Crown corporations, dating back to the T.C. Douglas-CCF government of the 1950s.

“Jurisdictions, like Ireland, with low tax rates, few trade barriers, modern infrastructure, deregulated markets, and a vibrant private sector tend to enjoy strong economic growth,” he said.

It should be mentioned that according to the annual United Nations Human Development Report, for most of the past decade Ireland has held the dubious distinction of having one of the worst poverty rates in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Of the 19 selected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries listed in the report’s 2007 Human Poverty Index only Italy is worse with the United States not far behind.

Despite having the second highest GDP per capita among the EU Member States in 2005, Ireland’s Central Statistics Office noted in its Measuring Ireland’s Progress, 2006 report that, “The proportion of Irish people at risk of poverty, after pensions and social transfer payments were taken into account, was 20% in 2005. This was one of the highest rates in the EU 27. The effect of pensions and social transfers on reducing the at-risk-of-poverty rate was low in Ireland compared with other EU 27 countries. In 2004, social protection expenditure in Ireland was 17% of GDP. This was just over half of the rate in Sweden.”

Meanwhile, in Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) reported in March 2007 that the gap between rich and poor in Canada is getting wider. The CCPA study found that only the richest 20% are experiencing gains from Canada’s economic growth, and most of those gains are concentrated in the top 10%. The share of income going to the bottom 80% of Canadian families is smaller today than it was a generation ago, in both earnings and after-tax terms.

A subsequent CCPA report released in December 2007, found that Canada’s 100 best paid CEOs of public companies made an average salary of $8,528,304 in 2006, an amount more than 218 times as much as a Canadian working full-time for a full year at the average of weekly employment earnings ($38,998).

The study’s author, Hugh Mackenzie noted a September 2007, Statistics Canada report which shows that most Canadians’ real incomes did not increase from 1992 to 2004. That story changed in the highest-income 10% of Canadians. The bottom half of the top 10% maintained its share of total income: their income grew at the same pace as the average. But in the top 5%, the share of total income increased from 21% to 25%. More than 90% of that gain actually went to the top 1% — the richest of the rich.

So, yes, by all means, let’s have the private sector run things in a world where only the strong prosper and survive.

This brings us to TILMA.

Parsons told his audience on Jan. 25 that barriers to trade need to be torn down but, judging by the Leader-Post article, none of these phantom menaces were identified.

Parsons contributed an article to the special Winter 2007 edition of the Canada West Foundation publication Dialogues, that was devoted solely to TILMA. (The issue included 14 pro-TILMA articles with two against.) In Raising the Dead: Breathing Life into Canada’s Internal Trade Agreements, Parsons said Canada’s internal trade framework is “archaic” and called trade barriers “a silent killer of productivity and jobs” but provided no examples.

For the umpteenth time in this blog it should be noted that on April 3, 2007, the Edmonton Journal admitted there is “little in the way of genuine trade barriers remaining between the two westernmost provinces,” and Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall said in a news release that Saskatchewan is “the lowest cost jurisdiction…with fewer trade barriers and restrictions than either B.C. or Alberta.”

Both Wall and the Edmonton Journal are staunch supporters of TILMA but shot themselves in the foot and exposed the trade agreement for what it really is: a regime of harmonization and deregulation that aims to put the interests of private investors and profiteers ahead of the public good.

While the Leader-Post article skimmed over Parsons’ past it said nothing about the Saskatoon-based Prairie Policy Centre.

The organization was originally incorporated as the Prairie Centre/Centre for Prairie Agriculture in 1993. In 2001, the name was changed to the Prairie Centre Policy Institute and then in 2006 to its current incarnation the Prairie Policy Centre.

The institute relies on the support of individuals, corporations, other organizations, as well as by the sales of its publications. Like most think tanks the identity of its donors and the amounts contributed aren’t revealed. Its annual reports don’t seem to be available online. There appears to be little transparency in the organization.

An April 10, 2007, press release by the institute claims it is “an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit research and educational organization that advances ideas on wealth creation in order to enhance the economic and social well-being of Saskatchewan, the prairie region, and Canada as a whole.”

The present board of directors include:

Barry Ghiglione, (President), The Handy Group of Companies, Saskatoon
Ron Olson, (Past President)
Dean Gagne, (Vice-President), Checkmate Strategic Inc., Regina
Robert Fisher, (Secretary-Treasurer), Saskdata Systems Ltd., Saskatoon
Curt Kunkel, Alto Construction, Saskatoon
Ravi Maithel, Clevor Technologies, Saskatoon
Jim Nowakowski, JNE Welding, Saskatoon
Herb Pinder Sr. Retired, Saskatoon
Del Reimer, FedEx, Regina
Norm Wallace, Wallace Construction Specialties, Saskatoon
Ken Ziegler, Robertson Stromberg Pederson LLP, Saskatoon

The organization once got upset when former Economic and Co-operative Development Minister Eldon Lautermilch dismissed the institute as a “right-wing think-tank,” recycling policies of the Devine government of the 1980s. The comment was made following the release of Graham Parsons study in March 2002.

In a March 25, 2002, letter to the editor Ken Dillen, a director of the institute, said the organization “is made up of people with diverse backgrounds” that don’t “participate in partisan or ideological bickering.”

Dillen went to say that the “keys to a healthy economy” were low taxes, trade barriers removed, markets deregulated, infrastructure upgraded, the private sector strengthened and government intervention in the economy minimized – all classic conservative traits.

Prof. Martin Thunert, a senior research associate at the Center for North American Studies, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University Frankfurt, released a fascinating study on think tanks in 2003 called Conservative Think Tanks in the United States and Canada.

Thunert said “a think tank may be labelled ‘conservative’ or ‘right-of-centre’, if it promotes a combination of at least two of the following issues and concepts: the free market system (including low taxes, privatisation and deregulation), limited government, individual liberties and values, and/or strong religious expression, traditional family values, and a strong defence.”

Applying Thunert’s criteria to the Prairie Policy Centre shows that the think tank passes with flying colours. Lautermilch was right after all.

As for the claim to be non-partisan this might be debatable.

A commentary by Norman Wallace, owner of Wallace Construction Specialties Ltd. in Saskatoon and a founding Director of the Prairie Centre Policy Institute, was posted on the Enter Stage Right website on May 19, 2003.

Enter Stage Right a non-profit journal published from Sudbury, Ontario that “promotes unfettered capitalism, liberty and individualism as expressed by thinkers like Ayn Rand and Aristotle. Our guiding principle is to present a more consistent approach to conservative thought by following through with what we feel are its expressed core principles.”

In the article Wallace rails against the NDP saying it “has been in power for about 10 years and our population has not grown; according to many, it has declined. If there has been no growth in the past 10 years, why dare to believe that growth will occur in the next 10 years?

“The theme “Our Future is Wide Open” is pure propaganda. This is not a Saskatchewan theme; it is a New Democratic Party re-election theme that will be a large Styrofoam plank in its election platform.”

“It’s time Saskatchewan dismissed its penchant for Soviet-style government economic intervention by Crown corporations and embraced a “free market” economy by encouraging private- sector investment. In addition, every legislative, regulatory and administrative impediment to investment freedom should be immediately eliminated,” Wallace said.

Wallace’s article originally appeared as an op-ed in the May 9, 2003, edition of the StarPhoenix under the title Gov’t intervention in economy killing province.

On Dec. 16, 2004, the StarPhoenix published an op-ed by Ken Ziegler, a lawyer in Saskatoon and president of the Prairie Centre Policy Institute.

“Add our voice to the growing number of people concerned with the overall anti-business policies and attitudes within the provincial NDP government. The current debate over implementation of old “available hours of work” labour legislation is but one further example of this anti-business attitude,” Ziegler said in the first paragraph.

According to Ziegler business owners are “being hampered by restrictive regulations, uncompetitive taxes and a host of other costs that feed government.”

“This ongoing attack on business leads many to look for alternatives in other places,” Ziegler said.

“It’s imperative that the government engage in meaningful dialogue with the private sector on a broad range of issues and deal with the perception and the reality of its anti-business attitude.”

“Remember, you can’t be a socialist without money,” Ziegler closed.

And this is just a sampling of the anti-NDP commentaries posted on the Prairie Policy Centre website.

It is interesting to note that, along with economist Graham Parsons, several of the Prairie Policy Centre directors or their companies appear to have contributed to the right-wing Saskatchewan Party.

According to the Saskatchewan Party’s Registered Political Party’s Fiscal Period Return (E-521) Parsons appears to have contributed $500.00 to the party in 2003, $312.82 in 2004 and $325.08 in 2006.

Parsons is also a vice-president with Clifton Associates Ltd. in Regina, which seems to have donated $324.16 in 2003, $304.94 in 2005 and $1,300.32 in 2006.

Prairie Policy Centre President Barry Ghiglione is the owner and president of The Handy Group of Companies. He is also a past president and board member of the North Saskatoon Business Association (NSBA). Records show that Handy Group contributed $315.06 in 2006 and Handyman Rental Centre Ltd. donated $901.69. The latter also contributed $1,397.59 in 2005, $926.70 in 2004 and $927.97 in 2003.

Jim Nowakowski is the owner of JNE Welding and a former president of the North Saskatoon Business Association. It appears his company contributed $2,183.24 in 2006 and $1,436.46 in 2005.

Norm Wallace is the owner of Wallace Construction Specialties Ltd. in Saskatoon. He is a founder of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and the Prairie Centre Policy. His company appears to have contributed two amounts in 2003: $1,075.00 and $294.40. In 2004, the company contributed $293.46. In June 2004, Wallace contributed $300.00 to Carol Skelton, the Conservative Party candidate for Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, and another $400.00 to her campaign in Dec. 2005.

Kenneth Ziegler is a past president of the Saskatoon and District Chamber of Commerce. Ziegler is also a member of the North Saskatoon Business Association, the Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority, a representative member of Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership, and a former Director of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce. He appears to have contributed $469.40 in 2003.

Dean Gagne is President & CEO of Checkmate Strategic Planning Inc. in Regina. His company appears to have contributed $355.84 in 2003.

Lastly, Wallace ($1,000), Ghiglione ($500) and Curt Kunkel ($1,000) contributed to Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison’s 2006 re-election campaign. Atchison is cut from the same conservative cloth as Saskatchewan Party Premier Brad Wall.

For any of the major players involved in this saga to suggest that they’re non-partisan or non-ideological seems a little preposterous. Like the old proverb says, “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, it must be a duck.”

2 Comments:

At 9:17 PM, Blogger David said...

It's absolutely crazy that you devoted this much time trying to prove that conservatives are conservatives. What the hell is the point of this? It's like doing an expose on union support for the NDP, or that the sky is blue.

 
At 3:04 PM, Blogger Paul said...

I donated ten bucks to Telemiracle once, does that make me a cripple?

 

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